Sunday, February 13, 2011

Firenze Osteria - Cooking with Fabio

Ever since Firenze Osteria provided 'emergency' post-work reprieve a little while ago, I've fallen in love with the place and see it as a go-to for solid, reliably hearty Italian fare.  When a friend alerted us that Chef Fabio Viviani was holding cooking classes - which came with a 2-course lunch - "Miss Sassy" and I thought it would be a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon and signed up immediately. (Cooking classes are available at both Cafe Firenze in Moorpark, and Firenze Osteria - we chose the latter location as it was closer to us.)

As anyone who's seen Fabio on Top Chef knows - the guy is fun, likable, and full of hilarious soundbites.  He is not about haute cuisine, and very clearly states this - he learned to cook from his grandmother, who passed on 400 year old recipes, and is passionate about simple, traditional Italian cuisine.

So, making elaborate works of edible art is clearly not what this class is about (as Fabio says (I'm roughly transcribing from memory here) "...with all the molecular cuisine's like, what do I do with this?  I don't want to sniff a line of steak flavored powder, I want to enjoy my steak with knife and fork...and these people are amazing, they are geniuses, but most of the time you leave these places, with the amazing food for six hundred dollars, you are still hungry and you go to the local pizza place afterwards").  This class was for people who just want to learn, in a few hours, to make a nice plate of pasta at home without having to go through CIA (Culinary Institute of America) training.

So the two-hour class is in Firenze Osteria's main dining room (with tables rearranged to seminar style aisles), with Fabio doing his demo from the open kitchen. 

The class comes with a 2-course lunch and standard beverages like iced tea.  However, drinks from the regular bar menu are still available - you just have to pay for it separately.  And of course Miss Sassy and I could not be in Firenze Osteria and not have a Balsamic Martini ($9.50) made with muddled strawberries, fresh limes, vanilla rum and balsamic vinaigrette.

With drinks at the ready to kick off the class, we dove in to learn how to make fettuccini and gnocchi from scratch.

Fabio's approach to the class is casual and entertaining - he makes it clear that this is a class for anyone who wants to make great fresh pasta at home, not for aspiring professional chefs.  Accordingly, he's got his food processor, Kitchen Aid mixer, and manual pasta roller out on the counter - mimicking what the average person would have access to at home.  He breaks down the process for making fresh fettuccine to just a few simple ingredients, 4 cups flour, 4 eggs, 1 tblsp olive oil, pinch of salt, pepper - and a few steps - measure, put in mixer, roll through pasta machine (on biggest # setting, until sheet is thin enough to see your hand through), cut into strips! - so that anyone can do it.

That Fabio learned to cook from his grandmother seems to have influenced his approach to recipes - it's not about precision, but intuition. You have to adjust how much olive oil you put in, for example, depending on how dry your dough is.  This is the way my own grandmother passed on her recipes as well - there's never an exact measurement like I wanted - a 'splash' of this, a 'bit' of that, vs. an exact formula, 2 tsps, 1 1/4 tbsps etc.  But for this class, Fabio estimated for the benefit of those who need the specific directions.  I do get that being able to adjust to the ingredients in front of you and how they are coming together, maybe why our grandmother's dishes always turned out so well - they weren't stuck to a preconceived notion of how the dish should be done!  So back to Fabio - he showed us how to be able to tell when your dough is at the right consistency ("basically when your food processor is about to jam and makes funny noises like it's going to explode all over the place...then you know it's time to take it [the dough] out"), and a really helpful step in the class - handing out sample balls of dough so we can see and feel for ourselves.
After demonstrating how to make the dough, roll it into sheets and finally cut it into strips of fettuccine, we got to taste it in the form of the first course of our lunch, Fettuccine Bolognese.

 So simple, but so fresh tasting and delicious!

The second demo was for gnocchi, and Fabio again made it seem so simple that I am inspired to try it the next free weekend that I have (I'm usually too busy to cook, and the things I want to make require a million ingredients which discourages me so I end up eating out a lot! But Fabio made this seem so fast and easy that I'm tempted to try it...).

Basically, you bake some potatoes skin-on at 350 degrees until soft, cool, scoop out and grind/ mill them to produce about 4 cups (don't mash, grind until they are a fine mealy texture), rest them overnight in the fridge uncovered, then blend in food processor with pinch of salt & pepper, and 6 tblspoons flour.
Mix quickly, then add 1 egg at a time until mixture starts to look like dough - and add a pinch of nutmeg.  Then take a handful and knead (dough should not be so sticky that it clings to your hand - if too sticky, add more flour) - this is to ensure moisture reaches all parts of the dough.  Cut the ball into quarters, then roll into sausage shape - sprinkle some flour on top, roll then cut into small bite-sized pieces.  Put only 1-2 servings into boiling water, don't stir - until the first piece of gnocchi floats, stir quickly, then take all pieces out of the water when the 2nd one floats.

And of course we got to taste the fresh gnocchi as our second course - again delicious, little pillows of fab-ulousness!

My only note on the class would be that I wish it would include how to make at least one sauce as well - it's great to learn how to make pasta fresh, but that is only half the battle when making dinner.  And arguably, that's where skill/technique/ insights are needed to create memorable flavors that dinner guests can buzz about.
At the close of the class, Fabio hopped onto the counter to take questions, including of course those about behind the scenes of Top Chef!  Who would he be friends with, Stefan or Blaise?  Blaise to open a restaurant with, and Stefan to go to a birthday party with!

