We Chat With: Missy Robbins of A Voce

"Our philosophy is about taking the best recipes and enhancing them. You'll never see a chemical in this kitchen."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Missy Robbins didn't intend to be an Italian chef. Even after several trips and stages all over Italy, she didn't feel ready to helm an Italian kitchen in New York City. After several years at Spiaggia in Chicago, she returned home to lead the charge at A Voce, and now oversees the menus and execution at both locations, where she makes us swoon with freshly rolled pastas and a rotating menu of seasonal ingredients. So how does she elevate our perception of Italian food beyond our beloved pizza?

Let's start with your connection to Italian food: is your family Italian? Nope! Eastern European / Jewish / American / no-Italian-background-whatsoever. I'm from New Haven, Connecticut, which is very Italian/American. So I grew up with Italian as the go-to thing, and I think it got kind of engrained in me. And I also traveled to Italy with my family when I was in my early teens.

For any specific reason? My parents just liked to travel. I don't know if I fell in love with Italy, but when it came time to decide where to go internationally to stage, I was intimidated by the reputation of hardcore French kitchens and felt an affinity to Italy. I don't know where it comes from other than just traveling there and liking it.

Do you have a memory of food there that stands out? Everything. I moved once every six weeks or so to a different region. So I was getting a new education. I refer back to my experience in Friuli a lot because I knew nothing of that cuisine and it was such a new experience...but everything.

Could you tell me of something that's specific to that cuisine particularly There's a lot of eastern influence. They use a lot of smoke, and pork loin, and sauerkraut. A lot of greens and barleys and all that. It's just really unique. Grappa is made up there.

Did you learn any technique that would later help you elevate Italian food for us here? How do you take it to the next level? I think more than technique, it's a philosophy of lack of manipulation about food. Everything on the plate is to highlight the season and ingredient, not manipulate it. So what we do at A Voce is take really traditional Italian concepts from different regions and modernize them. Our philosophy is about taking the best recipes and enhancing them. You'll never see a chemical in this kitchen.

Really? Much to my kitchen's dismay, the rule about chemicals here is "every time you build something with a chemical, figure out how to do it without it". [Sous chef] Hillary is very technique-driven, and is always kind of pushing the limits and wanting to do new and innovative stuff; she pushes me to innovate and I push her to be a little more conservative, and we meet in the middle. Now I know that when I to ask her to do a dish, she's going to create something at the next level, just by getting the most flavor and clarity out of the ingredients.

So clarity of ingredients is the key? For me it's about the small details and about reinvention. There are people who call my food rustic and it drives me crazy, because I don't think my food is rustic. I think there are dishes that have rustic elements, but as the food evolves it becomes less and less rustic. So, yeah, it's about the details.

For example, I'm super, super anal about the way my herbs get picked. It's about extracting the greatest amount of flavor from a couple of ingredients that don't interfere with each other. It's about what's going to enhance or bring out the natural state of something.

Out of the scope of what you do, is there one thing you would love to physically do with food everyday? Pasta. If I could just sit in the basement all day and roll pasta...

Did you get to do that in Italy? Every day. I did it in all the restaurants. In the first there was a room where this woman would sit with her cigarette hanging out of her mouth and roll pasta all day. It was incredible. The next place in a really tiny town in Tuscany was run by a woman and I lived with her 80-year old crazy Italian mother—she hated me and I didn't even do anything—but she would roll out pasta every afternoon by hand with a giant rolling pin. She would start with this giant ball and have this perfect, perfect round. I would start with this tiny ball and it would be seven different shapes with holes in the middle. I learned how to cook pasta in Italy, for sure. That's the biggest skill set I learned.

You're on the upcoming season of Top Chef: Masters, which I know you can't talk about yet. But why compete? Are you a competitive chef in general? I'm competitive with myself. My motivation behind it was the personal challenge and the charity component. I've gotten pushed and pulled in different directions with TV, but my goal is not to be on Iron Chef. Part of it's probably fear, but I don't feel that my skill set lies with competing. I think I'm a good chef but I put a lot of thought into my menus. I'm a slow processor.

What are you most excited about in the kitchen right now? I'm really super excited about us making our own cheese. We're making stracciatella: cow's milk, curd, cream, salt and water. It's really quite simple, actually, now that I've learned how to make it. And summer's always fun—walking through the markets and getting inspired.