Locanda Vini e Olii first began serving authentic Tuscan food in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, in 2001. The classic Italian eatery opened inside the former Lewis drugstore, a neighborhood pharmacy with 103 years of history in the neighborhood. The restaurant kept the vintage signage intact and restored the original wood-lined interior, creating a nostalgic yet comfortable atmosphere. It’s the perfect setting for the rustic, traditional dishes prepared by executive chef Michele Baldacci, a Florentine with a talent for making diners feel at home. After a chance meeting with Baldacci, the Gessato team knew his was a story to share. Here’s our interview with Baldacci on his food philosophy, personal favorites, and upcoming Spring Dinner.
Gessato: Growing up in Florence, you would eat both lunch and dinner with your entire family everyday. What does a family meal mean to you?
Michele Baldacci: I made the decision to [become] a chef during a family Sunday lunch. For my family, meals have always represented the occasion to talk and advise each other. Dinner was the most important of the meals. Two unspoken rules: turn off the television and everyone sits down together. The preparation itself of Sunday lunch was also a ritual. It would start on Friday with the decision of what to eat. Saturday was for shopping at my mom’s local grocer and butcher. Sunday morning was for the preparation of the fresh pasta. My dad would go to buy the bread and dessert. My brother Claudio and I would sleep late and emerge from our rooms and sit directly down to lunch (really breakfast for us). For a typical meal, we’d start with a glass of white wine with pecorino cheese and fried artichokes, then a glass of red with Tagliatelle al ragù, followed by roasted rabbit with potatoes and salad and then a seasonal dessert. It was pure joy.
G: Over the course of your career to date, you have worked at both fine dining establishments and casual restaurants. Yet, rather than making your meals more complex or experimental, you’ve kept Locanda Vini e Olii’s menu traditional over the years. For you, what makes a simple dish more special than a complex one?
MB: As a chef, the food that you present to the public is the expression of who you are. The menu at Locanda is the representation of my heritage, of my family. There are no tricks and no short-cuts in the way the food is prepared. There are pots, pans, and (non-convection) ovens. So, yes, it is simple food, but made from solid bases and hundreds of years of knowledge.
G: If you could serve just one dish at Locanda Vini e Olii, what would it be?
MB: Ribollita. Although it is vegetarian and Tuscans are meat eaters, I think it is the dish that interprets our ingredients at their best. The Tuscan kale is the essence of the soup. The consistency of Tuscan bread absorbs enough water to be moist but not mushy. The cannellini beans give the creaminess. The extra virgin olive oil enhances the flavors.
G: When people dine at your restaurant, they can opt to try the house’s Riserva “Locanda Olio,” which comes from the hillside nearby your family’s home in Italy. What’s the story behind this olive oil?
MB: Back home, we use extra virgin olive oil for everything. We even use it to oil the door hinges! We are obsessed with olive oil, our olive oil. Nothing else is acceptable. My family has an olive grove and every year we produce enough for our family and friends. The press where we bring the olives makes an excellent oil, so, last year, I decided to package and import some of it to use and sell at Locanda. I am really proud of this product from my home and happy to be able to offer it to our Locanda customers. I truly hope the public learns to appreciate a fine-quality olive oil. People are willing to spend $80 or more on a nice bottle of wine that lasts just one dinner, and for only $20 one can purchase a lovely olive oil that will last a month and is much more precious and rare.
G: Seeing as you host a wine tasting dinner at the restaurant every season, will there be a spring event coming up soon?
MB: Locanda organizes a wine dinner every season. We invite a wine producer to join us and we feature their wines. It’s a five-course meal, and every course is paired with a different wine. It is a special occasion for the customers and for me, too, because I can cross the boundaries of my region, Tuscany and have fun with typical recipes from all over Italy.
Our most recent dinner was in January with the amazing wines of Enzo Boglietti. Our Spring Dinner will be sometime at the end of April—check back in for the precise date and details!