Bar Bambino made some news in late 2010 for, ostensibly, moving away from their Italian focus and toward something more Germanic. The aim was to explore the root cuisines of Italian food, particularly in the northeast part of the country that borders Austria and Slovenia, but the change really represents a refocusing on two regions of Italy that are largely unfamiliar in the American restaurant scene: the Italy of the Hapsburg Empire, specifically in Tyrol and Friuli, where you’re as likely to find pumpkin seed oil and spaetzle as you are gnocchi and chicken cacciatora.
The results are, at turns, astoundingly delicious and intriguing for anyone interested in regional Italian food — and Bar Bambino seems to be at the forefront of a trend of late, which is soon going to aim Bar Tartine in a similar Central European direction. Grub Street wanted to understand this food a little better, and we sat down with owner Christopher Losa and executive chef Lizzie Binder to learn more about how it all came about. Scroll down, also, for a slideshow of some of the new Tyrolean- and Friulian-influenced dishes on the menu.
How did you two first come to work together?
Christopher: We were both working for a catering company. I was doing wine list development for them and Lizzie was cooking. That’s how we met. There was a part of me when I first started the restaurant, frankly, that really wanted a woman’s touch in the kitchen. With the food that I wanted to do, I knew with the right person we could mind-meld and it was Lizzie’s pure professionalism that I was first attracted to. We spent a month together working out of my house, just cooking stuff and trying stuff out, and immediately I was like, ‘This is it, this is going to work.’
[to Lizzie] Is your background mostly in Italian food?
Lizzie: This is the first fully Italian food that I’ve done. I’ve done some traveling in Europe… I grew up in South Africa, and my first restaurant job was there. It was a great, great experience. Then I worked in London for a while at Clarke’s for Sally Clarke, who’s like the Alice Waters of England. She’s got a beautiful bakery that supplies pretty much all the top restaurants in London with beautiful, beautiful bread. When I came to the States I met Tracy [Des Jardins] at Jardinière, and I worked for her for a while, until my visa ran out. Then I had to leave and went to Australia for a while. I also worked for Loretta [Keller] before she closed Bisou, and went back to South Africa to get married. I married an American, so now I get to stay here. [laughs]
Tell us about the genesis of this menu change.
Christopher: The idea began to gestate when I took a trip in October 2008, which was the first vacation I’d had since the restaurant opened. I was based in Trieste for a month, and I went simply because I hadn’t spent a lot of in-depth time in Friuli. It was so fascinating to me. Wine production in an area just north of Trieste called Carso is sort of like the Loire in France. A lot of the wine producers in the area are natural and biodynamic. And I was fascinated with the distinction of the cuisine there as compared to the rest of Italy. When I came back from the trip, we played around a bit with Tyrolean and Friulian dishes, but I didn’t really start evolving the wine list and starting to change the menu until last year.
Lizzie: For me, it started with research. The whole thing started with following the Hapsburg Empire and the affects of that history. I started looking at all the countries along those borders, and with the food, there’s so much crossover! Everyone thinks it’s theirs, but dishes crop up on both sides of every border, just slightly tweaked. I started looking at the ingredients from all those regions, and I’d say what I’m doing here is more “inspired by” than purely traditional. You know, I take some ideas from here and a couple of ideas from there and try to marry them somehow.
What’s an example of a dish where you’re marrying some of these influences?
Lizzie: The lamb dish we presently have on the menu.
Christopher: I was going to say the cod.
Lizzie: Absolutely, with the pepper vinegar.
Christopher: The fish is Friulian, the dumplings are actually a recipe of my mother’s. My mother’s Slovak, and the dumpling is like an ill-formed gnocchi. And cabbage is everywhere in Central Europe.
Lizzie: We both like a lot of the same cookbooks, and we both stumbled across this fish dish we thought sounded good, with all this pepper and vinegar. It was braised for a really long time, which didn’t really work for us, but we started playing around with it. And we started playing around with different dumplings from the area, and Christopher one day said, “God, you know this dumpling reminds me of these things my mom used to make!’ And so she gave us the recipe for that. It’s a very simple potato- and semolina-based dough, and we just free-form it. It isn’t rolled out the way proper gnocchi would be.
Christopher: What I continually find fascinating is that as a dish is coming together you really do see the connections [between the regions’ cuisines]. Right now we’re doing a dish, it’s a goat cheese and onion dumpling. The Tyrolean name is topfenknodelen, but anywhere else in Italy, it would be called malfatti. It’s a malformed, large gnocchi, and in Tuscany or Rome, you’d call it malfatti. That goat cheese and onion component is very Austrian, very Germanic, and exists in Tyrol, but anywhere else in Italy you’d find something like this with just a different name.
Lizzie: We have it on our menu, topfenknodel, and we’re like ‘Should we really call it that?’ Because it’s a little tricky for people.
