This was a very good year for Chef Vincenzo Betulia, who scored a double whammy when he was honored with two 2015 Naples Illustrated Dining Awards: one for Best Restaurant and the other for Best New Chef. Born in Sicily, Betulia grew up in Wisconsin (which might account for his stellar house-made sausages) before settling in Naples, Florida where he opened Osteria Tulia in January 2013. He quickly followed the eatery up the next year by opening Bar Tulia right next door.
During a recent visit, we sipped the Silent Assassin craft cocktail while taking in the chic, old-world farmhouse atmosphere, before digging into our dinner. What Chef Betulia can do with pasta and fresh truffles is sheer magic and don’t even get us started on his crispy pig ears with fennel-chili salt and lime. We could have easily polished off an entire bowl of eggplant caponata, which is served in place of butter as a topping for the fresh bread. Vincenzo later revealed that his unique touch is a loving, daily reminder of his grandmother, who used to pack it in margarine tubs for his lunch box.
Needing to know more, we sat down with Chef Vincenzo and got to hear about his background, his deep appreciation of local ingredients and were privy to some of his guilty pleasures.
JustLuxe: Who inspired you to become a chef?
Vincenzo Betulia: When my parents decided to immigrate to America, my grandmother (widowed) lived with us and she did most of the cooking in the house while my mother and father worked in factories. In hindsight, she was the major inspiration. I never ate pre-made foods. Everything was fresh and handmade. After working professionally with Paul Bartolotta (Spiaggia Chicago/Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare Las Vegas), that was the launching pad for me.
JL: Do you have a living culinary idol?
VB: It really is more inspiration than idol, since there are many that I look up to: Daniel Boulud on his quest for perfection and passion for food and service. Eric Ripert, whose keen attention, particularly at Le Bernadain, makes it one of the best restaurants on the planet. Mario Batali for bringing the “limelight” to Italian cuisine in America. Danny Meyers as a restaurateur for creating amazing food and service experiences while winning over the client. Paul Bartolotta for opening up my eyes to this culinary world. And the young, chef-driven restaurateur Michael White, my friend and colleague, who has great restaurants all over the world, yet still keeps it all together. They continually inspire me to want to be great, passionate and stay competitive.
JL: How would you describe your restaurant?
VB: We are a regional Italian restaurant featuring simple, true and honest Italian cuisine made with locally-grown ingredients. The restaurant is designed in a rustic farmhouse setting featuring 100-year-old Dade County heart pinewood and reclaimed Chicago brick. The goal was to transport the diner to countryside Italy, France, or even childhood memories of their life if they were raised on, or near, farming communities.
JL: What is the must-ordered menu item?
VB: Our signatures are tortelloni with braised beef short ribs, foie gras emulsion, Marsala glaze and Parmigiano; crisp fried pig ears with fennel-chili salt; burrata with locally-grown heirloom tomatoes; braised heritage pork shank with caramelized Brussels sprouts; garganelli with lamb neck sugo; and rotisserie roasted chicken with broccolini, garlic and anchovies.
JL: What is your proudest culinary moment?
VB: Opening my own restaurant and being able to please people through my food.
JL: What new ingredient or cooking trend has you totally jazzed?
VB: What “jazzes” me is passionately-grown, local ingredients. When farmers are so proud to sell me their bounty, I’m proud to have a relationship with the farmer. I can then educate my guests on what Florida soil has to offer by featuring their produce on my menu.
JL: Your “don't-tell-anyone” junk food addiction?
VB: Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and Lucky Charms!
JL: Favorite culinary journey?
VB: Eating through Italy. Experiencing the many styles and influences of the various regions, from the Germanic and French influences in the north, to the North African and Arabic influence in the south and the expression of soul in central Italy. Amazing!
JL: What would you choose for your “Death Row” meal?
VB: Crusty bread, Finocchiona Salami, olives, hard cheese and a glass of wine.
JL: What is something most people don’t know about you?
VB: I’m a die-hard Inter Milan soccer fan. Also, most people don’t know about my tattoo sleeve on my right arm, since it’s hidden under my chef coat most of the time.