Mama Ricotta's Chef Inspired by Trip to Italy

Chef Tom Dyrness explains what he learned and how it will change his kitchen
Mama Ricotta's
Chef Tom Dyrness works in a Florence kitchen.

Though he's cooked Italian cuisine at Mama Ricotta's for four years, Chef Tom Dyrness hadn't yet worked in a kitchen in Italy. So when Dyrness and Mama Ricotta's owner Frank Scibelli traveled to the country to do some food research, he spent a day cooking alongside the locals at Pietro al Pantheon in Rome. In a restaurant just yards from the Pantheon, Dyrness put away food orders just like he would in his own kitchen, and began prepping dishes like osso bucca, oxtail ragu, and pomadoro sauce. Unable to speak Italian, Dyrness communicated in Spanish with a member of the kitchen staff, and she then translated to Italian. 

They wanted to see how Dyrness made his pasta carbonara, so he got to work. Using cream to thicken the sauce is a common method in the United States. There, it's frowned upon, he says—so much so that the chef told him to stop right there.

"And I'm like, 'Wait, I can cook!' They're like, 'No, this is Roman cooking.' " Dyrness recalls. "It was just the technique that they use: cooking the pasta, adding the pasta, tossing it in the water, and then from the heat, add in the egg and the cheese and just incorporating it, and that's it. Don't put it back on the fire, don't heat it, don't scramble the egg."

That experience led Dyrness to change the recipe of Mama's carbonara as soon as he returned to his own kitchen. After our interview, he brought out the old and new versions of the dish. The old version, with cream, was a dense, rich plate. By removing the cream and keeping the recipe simple, the second carbonara felt like a much fresher dish, with the cheese standing out over the taste of the cream. 

The bigger role of the cheeses in Dyrness' dishes means he and Scibelli are seeking out suppliers who can help bring them new items. After trying the local cheeses and seeing the variety available in Italy, they hope to find better ones in their own restaurant. 

"We're trying to get our hands on a better pecorino," Dyrness says. "Some of the ones that find their way over here are heavily salted. They've got a real salty, a salt base to them. It's not as nutty; it doesn't have as much nuance; it doesn't bring out the sheepsmilk as much. All you taste is the salt in it. So we're trying to find that right balance."

They're also looking for a new pasta that can be cooked entirely to order, as well as San Marzano tomatoes that more closely resemble the taste of those in Italy. The salumi will be cut to order, preventing the meat from drying out at all before hitting the table. They're also playing with the idea of a featured pizza bianca each week, a more time-intensive dough that's more like foccacia with toppings than traditional pizza though. 

Along the food tour, Scibelli says he gained 10 pounds. It's not hard to believe when they recall one of their favorite dishes, a steak that was cleaned of fat. The trimmings were then served separately, with herbs and olive oil. They met with famed Florence chef Fabio Picchi, who recently released his first cookbook in English. They're hoping to bring Picchi to Charlotte for a collaborative dinner and celebration of his cookbook.

It's clear Dyrness took a lot away from the trip, and the menu at Mama's will continue to reflect that. As diners, we'll have to work on taking an Italian perspective, too.

"The whole dining experience is a lot different," Dyrness says. "It's more social; it's more, 'Hey, we're going out to lunch.' It's not, "Hey, we're going to go out to lunch and then we're going to go shopping."

Categories: Food + Drink