I once had the opportunity to ask Alice Waters how to change a community’s food culture. “It starts with bread,” she said. Gloucester has some wonderful bread – Alexandra’s, Virgilio’s – and it just gained another.
The bread at Pinoli, the Serenitee Group’s new Gloucester restaurant directed by chef Paolo Laboa, is a tender, grain-flecked wild-yeasted example of Laboa’s ability to make Genovese magic with local Cape Ann ingredients. In Laboa’s kitchen there are two enormous tubs: one holds Alprilla Farms’ wheat flour. The other tub holds Alprilla Farms’ corn meal. Each day Laboa creates the house bread with a combination of these grown-in-Essex grains and wild yeast – the stuff floating in our briny Cape Ann air. Full of character without being heavy, the Pinoli house bread is served with sweet butter made in-house from Ipswich’s Appleton Farms’ cream.
This simple course of bread and butter says everything about the restaurant’s ethos: old world Italian interpreted with Cape Ann ingredients.
Laboa is unabashedly Genovese, encyclopedically schooled in Northern Italian cuisine and technique, classically old world Italian: everyday, every meal, every dish, every bite is a hard-won battle to exact brilliant flavor from the best ingredients at the cheapest cost, which means, as every Italian knows, shop locally.
(For those who don’t remember, Paolo Laboa arrived on the North Shore a few years ago as chef at Pride’s Osteria in Beverly. The Boston food press discovered him, including Phantom Gourmet stardom. Legal Seafood’s Roger Berkowitz, just one of the mandilli-adoring fans, hired Laboa to consult on a new trattoria-style version of the famous fish restaurant. Before Beverly, Laboa had made Genovese cuisine shine at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco called Farina, which the New York Times declared “best pasta in San Francisco.” But these credits pale beside this: In 2008 Laboa’s pesto won “Best in the World” in the pesto capitol of the world and Laboa’s hometown, Genoa.)
Laboa’s foccacia de recco, which I interpret as pizza meeting clouds, and mandilli al vero pesto Genovese (billowing sheets of handcut pasta cloaked in a suave, polished edition of the fresh basil, nut, and Parmigiana Reggiano paste) are menu standards at Pinoli. If you never order another item, you will always be happy with silken pasta draped in the World’s Best Pesto and ephemeral sheets of golden dough filled with molten stracchino cheese.
Italian grandmothers from New Bedford to Newburyport might be very happy at Pinoli, because almost every day at 1:00, Laboa starts a large pot of polenta, made with Alprilla Farms corn meal, simmering on the stove. That pot of polenta cooks for 4-5 hours, ready by service. It is rare to be served a restaurant dish in which one can actually taste patience, but in this polenta, like kitchens all over northern Italy, the plump smoothness tastes like time stirred, an integrity and wholeness vacant in instant polenta, which is almost all we know on this side of the Atlantic. (Nonnas, run, don’t walk, to Pinoli for the this.)
The day I visited the Pinoli kitchen a “stockfisk,” an entire dried cod, hung from a hook on the wall. This would be soaked for days, then cooked, flaked, and whipped into a mantecato, or brandade, to be served on toasts as an appetizer.
A plastic tub piled with prickly green sea-urchins sat menacingly on the counter. The eggs from these spiny echinoderms would be scooped out, and used as the binding “egg” in Laboa’s “Cabonara di Mare,” a luxurious bowl of homemade pasta tubes and seafood.
Steelhead Trout gleamed from a board. They would be filleted, and their racks cooked into a rich tomato stock laced with spices and chocolate, a nod to Genoa’s historic place on the Spice Route. The fillets would be sauteed to order, and served with the sauce.
Chris Porter, owner of Patriot’s Seafood in Salem, said it is an unusual pleasure to provide fish to Laboa.
“Most chefs call me up and place an order for what their menu demands: ‘I need 10 pounds of cod, 8 pounds of swordfish, etc.; Paolo calls and says, ‘what do you have?’ That allows me to get him the best looking fish at the best prices instead of inadequate looking, expensive swordfish that his menu might require.”
Laboa’s Genovese provenance is bold Italian cooking, which makes his menu surprising if not courageous in Gloucester. Tripe is often on the menu; the day I was there it was simmering once, ready to simmer a second time in a porcini mushroom mirepoix. As mentioned, Laboa is a fan of both dried and salted cod, and uses them with Italian facility; he’s been known to shave raw baccala over pizza. (I may be the last customer on earth delighted by that.)
This is trattoria food; if you’ve been to Italy you know bowls of trattoria pasta bolognese arrive at the table garnished only with the steam rising from the hot noodles. Dishes at Pignoli arrive the same way – bare, not fussed, no smears of sauces or parsley arabesques. If the restaurant’s ambience were plank tables and re-checkered tablecloths, nothing would seem amiss, but inventive cocktails and candlelight sometimes seem disconnected with the cuisine’s unadorned arrival. This may sometimes confuse guests, but I say just have another slice of bread.
We’re very lucky to have restaurants in Gloucester maximizing local ingredients: The Market Restaurant in Annisquam is religious about it, as is their sister restaurant Short and Main. The Gloucester House, family owned on Gloucester Harbor for over fifty years, maintains 6-8 local lobster boats in local waters fished by local lobstermen; they use approximately 2,000 pounds of lobster a week. Mehaffey Farm in Rowley is supplying much of their produce in season. (The Gloucester House also makes their own bread; their cornbread is beloved.)
There are environmental benefits to “food less traveled.” The local economy fattens on a local diet; the food tastes fresher, and we take back the term “local cuisine.”
Appreciating true Cape Ann ingredients is not just noble, it’s practical; Laboa knows no other way, but it’s wonderful to see more of this in Gloucester. If you have doubts about how delicious real local food is, start with bread.
3 Duncan Street