Christopher: And that’s the part of this that I really like being on the floor for, with this menu, because people are like, ‘This isn’t Italian food,’ and I’m like, ‘But it is!’ Pick up that dish and put it in Tuscany with some parmiggiano reggiano, and it’s malfatti. Lizzie has it paired with Lacinato kale, walnuts, and walnut oil, and you wouldn’t find that in Tuscany.
Can you point to one or two restaurant experiences in these regions that inspired you?
Christopher: Two. In Gorizia, which is kind of like a wine hub of the region, there’s a restaurant called Rosenbar, and another, Majda. If someone had been to Majda and then came here and said, ‘Oh your food reminds me of Majda,’ I would be so humbled. I had such an amazing meal there. Frankly, it’s very much what we’re doing. A mother and daughter run the kitchen. They’re of Slovenian descent, but are very committed to locally produced Friulian product. It’s the marriage of those two cuisines, those two cooking traditions, that comes out in that restaurant.
Are there other restaurants in this country doing anything similar?
Lizzie: Actually, it’s funny. I think a lot of people are sort of picking up on this Central/Eastern European theme at the moment, ‘cause you see a lot of the same ingredients around. It’s like, ‘Is everyone just copying everyone else’s menus?’ That’s a little disappointing in a way, though it’s fine if someone’s trying to do something that’s more unique and putting their own spin on it.
Christopher: It’s also flattering.
Lizzie: Short answer, not particularly. I’ve looked at a few New York restaurants and taken a couple of ideas from there. I haven’t seen a lot of this same regional cooking…
Christopher: Not in the country, but there’s a woman in London, Silvena Rowe, at the May Fair Hotel. She does an Ottoman Empire-infused Mediterranean cuisine. I was never aware of her restaurant, and then the New York Times wrote about it. It was great, because we were packaging up this concept and using the Hapsburg Empire as a reference point, and then we saw this, and you know the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs just killed each other for centuries, so… Anyway, it’s fascinating that she’s doing something similar, from a totally different angle.
What’s the most exciting discovery you’ve made, recipe- or food-wise, in this process?
Lizzie: That it doesn’t have to be so heavy. When we first started going through this process, it was summer, and I was looking through recipes and going, ‘My goodness, this is such heavy stuff.’ But I started looking at it from a lighter perspective, using more vinegars, and pickling things. Not having to go so dark and rich. Being able to make this food where it’s light and elegant and fresh, but still uses all those regional ingredients. That’s been the biggest discovery for me. Like my interpretation of borscht, which is kind of a mixture of different areas, I was trying to keep it less heavy. I use parsnip, and beets, and vinegars, and apple, and a little bacon.
Christopher: I would definitely toot Lizzie’s horn with that black cod dish. That was definitely her creation. Finding a fish that could stand up to the cabbage and the dumplings. Finding that lightness.
Is there a word for spaetzle in Italian?
Christopher: No. You see it in Tyrol and in Alto Adige, and that’s really the youngest region of Italy in that it wasn’t part of Italy until 1948. And there’s still a pretty strident separatist movement there.
What’s been the reaction? Has there been some confusion?
Christopher: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Like I said, we get a lot of, ‘This is Italian food?’ What I love is that people think the combinations of ingredients are wild and interesting and unique, but at the same time it’s warming and embracing food. It’s not foams or reverse osmosis stuff, it’s warm, comforting food. And so I think that’s really had a hand in the success of it. It’s dynamic and compelling and unique, but once you get it in your mouth, there’s a familiarity to it. It sort of follows a trend with American cooking… if you go back to the eighties and nineties when refined Italian food was coming to prominence, it was heavily Tuscan. And then there was a movement toward Rome and Emilia-Romagna. And when people say Northern Italian, that’s what they’re talking about, but they forget about Piemontese. And they’re definitely not talking about this food. Really, there is no ‘Italian food.’ There is food from Italy’s 21 regions, and even within those 21 regions, you have subsets. This menu is partly my attempt to dispel peoples’ notions of ‘Italian food.’
Are you going to keep evolving this menu, further out in the Hapsburg Empire?
Lizzie: Right now it’s around that mountainous, border region. That’s where I’m at in my head with it. And if you keep following the Hapsburg trail you can get pretty far out there. You have to contain yourself a little bit.
Christopher: That’s a discussion I have with Colin, our wine guy, all the time. One of the longest standing parts of the Hapsburg Empire was Spain, and we haven’t even touched on that yet. I never say never. Once there are twenty other restaurants doing this Tyrolean/Friulian food, maybe we’ll try to find the next thing to do. But to Lizzie’s point, there’s a wealth of avenues that we can go down and explore, and refine, while still staying on point.
Click the button below to see a few of the dishes mentioned. See the full menu on their website.
Bar Bambino - 2931 16th Street, between Mission and South Van Ness - 415.701.VINO (8466) - Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. Friday, noon to midnight Saturday, and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday.