Sansonetti at the Blue Rooster. [Photo: Tom Minervino]
Damian Sansonetti just moved to Portland last fall, but he's wasted no time putting down roots. He had a successful run of Sonnet pop-up dinners, then opened the Blue Rooster Food Co. in the Old Port in March, which serves up creative, locally-sourced sandwiches and hot dogs for lunch through late night. Just last month, he and wife Ilma Lopez (pastry chef at Grace) welcomed home a baby girl. And last week, he signed a lease for the former Bresca space on Middle Street, where he plans to open Piccolo, an Italian restaurant that will seat 20 inside with an additional two or three outdoor tables, pending city approval. He wants to open in four to six weeks.
Yesterday, Sansonetti, a Pittsburgh native who worked as executive chef at the renowned Bar Boulud in New York City before packing up and heading north, found some time in his busy schedule to sit down with Eater Maine for a coffee at the Speckled Ax to talk about his whirlwind first several months in Portland.
With the new baby, are you getting any sleep these days?
It's the same amount of sleep, just in different increments. I only sleep four or five hours a day anyway. We close the shop and I get home around three o'clock in the morning. She's up, so I spend an hour with her. We'll go to sleep, then wake up again around six or seven, then I'll try to get another hour in.
We had sushi at Yosaku with the baby the other night after we signed the lease for Piccolo. She was quiet and slept, even with the sous chef yelling every time an order was ready. That was her first time out at a restaurant. It's funny, her first three times out have been to sign the lease, to get the keys to the restaurant space, and then to the restaurant. Her first forays into the world.
We're busy people, used to running around. People are like, 'Oh man, you have two businesses now and a baby?' And we're like, 'Yeah, we'll make it work. We'll figure it out.'
Was the idea for Piccolo something you've had in mind for a while, or did you base the concept off the Bresca space?
We've had a couple of different ideas about restaurants. The first one was Sonnet. That was the first real restaurant I wanted to do. We even had a larger space lined up, but it fell through with the landlord. That's when I decided to do Blue Rooster and focus on that.
We wanted to open up an Italian restaurant at some point. We just didn't know when, or the size of it. We saw the space and thought it was cool. It has some good bones to it. It's got great wood floors and the nice little wooden counter top. High ceilings. We thought we could do something nice.
At the Rooster, we did a lot of the demolition work ourselves. We tore out the whole front. We tore out the back. All new siding, insulation, windows. We did everything, pretty much, except the gas line and the electrical. In this new spot, there's not much we can do. It's a small space. You're not going to tear down a wall or make it any bigger because there's nowhere to go.
At Piccolo, the theme is going to have a Calabrian and Abruzzian influence to it, but you're going to see a majority of southern Italian cooking — that Italian country, farmhouse style, all in that range from central Italy, south. Don (Lindgren) from Rabelais (Books) told me that a good majority of Italians who are here in Maine are from Abruzzi. I really want to focus on those flavors because I got a lot of that growing up. We really didn't eat that much beef on my dad's side of the family and they were from Abruzzi. We always had lamb. That's the only damn thing my grandfather ever cooked was lamb. My great grandfather made sausages and cured meats. You'd see the jugs of wine downstairs and the sausages hanging. It had that musty smell of meat and wine. And also that tool smell from the other side of the basement. Sort of a weird melange of smells and sights. As a little kid, I wondered what the hell was going on down there. Was this how it was supposed to be?
Even though we grew up in the city, both my grandparents had gardens. I remember my grandmother devoted the majority of her backyard to tomatoes, swiss chard, garlic and mint. I thought that was standard. When I got older, I realized that's not what everyone does, so it was cool to grow up with that. Now, we have our own little garden at our house, with peperoncinis from seeds my friend brought back from Calabria. I want to put all those flavors into the food. I love to cook like that. I think when you cook from the heart and really put yourself into the food, instead of trying to make stuff that somebody else wants or force a concept, it works better.
We're trying to find a lot of wood and iron and reclaimed stuff. We're going to try to give it that Italian countryside feel. Something warmer, so that you walk in and feel like you want to sit down and have a good meal. We don't want to feel stuffy or stiff. I'm definitely in the vein of a really comfortable dining room atmosphere and really good food to make you feel happy.
