Chef Shea Gallante wants us to have fun with our Italian cuisine, not overthink it. That's his approach with the farm-to-table menu at Ciano in the Flatiron district. While he might be noted for a deconstructed tiramisu and a wine list that would shake any Italian out of his sauce, Gallante's menu is comfortably familiar, and only a touch outside our comfort zones.
At 19 you opened a pizzeria that you've remarked didn't fare so well. How did that drive you to do better and enroll culinary school? Having my own place was a lot of work. Especially at that age, you're not ready for the responsibility that goes along with it. I had a friend who was going to culinary school—he made me realize that if I wanted to pursue a long term career I needed to study properly.
You were the Executive Chef of the much beloved Cru, but then returned to work for David Bouley at a corporate position. What drove you to return to him? I didn't have anything better to do at the time! Things at Cru fell apart. It was no secret as to what was going on in the economy: the model didn't work and the partnership wasn't really strong at that stage. Things were good, then they weren't good anymore. I could have stayed on but it would have been pointless. Bouley and I were friendly and he had a bunch of things going on that needed a supervisor, so it was kind of like filling a void.
What helped push you forward, from school to Bouley, to Cru, then to opening Ciano? Do you have any advice for younger chefs? Modesty plays a big part. When I got out of school I told myself: "school gave me a tool kit—not just a set of knives—but a set of resources and skills that I have to go out and develop." So I put my head down and kept moving forward.
Why have you chosen to build your career solely in New York? Are there other cities you'd want to branch out to? I'm just cautious. I've been building career during some of the biggest highs and lows in our economic times, so it's been a wild ride. There were times at Cru when we were at the top of the world, and then we blinked and because of our business model we were at the bottom of the pile. It's been a roller coaster ride. We want Ciano to be a good wholesome restaurant that serves good food in a lively environment. I have to get this 100% right before branching to other cities.
How does an Italian restaurant in New York distinguish itself and make people want to return? How have you tackled this on your menu at Ciano? I used to want to change things all the time, but I've learned that less change is better. A consistent product and execution is the biggest plus for people. Keep doing that and people will keep coming back.
Many Italian restaurants in New York are going the rustic, grandma's meatballs direction. You're deconstructing tiramisu. Why did you take Ciano in fine dining direction? We're trying to offer something familiar but in a different package. I don't want to give you the same thing that others are trying. People want to be challenged, especially in New York. I may do a classic pasta with familiar components, but I might put it in a ravioli, turn the sauce into a filling, and make the filling into a sauce.
What do you want diners to take home from a meal at Ciano? That it doesn't have to be exact. Familiarity is important—we always use familiar items, ingredients, components, and pairings. People usually hold themselves to too high of a standard when they try to replicate something perfectly. Follow some basic guidelines or a profile of a dish and have fun with it—don't overthink it. Have fun and it should taste good.