Food With A Sense Of Place
Growing up in Corsica, Alex Apparu, the chef at Southampton’s Tutto il Giorno, waited tables from an early age at his parents’ restaurants. His dad’s place was in the mountains, and it presented the young waiter with no particular challenges. His mother’s place was a different story. Located within the walls of a thirteenth century citadel with views across the Mediterranean, that restaurant’s dining room was in the courtyard and the kitchen was on the third floor. Whenever he and his two sisters took an order, they would call up to their mother, who was stationed within earshot of the open-doored balcony, Ecoute!’ “Hey!” And then, from memory–they never wrote orders down–”We need one tagliatelle with pesto and a whole roast daurade!” His mother stuffed the daurade, or gilt-head bream, with wild lavender from the hillside and brocciu–a typically Corsican goat cheese with a mild tang and a ricotta-like texture. The tagliatelle was made fresh every morning with local chestnut flour. No one banged on about local ingredients because it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to cook with anything else. When the food was ready, Apparu would walk three flights up a narrow unlit staircase. “On the way down,” he recalled, “I’d have to try really hard not to get distracted by all the wonderful cooking smells wafting off the plates so that I wouldn’t drop anything.”
That formative lesson in self-restraint is apparent in Apparu’s style at Tutto il Giorno (which is owned by Gabby Karan and her husband Gianpaolo de Felice). He brings to the fundamentally Italian menu his own sensibility, which draws on the intermingled culinary cultures of the Mediterranean basin. A lamb loin carpaccio, for example, is finished with a tahini vinaigrette and a scatter of lightly-dressed herbs. The traditional pollo al mattone, chicken cooked under a brick, is actually a butterflied cornish hen, and it arrives at the table with a pan sauce flavored with star anise and harissa. New potatoes might be spiked with the preserved lemons that always made an appearance on his mother’s table.
“The way I cook has everything to do with how I was raised,” notes Apparu who was born into a family of restauranteurs and inspired cooks with culinary roots in France, Italy, and colonial Tunisia. Though Apparu and his mother and siblings moved to New York in the mid-eighties–where his mother, Martine Abitbol, opened a restaurant on the Lower East Side called La Poème–they continued to spend summers on Corsica, catering to the tourist trade. During the colder months, “people hunt and pick chestnuts and that’s about it,” he says, drawing a parallel to the East End of Long Island, which turns in on itself in the winter. “I spent my childhood traveling back and forth, not just between countries, but between two profoundly different ways of life. It wasn’t a bad way to grow up.”
In his early twenties, Apparu attended the storied Lycée des Métiers de l’Hôtellerie et de la Restauration Jean Drouant in Paris, a school so formal that male students were required to attend lectures on classical technique wearing a suit and tie. He later trained at a Franco-Italian restaurant called Le Tournesol (“run by a couple of hip young Frenchmen”) before returning to New York. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2011, he and his family moved to eastern Long Island. Six years ago, when Karan and de Felice opened an outpost of Tutto il Giorno in Southampton, Apparu took over the kitchen. (The original Tutto il Giorno, in Sag Harbor, has different owners and a new name. In 2014, Karan and de Felice opened a second location in New York City’s Tribeca.) Listening to this talented chef reel off the ingredients he recently purchased from local farmers and fishermen (“Sweet corn, striped bass, littleneck clams, zucchini, yellow squash, blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes…”) you get the feeling he’s found at last a culinary home.