Courtesy of Il Palio
Chef Teddy Diggs and his talented team of chefs brought a rich array of olive-oil-inspired Italian cuisine to New York City’s famed James Beard House. Named one of “16 Chefs to Watch in 2016” by Restaurant Hospitality magazine, Diggs helms the Il Palio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This is the state’s only AAA-rated Four Diamond Italian restaurant.
“A part of what I enjoy about regional Italian cooking is the exploration of not only the ingredients of each region and how they’re treated separately from one region to the next, but more understanding the history of why things are certain ways,” Diggs explained. “It really explores both the food culture and historical culture.”
Diggs takes an annual pilgrimage to Italy to explore the wide variety of olive oil regions and strives to highlight each of the 20 regions’ bold flavors in his fare. With a focus on rustic Italian cuisine, the night’s five-course dinner celebrated the top five extra-virgin olive oil regions of Italy. The menu was essentially a culinary tour of Italy through the lens of extra-virgin olive oil, with each course featuring a unique variety of this ingredient.
“The exciting part is we’re taking the best of the top five olive oil producing regions and incorporating it [in each course] in a way that is reflective of the cooking style of that region as well,” Diggs said. “So the dishes may be typical of that region or taste as if they came from that region.”
The night started off with hors d’oeuvres of tender octopus spiedini skewered with rosemary; a salted, crispy-edged carciofini (artichoke) fritti with an anchovy mayonnaise; and arancini di baccala with caper salt.
The first course featured a Letizia extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily. The vibrant, colorful dish was a bay scallop crudo with blood oranges, fennel, and bottarga, decorated with edible flowers and paired with a Tasca d'Almerita Grillo 2015.
Next up was an incredibly flavorful and rich hay-smoked and olive-oil-crushed potatoes topped with Calvisius sturgeon caviar and whipped crème fraîche. Featuring the Ranise extra-virgin olive oil from Liguria, this dish had a perfect balance of smoky, creamy flavors that were further elevated thanks to the caviar. This was paired with a La Valle Primum Franciacorta Brut NV.
The third course featured a Clemente extra-virgin olive oil from Puglia. The dish, grano arso flour orecchiette with smoked lamb sausage, hot peppers, dandelion greens, and smoked garlic, had an amazing crunchy garlic topping which added texture to the dense bites of orecchiette. The smoked sausage was indulgent and balanced out the spice of the peppers. It was paired with a Leone de Castris Maiana Salice Salentino Rosso 2014.
The main course was a tender dry-aged beef strip loin with cicerchia purée and shaved black Umbrian truffles. The meat was cooked just right and seasoned expertly. The dish featured a Villella extra-virgin olive oil from Umbria and was paired with a Falesco RC2 Sagrantino di Montefalco 2010.
The dessert course was a delightful burst of savory and sweet olive oil flavors. Featuring a Frantoio Franci extra-virgin olive oil from Tuscany, the dessert was an extra-virgin olive oil semifreddo with pecorino romano-black pepper sponge, amarena cherries, and olive oil curd. Creamy, decadent, and yet not over-the-top sweet, I could have eaten at least another two servings. It was paired with a Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico 2012.
An extra special treat that must be mentioned was Diggs’ dense and moist focaccia bread that incorporated at least two (yes, two) quarts of olive oil in each loaf.