If you asked them both, chef Ken Vedrinski and author John Mariani would agree that Italian food is the best cuisine in the entire world. And they aim to prove it to you at a four-course dinner at Trattoria Lucca on Wednesday night. Before his official weekend appearance at the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Mariani will sign copies of his book —How Italian Food Conquered the World — at Vedrinski's trattoria, holding court as Lucca's chef sends out course after course of the world's best food.
Mariani and Vedrinski aren't strangers. Before his first restaurant, Sienna, was ranked by Mariani as one of Esquire's "Top New Restaurants in America" in 2004, Vedrinski wowed the critic at the Woodlands Dining Room in Summerville where he was executive chef. Mariani visited the five-star dining room for an official review.
"It was my first experience with a nationally acclaimed food critic," says Vedrinksi about the meeting. And, of course, he wanted to impress.
So during the dinner, Vedrinski served carpaccio and, for special effect, plated it on an Annieglass dish. It seemed like a good idea at the time, as do many decisions, but the carpaccio ended up getting stuck in the handcrafted glass' artful dimples.
"I was trying to be too cutesy," says Vedrinski. "Mariani said it was 'function over taste.'"
Needless to say, the Woodlands didn't make it onto that year's list, but Vedrinski did gain a mention as one of Mariani's chefs to keep your eyes on. A few years later, Vedrinski ran into the critic again at an event for Mariani's Italian American Cookbook at the Cloisters at Sea Island in Georgia. Mariani remembered Vedrinski and promised to review his new restaurant when it opened. In the book, he inscribed: "A promise is a promise. See you soon."
Fast forward to the opening of Sienna, and Vedrinski had his people get in touch with Mariani. After all, a promise is a promise. Mariani said Sienna was the last restaurant he was reviewing, "so it better be good."
At Sienna, Vedrinski had left the Woodlands world of fine dining haute cuisine and embraced his Italian roots, preparing the food he watched his grandmother make.
Vedrinski says he can still taste the beautiful, simple style of his grandmother's cooking — the blue crab red sauce that she made just to make people happy more than 20 years ago.
Mariani has similar memories. "[Italian food] takes me back to growing up in the Bronx," Mariani says. "It's comfort food. It's flavor that pretty much everyone responds to. It's an easy food to like. And it's an easy food to fall in love with. Besides the swooning and how delicious it is, you enter the Italian food culture and family."
And it's that Italian family food culture that Vedrinski tries to instill in Trattoria Lucca, which he opened in 2009 after leaving Daniel Island and Sienna behind.
"I cook ethnic food in the middle of the 'hood in the heart of the South," says Vedrinski.
But beyond the ingredients, the imported Spadoni flour, the buffalo milk butter, and the five different types of olive oil he uses, Vedrinski says he's able to keep Lucca a true trattoria "by keeping his ass in his restaurant." In Italy, that's how they're run. Every night, customers see the owner in the kitchen, cooking.
For Wednesday's dinner, Vedrinski will interpret four recipes from How Italian Food Conquered the World. The menu has yet to be fully decided, but Vedrinski knows for sure he will be preparing foie gras-stuffed shell alla caruso, a rendition of spaghetti alla caruso. He'll also be making a version of Mariani's Bistecca Alla Fiorentina with the deckle of a rib-eye, sweet and sour red peppers, arugula, cippolini onions, Sicilian sea salt, and vintage Tuscan olive oil. Mariani expects the four courses to be a surprise.
"No dish will ever taste the same between chefs," says Mariani.
In his book, Mariani writes about dishes like sage-perfumed rabbit with polenta, restaurants like Harry's Cipriani Bar, and the story behind the first fettuccine alfredo. Yet, as dense as the book is with history, Mariani says it took him only three and a half months to write.
"In my 35 years of writing and eating around, I've compiled notes and notes," says Mariani. "A lot of it came from past material."
His journal entries go as far back as 1977, helping him remember where he ate in Charleston way back when he took a honeymoon road trip across the U.S.
Mariani wrote that Charleston was "the biggest surprise thus far." He ate at the Gourmetisserie, the Wine Cellar in the Colony House, and Henry's.
Yet, Mariani says, "If there's one thing I've learned from the process of writing this book, it's that Italian food is in constant evolution." And how a chef chooses to interpret classic recipes, as Vedrinski will on March 2, contributes to that evolution.
Mariani wants people to come to the dinner with questions. He wants people to pick his brain. It's an amazing opportunity to spend time with a man who has his finger on the pulse of the food industry. Buy the new book, and Mariani promises, like he did years ago with Vedrinski, to sign it with a personalized inscription.