What are some items that we'll see on the menu?
You're definitely going to see cavatelli. Both my grandparents cooked cavatelli and I swear that was the first pasta I ever remember making. I remember making it with my nana, my mom's mom. As soon as I could see the table, I'd help her. She'd feed the machine and I'd crank it through. When I was older, I'd put the dough through myself. She'd tell me to put it through nice and easy so it didn't gum up. It makes me happy cooking it. One dish I used to do a lot is a lamb neck bolognese, which I'm looking to have.
You're going to see spaghetti alla chitarra. You'll see a lot of real peperoncini. Not the pickled green things you get with your Papa Johns pizza. Hey, I love them. But the real ones are little, tiny guys that are fruity but spicy. They're from Calabria. They're awesome and we're going to use a lot of them. There's going to be a touch of French technique in everything because I worked in French for nine years. But it's not going to be fussy.
You've been doing some interesting things at the Blue Rooster, with the nose to tail specials and creative sandwiches. What else is planned there?
I'll still be down there one full day a week. Then I'll be popping in. We're only going to be open at Piccolo for dinner, five days a week. We're thinking about having a Hot Dog Happy Hour at the Rooster, something after lunch. July is national Hot Dog Month, so our latest one is the Bandito, which is in a tortilla with Mexican flavors going on. We're unveiling another hot dog soon. It's fun. It's playful.
It's a different aspect of cooking that you don't generally associate with fine dining chefs. I get to see the whole breadth of it. The fun of it and the business aspect of it. Part of it is working with Daniel (Boulud) for so long. He had his flagship, his bistro, his cafe, his bar, DBGB. You see the depth of how he is and realize it's OK to do something different. It doesn't have to be fine dining, fine dining, fine dining, or diner, diner, diner. You can do everything. When you can see the trademark or hand in it, that's when it gets tied together and makes sense.
So the Cappy "Yinzer" (housemade spicy capicola ham from local pork, tater tots on the sandwich, cole slaw, provolone cheese on bulkie roll) is an ode to the Primanti Brothers in your hometown of Pittsburgh?
Absolutely. 100%. I grew up on those sandwiches. That's pretty much the first thing I get when I go back to Pittsburgh or bring friends to Pittsburgh. Three years ago, a sous chef of mine lost a bet to me for football tickets. The Giants were playing the Steelers so we drove down to Pittsburgh the night after a Saturday dinner service. We got there Sunday morning. Primanti's on the Strip is open 24 hours, so we got a couple sandwiches then went right to the game to tailgate. He was like, 'Dude, these things are great.' And I said, 'I know. I grew up on these.' It's one of those food memories. Food can bring us together. When you strike a food memory with somebody and it makes them happy, that's one of the biggest compliments you can give to a chef.
You've been here almost a year now. Is there anything that's surprised you about Portland, or is it what you expected?
I definitely expected a good community of people. I didn't expect it to be exploding as much as it is this year with new chefs and new ideas. That's awesome. I love that. I love that we're able to be a part of that. When I got here, I got in touch with Rob Evans through a mutual friend. I'd met Rob before when he won a James Beard award and came to Bar Boulud. We were the first stop on the James Beard after-party circuit. I ate at his restaurant. But we never sat down, had a beer and chatted. But within a month of me moving up here, we went and hung out at Novare Res and he gave me a long list of contacts. 'This guy's good for this. This guy's good for that.' Anything from produce to repairmen. I thought that was absolutely awesome. That was unexpected — the generosity of him to give me a list, a guide. Like a culinary information sherpa. It answered a lot of my questions right of the bat.
We have so many talented people in this city right now. The brewery and distillation stuff in the city is just sick. All of the chefs. It's like a new phase of food and drink popping up in the past two years. A lot of this stuff takes planning. I'm sure they took a long time to plan out In'Finiti. That doesn't just happen. All the new distilleries and breweries that have come up in the past few years, that takes time and capital. It's all just blooming now.
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