Chef du jour: Sicilian chef puts family recipes on the menu
Born in Sicily, Enrico Abbruscato recalls cooking alongside family even before he could reach the table.
Enrico has since built a solid reputation working at restaurants in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. His success brought him to Chicago Italian restaurants such as La Botte, The Hyatt Regency Hotel, DeMarco's Ristorante, Roberto's Ristorante and Pizzeria, Topo Gigio and Aqua Viva.
Now cooking at La Tosca Ristorante and Pizzeria in Villa Park, his mission is not only to provide high quality dishes that include seafood, steak and pasta, but to make diners feel they're at home, even if that means cooking off the menu.
"I especially enjoy the customers who come in and ask if I could make certain dishes that their Italian grandmother or mother made for them when they were young," he said.
He also now enjoys traditional Sunday dinners at his Wood Dale home with his wife, Dora, and daughter, Rosa, a senior at Elmhurst College.
What are some of your memories of growing up in Sicily? Some of my fondest memories are Sunday dinners at my maternal grandparents' house. My grandfather made it mandatory for all children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins to be present. He loved having all his family around him to share a meal, especially on Sunday. There was always a huge, delicious meal to enjoy and family to enjoy it with.
Who was your biggest culinary influence? I came from a family of chefs — my paternal grandmother, my uncle and my father were all chefs. The biggest culinary influence was my father. To this day, I have never met a more talented and creative chef than the likes of my father. He was also a well known and respected pastry chef in Sicily and later in northern Italy. My father and uncle taught me all their recipes and culinary secrets. From the time that I was too small to reach the table, they would stand me on a stool and let me work alongside them.
How does the Chicago area compare to places you previously cooked in Europe? The culinary environment in the Chicago area and Europe is very different. In the European countries that I cooked in, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Yugoslavia, the fast food industry was nonexistent. Food was always the center of family meals and people made time to prepare meals with fresh, wholesome ingredients. Restaurants always provided fresh vegetables, fish, homemade pastries and meats.
In Chicago, the lifestyle is different, faster paced than in Europe, and people don't have the time to cook from scratch.
Also, years ago common ingredients used in Italian and European cooking were impossible to find in the United States, but that has all changed now. Specialty foods, grocery stores and restaurants are now able to purchase and cook with these once hard-to-find items. There really is practically nothing that can't be found in the U.S. now. The culinary gap is definitely closing between Chicago and Europe.
What influences the dishes that make up your menu? I always work with the freshest and highest quality ingredients that I can find for my daily specials. I also am trying to introduce dishes and ingredients from Italy that are not commonly known in the Chicago area yet.
Why do you enjoy cooking with seafood? Growing up in Sicily, I lived in Palermo along the Mediterranean Sea where I went fishing almost every day the old-fashioned way, without a fishing rod using my fingers, fishing line and bait. When I moved to northern Italy, I was fortunate to live along the beautiful Adriatic Sea coast. I along with some friends of mine bought a large fishing boat and started a fishing business. I have always had a love for the sea and a passion for cooking with fresh seafood.
What is the best thing that you have ever eaten? There are too many favorite things to choose from, but one of my all-time favorites is Pasta al Ucciletto, which translated means Little Bird Pasta.
What ingredients are always in your kitchen? I always have a good quality extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, good quality pasta and fresh herbs such as basil, rosemary and parsley. With those few ingredients you can quickly made delicious and simple dishes.
What tips would you give to home cooks? Don't be afraid to experiment and try new things. If something doesn't come out right the first time, don't get discouraged. Try it again and have fun with it.
What do you do in your spare time? I relax by watching Italian television, especially the soccer games. I am a huge soccer fan. I visit the Italian men's club near my house where I play Italian card games with some of my friends. The winner pays for the espresso.
Try this recipe: Make chef Abbruscato's Chilean sea bass in lemon sauce at home or try it at La Tosca Ristorante and Pizzeria, 123 E. St. Charles Road, Villa Park, (630) 832-5300.
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