Some restaurants just need a blink of an eye to become neighborhood darlings, like Fiorella in Outer Richmond in San Francisco. The family-friendly, modern Italian dishes up Bella Italia classics with a Californian spin, serving pizza from the wood-fired oven, and delicious in-house made pasta.
Without frills, Fiorella convinces with delicious food and the lively atmosphere on any given evening. There are friends and couples sharing plates and families with kids treating themselves to a night out — this place is here to stay for years to come. We loved every bite, but what impressed us most was the tomato soup. Yes, we here at California Weekend, are tomato soup nerds. Where there is a tomato soup on the menu, we must try it. The creamy, yet vegan creation by Chef Dante Cecchini, who joined Fiorella in 2016, is the perfect fall soup to go with some grilled cheese. Chef Dante, previously working at Marlowe and earning the title of Rising Star Chef by SF Chronicle, has brought family recipes to Fiorella’s menu to give the neighborhood as he calls it “honest food.” We met Chef Dante on a Sunday morning before brunch to talk about food souvenirs, kitchen pantry must-haves, and his favorite SF spots. And he shares with us his tomato soup recipe. Fall we are ready for you!
You are the new chef at the cool neighborhood restaurant, Fiorella, in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond. How did you get here? Tell us a bit about your journey?
After leaving Marlowe, I really didn’t know what was next. I took some time off and found a part time line cook position to keep me busy. In addition to that, I was also working on my pop-up project, Wander. I loved the food I was making for Wander, but I started to feel that I wasn’t honest with myself about what I was cooking. During this time off, I started to cook more frequently for Niki, my girlfriend, at home. It was then when I realized that what I really wanted to do was cook simple, honest food. That is what’s really fulfilling for me. Still not knowing what was next, I received a phone call from an old chef of mine. He connected me with Brandon [Gillis] and Boris [Nemchenok] [of Fiorella]. After meeting with them, I knew right away that I wanted to share my food with real neighborhood patrons, and Fiorella would be the venue.
How does a typical chef’s day look like, from am to pm?
I usually wake up early and get going around 9:30 am. Show up at Fiorella around 10 am, and quickly run across the street and grab two coffees – one for me, and one for Jose Luis (my AM right-hand man). He gets in early, and already has some projects going by the time I arrive. We briefly chat about the prep list, the orders, and then we tackle the prep list together. Maybe midway through the day we take a quick break to organize the walk-in and dry storage. Around 3 pm the line cooks start to show up. I wrap up any projects I have been working on, and ask the cooks what they need for their stations, and how I can help get them ready. During that time I’m showing the kitchen about any new dishes for the night. The whole kitchen tastes the dish together. As a team, we discuss if it lacks something, maybe too much acid, maybe it’s great, whatever. Whether there are three adjustments to be made or none, we decide together how to finish each dish. When we can agree we’re happy with the dish, I plate it a few times with them and plate one more for the lineup at 4:30 pm. At 5 pm we start service. I am proud to say that everyone that works at Fiorella works hard, and wants to do an incredible job every night. Service is always fast, and it’s my favorite part of my day. I usually float in the kitchen assisting where I’m needed, and if it’s slower [day] I spread myself throughout the kitchen, spending time with everyone and giving more care to all the dishes as I’m cooking them. The night ends at 11:00 pm, and I check with everyone in the kitchen, so I know what tomorrow morning looks like. We all scrub, sweep and mop the kitchen together. We leave, and do it again the next day!
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work? What’s not so great?
The biggest reward is the feeling, that constant reminder, that I love what I do, and this is still the most exciting job I’ve ever had. I feel it every day. Cooking is something I am very proud to say I will always have. I would say the hardest part about this job is the sacrifices I have to make in my personal life.
When you create a menu, where do you start?
When I create a menu, I always start with my very favorite ingredients available for the season and build from there. The challenge frequently becomes that I begin to overthink and keep adding to an idea with more components. So that’s the trick I’m learning – keep it simple and honest. What usually happens is after coming up with a dish I stand back and look at it on paper, then tell myself, “ Okay, now remove three things, ” and it usually works out.
You have 20 min to whip up a lunch, what do you do?
Grab some prosciutto, a piece of fruit, some cheese, and a glass rose.
Cook to impress. What dish is super simple to make but will always wow the guests?
The roasted chicken. This is without a doubt a no-brainer from start to finish, while at the same time a slam dunk. It gets so much flavor from the herbs I marinate it in. When it comes out of the oven, it really doesn’t need much else. Maybe some gently braised greens, a drizzle of olive oil and a little lemon juice.
Spices that are always in your spice cabinet?
Dried oregano, chili flake, salt, and salt
Best food souvenir you ever brought back home?
A conch shell from the Caribbean. My dad and I were snorkeling when he saw it in the water. We brought it back to shore, cooked and ate it. I still have the shell too, and keep in my backyard.
Three kitchen essentials…
Nonno’s (my grandpa) Blue Pot
Cookbook, every home cook should own?
Tell us your five favorite food spots in San Francisco ( except Fiorella, that one we know is already great!)…
And three favorite outdoor spots…
Hog Island Oyster at Point Reyes – I love it up there. Nothing like raw oysters, and beer even on a cold day!
Trouble Coffee in the Sunset – Come on! Sitting outside in their parklet with a cappuccino and a coconut. Need I explain further : )
If we have only 12 hours in San Francisco, what should we do … Where do you take out-of-town friends?
Trouble Coffee in the morning, then hang out at Dolores Park. Walk to see a movie at the Castro Theater.
Best kept California secret…
Mt Tam. on a Sunday at 7 AM. (bring a fast motorcycle)
What do you love most about California?
California is my home. I love the people, the culture, and how beautiful it is here.