Meet the Chef: Alida Solomon

Follow Chef Alida Solomon of Tutti Matti as she recreates a classic Tuscan treat: Schiacciata with fennel seed and grapes.

Mark Cirillo, writer and editor of CucinaTO, talks to Toronto Chef Alida Solomon about her Tuscan-inspired restaurant Tutti Matti and the importance of using authentic Italian ingredients.



Now in its fifteenth year, Chef Alida Solomon’s celebrated restaurant Tutti Matti is the realization of her dream of bringing authentic Italian cuisine to Toronto.

 In 2009 Tutti Matti won the “Leccio D’Oro” for Osteria of the Year (an award previously won by Mario Batali and Alain Ducasse) by serving food and wine that honours the spirit and culture of Tuscany.

 (Keep reading for her exclusive recipe for Schiacciata!)

What made you decide to live in Italy early in your career as a chef?

I was lucky enough to travel to Italy when I was very young and I fell in love with Tuscany. It just felt like home. I love the way things stay the same there—whether it’s the food, the art or the people. When I went back as a young chef, they welcomed me with open arms. Everyone I met wanted to show me something or teach me something.

When you go to a restaurant there, they serve authentic local food. That’s the thing that makes it so different than here and it fascinated me. I realized that the best place to learn about Italian food was going to be in Italy. So I moved there with a duffle bag thinking I’d stay six months. I ended up staying six and a half years because I was learning so much. And I still go back as often as I can.

How did your time in Italy affect your approach to cooking?

Tuscany made me the chef I am today. It taught me that you can’t make a dish if you don’t really understand the ingredients. I never give someone a recipe without talking to them about the ingredients and why we’re using them—what’s in season, why it’s only grown in certain areas.

We cook wild boar in wild boar season, we eat porcini mushrooms in porcini mushroom season, and we don’t have any fruit in the winter but pears, apples and persimmons because that’s all that’s really available at that time.

What was your vision when you opened Tutti Matti?

It was always going to be 100 percent Tuscan: we were going to do venison, pheasant, wild boar. It was 14 years ago and we were one of the first restaurants in the city to do charcuterie boards. In Tuscany when you sit down for lunch there’s always a little cheese, a little giardiniera, and some cold cuts. That’s how you start your lunch.

The Tuscan philosophy of food is that it is slow and seasonal. When you cook things that are in season, slowly, you’ll never go wrong.

And also that less is more: if you’re cooking a porcini mushroom, why would you add anything other than nepitella, an herb they’ve been using for thousands of years. Because that’s all you need!

What are some essential Italian ingredients you use in your kitchen?

We use a lot of farro—the grain as it is. We also grind it down to make a polenta, which we serve with venison. It’s delicious! Italian semolina is in almost everything we do. And we always use Italian sea salt. I add some herbs like rosemary, sage, lavender and a bit of chili to it. It smells like Tuscany to me.

We do our own butchering and make our own guanciale in-house, but all my cheeses and meats are from Italy. That’s another thing I learned in Italy—knowing what you’re supposed to do and what’s best to leave to those who do it better. Massimo Bottura [the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena, Italy] doesn’t make his own Parmigiano. He doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are people who have been doing it for a thousand years.


Schiacciata (Tuscan Flat Bread)

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 1 cup (200 ml) Warm milk
  • 1 cup (200 ml) Warm water
  • 2 tsp (10 g) Dry active yeast
  • 2 tbsp (40 ml) Honey
  • 4 cups (500 g) Organic white flour
  • ¾ oz (100 ml) Italian extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 g (2 tbsp) Toasted fennel seed
  • 1.1 lb (500g) Concord grapes
  • 1 cup (80 g) Organic sugar

Preparation

  1. Pre heat oven to 450°F (230°C)
  2. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with honey and let it proof for 10 – 20 min in a warm space
  3. Place the flour in a circle on a flat work surface and create a “well” in the center of the flour. Add the proofed liquid into the middle of the well kneading until dough is smooth.
  4. Place the dough in an olive oiled bowl, cover and then proof it until it doubles in size.
  5. Roll out dough and then proof on a baking sheet until it doubles in height.
  6. Use your fingers to create deep pockets in the dough then place grapes, fennel seed and sugar evenly all over.
  7. Bake until golden brown.
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