After listening to his enthusiastic travel stories and many cooking experiences, you would never believe Valerio Pescetelli, chef at Cantina Toscana in Lakewood Ranch, is only 24 years old. It almost seems impossible to achieve as much experience in the field of cooking as he has at such a young age, but vibrant Pescetelli is talented and ready to make his mark on Sarasota.
Born in Rome, Pescetelli’s first memories of cooking are with his grandmother in an idyllic Italian countryside setting.
“I grew up with my grandmother and we had a big family, so she used to cook a lot and she’d put my cousins and me to work,” Pescetelli said. “She’d wake up at 6 a.m. to prepare lasagna and tomato sauce. She made a lot of rustic desserts and homemade pastas. It was very traditional — we’d make our own wine and help can tomatoes and jams for the whole year.”
The food he grew up making and loving is exactly what this chef wants Sarasota, and all Americans, really, to experience.
In 2004, Pescetelli left Rome and moved to London.
“Italian society underestimates the young generation, and I would never have found the opportunities in Rome as I did in London at such a young age,” he said. “I still would not be able to be a head chef in Rome.”
In London, Pescetelli hit his stride and enjoyed working at Orso (working with famed head chef Martin Wilson), at Gordon Ramsay’s The Savoy Grill (“A very competitive environment, I didn’t like it. I worked 90 hours a week.”) and at Partridge’s (a gourmet grocery store and restaurant that supplies food to the Royal Family).
After two years in London, Pescetelli was ready for a new challenge. When speaking with his uncle, who still lived in Rome, Pescetelli mentioned his desire to move to the United States. His uncle told him about a friend in Florida, Francesco Giannandrea — owner of Cantina Toscana — and after a budding friendship and a visit to sunny Florida, Pescetelli knew this would be his home … eventually.
“American immigration said I didn’t have enough experience, so I stayed in London for three more years, trying to get the best training I could receive in order to run a kitchen brigade and understand the philosophy of Italian cuisine, combined with dish-presentation skills,” Pescetelli says.
In April, he finally arrived in Sarasota, eager to take Cantina Toscana to new levels.
“I came here to take this kitchen over and try to create a new concept based on fresh, quality foods,”
Pescetelli says. “I tend to cook traditional Italian food, which is very different from Americanized Italian food. American people tend to be brainwashed with the authenticity that Italian restaurants here claim. I’m trying to give the image of what you really have in the countryside of Italy.”
Pescetelli still speaks to his grandmother every two weeks for recipe ideas, but he adds his own variation to classic recipes.
“I’m showing the message of authentic Italian food to Sarasota,” Pescetelli says. “There is no ricotta in lasagna in Italy — nor would you ever find veal or chicken parmesan.”
The chef’s favorite meal to make is osso buco because of the amount of time and labor that is put into the process.
“Everything here is properly made in the authentic way,” Pescetelli says. “You get outstanding results when you take the time.”
And the results are in. The osso buco is only offered on Wednesday nights and, because it’s Cantina Toscana’s biggest seller, people have begun to reserve the delectable dish ahead of time. In addition, Cantina Toscana is offering a special feature every two weeks that focuses on different regions in Italy.
The whole Cantina Toscana team is like a family and is passionate about making the restaurant feel like a family to its customers, so it’s only appropriate that the book Pescetelli is working on is titled, “Traditions.”
Valerio Pescetelli dishes on his favorite meals.
1. “I love pizza. My favorite is the focaccia with melted mozzarella, gorgonzola, slices of pancetta and chopped arugula — very particular flavors.”
2. “I love homemade pasta such as ravioli and tagliatelle. It reminds me a lot of the time spent with my grandma.”
3. “I love a very good piece of beef, medium rare, combined with truffle mashed potatoes — it presents itself nicely.”
4. “I love lasagna because, again, it brings me back to my childhood and traditional Sundays with the family.”
5. “I love sushi because it gives me an image of freshness, and it’s not too heavy.”
IF YOU GO
8203 Cooper Creek Blvd., Bradenton. 359-2500.