Tavola chef Caleb Warr never intended to cook Italian food. Warr, who grew up eating home-cooked Southern food in Louisiana, says that although he’d always dreamed of owning a restaurant, he wasn’t exactly into the idea of culinary school (neither were his parents). And if he did cook, he didn’t want to be limited to one pantry—like his childhood best friend’s big Italian family was.
So Warr was pretty surprised to find himself in Poggio a Caiano, Italy, this July, cooking alongside seventh-generation Italian chef Roberta Vivetta Cintelli in the kitchen of Ristorante il Falcone, Cintelli’s family’s restaurant that has been serving Tuscan fare since 1862.
Warr and Cintelli had met just one month prior, when Cintelli visited Tavola for a week in June as part of a culinary exchange through the Charlottesville Sister Cities program (Charlottesville and Poggio have been sister cities for 40 years). Cintelli cooked for Tavola’s specials board, and in moments when she wasn’t cooking, peeled carrots, ran dishes and folded linens.
Warr, who cut his teeth cooking in some of Charlottesville’s best kitchens—Zinc, Mas and The Rock Barn, to name a few—returned the favor at il Falcone. Thing is, he doesn’t speak a lick of Italian, and Cintelli doesn’t speak any English.
But during those two weeks—one in Poggio and one in Charlottesville—in which they cooked together in their kitchens and visited markets, wineries and vineyards, they exchanged plenty between them. Their common language was food.
While in Poggio, Warr took careful notes—he wanted to figure out exactly how Ristorante il Falcone has managed to operate for nearly 160 years. He wanted to know why customers were walking back into the kitchen to pepper Cintelli and her staff with kisses, hugs and endless professions of “grazie.”
Warr was already familiar with many of the techniques he saw in Tuscany, so his education wasn’t so much about the mechanics of cooking, but about preparation and presentation. Many of the dishes he ate (and helped make) had just three or four ingredients but were created carefully.
“It wasn’t that I saw something I’d never seen before,” says Warr. “To a point, there were probably only two or three ingredients that I had never heard of, like the jujube,” a red date that grows on backyard trees in Tuscany, “and I’d never known people to eat pigeon.”
One thing he noticed in Italy is that dishes are served and enjoyed as they’re ready; vegetables and antipasti, which take less time to prepare, will come out first, and on their own plates. Then the meats and pastas arrive, again on their own. “You don’t get steak, potatoes and a vegetable all on the same plate” like you would in America, Warr says. It affords eaters time to savor each individual dish.
“I had so much there that I want people to enjoy,” Warr says, and because many of the ingredients that flourish in Tuscany grow well in central Virginia, he feels he can “easily translate Tuscany into Charlottesville” at Tavola.
Although Tavola’s printed menu won’t change—it’s the work of Tavola owner Michael Keaveny, and the restaurant’s backbone, Warr says—Warr brings his Italian trip influence to Tavola’s specials board and the cichetti bar menu, with soups, pastas, antipasto and various meat dishes.
He’s also cooking a multi-course Tuscan dinner on September 29. The dinner is an effort “to translate, with my craft, on a dish, my journey in Italy,” Warr says. “That seems very deep and artistic, but hopefully it’s very approachable.” The menu focuses on well-developed flavors, quality ingredients and top-notch (read: proper) preparation. He’s adapted some of the dishes to better suit the American dining experience, such as the bite-sized beef tongue, cannellini bean and pesto canapé that was inspired by a full plate of beef and beans that Warr ate in Tuscany.
And he’s combining Piedmont proteins with Italian methods as well. Warr watched Cintelli prepare a braised beef sugo (an Italian sauce or gravy) and serve it over potato-stuffed tortelli. Warr’s version features that same potato-stuffed tortelli topped with a ground local rabbit and guanciale sugo (cured pork cheek sauce).
But it’s about more than just food for Warr.
“Five years ago, it was all about the food to me,” Warr says. “I thought that people come to a restaurant to eat, and that the food has to be perfect, and everything else is [secondary] to the food. That’s not the case anymore.”
Partly from working at Tavola and partly from his trip to Italy, he learned that a restaurant is about food, sure, but also about the wine, the drinks, the music, the ambience and the service. It’s about the soil and the sun that grow the tomato and the farmer who harvests it. It’s about the chicken that lays the egg and the chef who mixes the egg with semolina flour to make pasta, and it’s about the family that sits down together to eat it. Food isn’t just cooking and eating; it’s living, and Warr says that realization has transformed his approach to food.
“[I want] people to feel like they’ve been taken good care of,” Warr says.
Bird’s the word
While in college at Louisiana State University, Warr studied evolutionary genetics, with a particular focus on birds. “I love birds. I love birds. I birdwatch with my nephew, with my son,” he says. “I have many pictures and paintings of birds in my office. I also love to eat birds.”
While in Italy, Warr had a guanciale-wrapped, fire-roasted pigeon dish that he’s dying to recreate at Tavola. “I ate three of them,” Warr says. He loved the clean flavors, the gaminess and the preparation of the dish.
But he’s running into a couple of problems.
In the U.S., we think of pigeons as a nuisance; they’re chubby street birds that peck through leftovers on trash day. But in Italy, they’re domesticated, like chickens, and eaten often. Would American diners order a pigeon dish?
And then there’s the matter of sourcing the pigeons. They’re not raised here, and he can’t just pluck them from the sidewalk. War says that since returning from Italy, he’s talked with his rabbit farmer about possibly raising pigeons and guinea fowl, all in the hopes of bringing more options to Tavola diners.
Contact Erin O’Hare at email@example.com.