Would he host another class soon?   And just like that, on request, two more classes were added to the schedule - 2/20 and 3/20, to learn how to make four kinds of risotto. 

After the Q&A, Fabio greeted his guests on their way out and stopped to pose for the inevitable line of people asking for photos.  This was the weekend before the fateful episode of Top Chef All-Stars aired - but with Fabio's big personality and heart, we know that this is not the last we'll hear of him, not by a long shot.  Judging by the fully packed room at the class, and the constant flow of guests through the restaurant on any given night, the community will be there to support and rally for Fabio, just as it is his stated mission to service the community

All in all, a fun afternoon activity in Studio City.  Advanced chefs may not get out of this 'class' what absolutely beginners would, but again, it's a fun and engaging time, and your fee covers lunch.  If you live in the Valley like I do - what else is on in the neighborhood, on the weekends (besides Studio City Farmer's Market)?

Valet is 'only' $4.50, but there are also plenty of open meters on Lankershim (free on Sundays!), and free street parking on Valley Spring Lane.

Update 2/20/11 - Risotto Class:

"Lindyhopper" had wanted to attend the last class - but since it was already full, I signed Lindyhopper and myself up for the Risotto class at the end of the last one to ensure we could get in.

On another sunny Sunday, we headed to Firenze Osteria for the Risotto class to learn how to make Risotto three ways.  This class was as much fun as the last, with Fabio cracking lots of great one-liners, sharing moving personal stories about his childhood in Italy, and offering great pnemonics for specific steps in the risotto making process.

Not going to recount step by step here (check out their Risotto class offered next week - 2/27!) but Fabio started with tips on the three main types of rice that you can buy to make risotto:

1) Vialone Nano
2) Carnaroli
3) Arborio

Arborio is the best for everyday use, as it's hard to burn this type of grain.
Fabio showed us how to cook risotto three ways, starting with "Basic" - noting that you never need to rinse the rice grains before cooking.  Basic risotto is simply made with extra virgin olive oil, butter, handful of finely chopped onions, chicken stock and parmesan. 

With risotto, you always have to keep the rice hydrated during the cooking process.  Risotto Fabio's way is 'never made with water' - always use soup stock - he uses chicken stock.  A great pnemonic Fabio offered for how much broth to use is to think of where the ocean meets the beach - 'shoreline' level is really the amount of liquids you should have 'barely covering' the rice.  We of course got to taste each type of risotto after learning how to make it!

Risotto the second way is labelled "1 Pot Wonder" - again Fabio breaks it down so that it's very simple and easy for folks to do any of these dishes at home (considering one guest actually asked how to grate parmesan cheese...). 

The 1 Pot Wonder is slightly more complex than basic, involving mushrooms and sausage (broken out of casing).

As with the last class, Fabio liked to engage his audience, and came around the aisles with his pan of risotto to show us how it should look at critical stages of cooking.

He share that the basic key to risotto is olive oil and butter at the start, parmesan at the end (unless you're making seafood risotto - as Fabio quips: "adding parmesan to seafood is like putting on makeup, then pulling on a helmet".   Why ruin a good thing by covering it up?  You want to be able to taste the ocean in the seafood!)

Risotto the third and last way is "2 Pot Wonder" - involving carrots, zucchini and eggplant.  You use two pots for this one as the veggies need to be cooked separate from the rice in order to avoid overdoing the vegetables (so that they can retain structure and some crunch).

Fabio had a team recording this session, which he said would be posted on his website soon!

All in all, another fun Sunday afternoon activity, again another sold out class.  And this time we got a three-course lunch of great, creamy risottos three ways for the same price as the two-course pasta class. 

It was great to hear that Fabio will be offering a sauce class next afterall, on March 27th, those interested should sign up soon before it fills up!

Deal alert: Firenze Osteria had also extended their dineLA offer until 2/28 - with a different three-course menu that includes three choices in each course.  The ones that caught my attention were: Gorgonzola filled dates wrapped with smoked bacon, Braised Short Rib Ravioli, Petite Osso Bucco, Truffled potato puree, and Nutella Bread pudding - yum!  All for $33 per person, dinner only. See details at Fabio's blog here


Cooking with Fabio
$40 per person / $70 per couple
Upcoming classes:  Risotto Mar 20th 12-2pm, Sauces Mar 27th 11a-1pm
Check Fabio's blog for most up to date info

Firenze Osteria
4212 Lankershim Blvd, Toluca Lake, CA 91602
Ph: 818.760.7081

OpenTable:  Look for reservations


  1. how fun! i was just reading up the other day on how to make fresh gnocchi! yum!

    you might be horrified by this... but my favorite secret sauce recipe is... a tin of TJ's fire roasted tomatoes with green chiles and about 2/3 a tin of TJ's artichoke hearts, plus a dash of really nice extra virgin olive oil. i slice the artichokes in half and pull them apart a bit. i usually add some fresh mozzarella to the pasta too once it's all hot and saucy!

  2. Yeah making gnocchi fresh makes a world of difference! I don't know if I can ever go back to packaged gnocchi or Buitoni...

    Haha your secret sauce actually sounds like the perfect quick fix week-night meal! Will have to try that some time. The green chiles sounds like an interesting addition for some heat in your pasta...



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