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Note: Chef Teddy has left Il Palio and will be opening up Coronato Pizza in Carrboro. More details at the bottom of this post.
Now I like a good chicken parm sandwich as much as the next person but in my mind, I do know that Italian-American cuisine dominates the local Triangle dining scene. Usually we’re talking about a lot of red sauce, a lot of cheese, a lot of carbs and a lot of calories. But the reality is that real Italian food is far different from what is usually served up here. And that’s why Il Palio’s Chef Teddy Diggs does regular research trips to Italy to uncover the best culinary gems and styles to incorporate into his menu right here in Chapel Hill. I had the chance to attend a media dinner last year at Il Palio and was impressed at the delicious simplicity and quality of ingredients used during the dinner.
So I was excited to get a chance to do some Q&A with Chef Teddy after he returned from his culinary research trip to Italy in July. What he learned, what he loved and what his thoughts were about Italian and Italian-American cuisine in America. Here’s how it all went down, enjoy!
How long have you incorporated authentic Italian cooking in your menus and repertoire? And why do you have a passion for the cuisine?
Chef Teddy Diggs: I first began delving into Italian cooking at the Culinary Institute of America where I became fascinated with the elegant simplicity of regional Italian dishes. I expanded my experience during my time at Maestro in Washington D.C., a time when I was completely immersed in Italian culture and cuisine. Throughout my career I have always cooked to celebrate both my locale and it’s ingredients which I believe should be served as purely as possible with comfort and pride. This is a philosophy I learned from my Italian mentors, and one that is represented in all the food that I make.
Tell us briefly about your trip to Italy. Which areas did you visit and why did you choose those cities and particular restaurants?
Chef Teddy Diggs: This year I chose to tackle three regions specifically: Umbria, Marche and Lazio (Rome specifically). In Umbria I wanted to connect with the families that produce our olive oil and harvest our truffles. I also was interested in comparing Umbria to Tuscany as both use similar ingredients in their regional cooking. I chose the neighboring region of Le Marche because that is the home one of my culinary mentors, Fabio Trabocchi. I wanted to connect with his thought processes that inspired me as a young cook, and I did. I also wanted to see fishing towns on the Adriatic coast, as I had already experienced the Terrynian side of the Mediterranean. Lastly Lazio and Rome because of the significant importance that classical Roman dishes and philosophies have on America’s view of Italian cooking.
Roasting and smoking seems to be one of the styles you are taking on from research on your trip? Is that a common technique throughout Italy or more regional?
Chef Teddy Diggs: Regional Italian cooking, at its heart, is simple and rustic. And what is more rustic than cooking over an open flame? Wood-fire grilling has been a hallmark of Italian food across the country in various forms, from the hearths of Rome to the hillside of Tuscany. Smoke is a common technique because it is the traditional way of cooking food. When we use wood fire to cook in present day, it connects us with the soul of regional Italian cooking
You had the opportunity to visit and dine at restaurants that are over 200 years old while in Italy! How have those restaurants stayed relevant across two centuries and what struck you when you dined at these historical spots?
Chef Teddy Diggs: Simplicity, as it always has been. These restaurants do not try to be something that they are not. They cook honest food that is grown and harvested by friends and family close in proximity to the restaurant. They don’t manipulate the food; they honor it. I am reminded of a simple grilled rabbit that I had on my second night in Umbria. It was lightly seasoned with salt and fresh rosemary grilled slowly over smoldering embers and finished on the plate with a remarkably rustic extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon. Tender rabbit that was kissed with smoke, acid and a creamy, nutty grassy sauce of local olive oil.
Looking back on your trip in Italy, what was the one meal that blew your mind and taste-buds and how did that come about?
Chef Teddy Diggs: They were all inspiring in their own right. But in Rome I ate at a wonderful Roman pizzeria called Bonci Pizzarium. They serve pizza al taglio, which is sold by the kilogram. I ordered a simple tomato and oregano and also their potato pizza. The potato pizza was mind blowing. The bread had a crunchy rich golden bottom that gave way to a light and airy interior – the fermentation of the dough lent spectacular texture and flavor. The gluten structure was incredible and created an amazing chew to the otherwise airy crust. The potatoes on top were drenched in olive oil but, again, light as air. The simple combination of potato and dough was a great snack.
What dishes will find their way into your menu based upon your recent research? Were there any specific techniques or ingredients you learned about on your trip that you’ll start using here?
Chef Teddy Diggs: The thought processes of the cooks in the rustic trattoria will impact my menu writing. I have found us using the wood fire at Il Palio more than even since my return from Italy. Honest ingredients treated with simplicity can create the most remarkable foods and I want to continue to explore that more here at home.
If you had to describe real Italian food in three words, what would they be?
Simple. Rustic. Comfortable.
I’m going to say two words, you say the first thing that comes to your mind: “Olive Garden”
No comment. 🙂
How did Italian-American food come about and evolve in the United States?
Chef Teddy Diggs: Italian immigrants brought the memories of their Italian childhoods with them, and they craved to keep a connection with their homeland. Over time the dishes of their homeland crossed with American idea of abundance, and wires were crossed. Italian American cooking certainly has its place in our world, but it is not what we do at Il Palio.
Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to Italian American food in your household?
Chef Teddy Diggs: Pasta and meatballs is a quintessential Italian American dish, and that certainly is on the menu at my house. My daughters love bringing them to school for lunch. And, on pizza night at home I am sure to always make a pepperoni pizza, something you wouldn’t find in Italy.
(Ron from NC Triangle Dining: I’m guessing Chef Teddy’s daughters are really popular at the school cafeteria when it comes to lunch swaps and trades!)
What’s the one thing you’d want the dining public to understand about real Italian food?
Chef Teddy Diggs: Despite one common perception, Italian food isn’t about heavy sauces or rich pastas; it’s about balance and simplicity. My goal as a chef is to find the purest ingredients and treat them simply. Certainly, Italian food has layers of overt and subtle flavors, but it’s approachable, accessible and often light.
So thank you to Chef Teddy for all his insights on Italian food and a thank you to Il Palio for raising the bar on authentic Italian food in the Triangle. Luckily, Italian food and dining options are getting MUCH better in the Triangle of late whether you’re talking about Il Palio in Chapel Hill or Gocciolina and Mothers & Sons in Durham so go explore a bit the next time you’re in the mood for good Italian eats!
And if you’re now excited and hungry for authentic regional Italian food, you might want to visit Chef Teddy’s upcoming Chapel Hill-Carrboro restaurant, Coronato Pizza opening in late August of 2019. Coronato Pizza will be serving a unique cracker-crust, Roman style pizza along with other delicious Italian specialties.