Try the cuisine of the next great chef at CIA’s Caterina de Medici [classic article]

Hey, Baltimore…would you like to be able to eat the culinary creations of the next great chef before they make it big and in an ideal world, at “heard it here first” prices? We in Baltimore think nothing of heading up to New York for a great meal, so here’s a suggestion: head to Dutchess County, New York’s The Culinary Institute of America. The CIA, as it’s known, boasts alumni Anthony Bourdain, John Besh (whom I interviewed here), Michael Symon, Roy Yamaguchi – of Roy’s fame – as well as Cat Cora, Charlie Palmer, Grant Achatz and others. The school has restaurants open to the public, including a French fine dining restaurant, a restaurant celebrating American bounty – the CIA was the first institution to promote fine American cuisine – a café, a bakery and Caterina de Medici, an Italian restaurant that I was glad to be able to try! Caterina de Medici is a thought-provoking name for a restaurant, as she was the Italian aristocrat who brought advanced culinary techniques to France when she married the man who would become King Henri II.

The campus has stunning architecture of a classic Greek Revival style. The main building reminded me somewhat of a brick version of St. Mary’s Seminary. The restaurant is in a building made to resemble an Italian nobleman’s home. The streets on campus all have names like “Thyme”.

The restaurant is staffed front and back of the house by students on a two-week rotational basis. A chef-instructor creates the menu, which changes seasonally. Colavita Olive Oil sponsors Caterina de MediciA 14% gratuity is added to the check, because you don’t tip the servers directly. It’s an IRS thing. While reservations are not required, they’re highly recommended. You won’t be able to get in during Graduation Day and the CIA graduates a class every 3 weeks. Also, the restaurant is closed Sundays and during the month of July. Here is their dress code: business casual (collared shirt and dress or chino-style slacks) attire is preferred.

The restaurant serves both lunch and dinner. The menu at Caterina de Medici is a la carte, but you have the opportunity to have 4 courses plus dessert. The final course before dessert – like they do on the Continent – is the salad. I like it! It works as a digestif.

An amuse bouche was served: a crostini with ricotta cheese that had been steeped in rich olive oil. The texture was crispy and unctuous at the same time – waking up the mouth, just as a proper amuse bouche is supposed to do.

I first tried the Sformato di Zucca e Caprino Fresco ($9.00), pumpkin flan with fresh goat cheese. It was a pleasant surprise that it was served warm. It was savory, not sweet seasoned with non-pumpkin pie herbs.

Next, I sampled the Tonno di Coniglio ($10.00), rabbit salad with celery, oven roasted tomato and olives. It wasn’t a salad-salad per se – that comes at the end – but it was garnished with some greens. The rabbit was mild and tender, not always a given with rabbit. It’s also an unusual first course, showing the patron that they’re not just banging out predictable courses in back.

It takes a fine chef to make me interested in mackerel. I usually – as in always, always, always – ask that it be left off sushi omekases. One time when I was a kid, my dad brought home a can of mackerel instead of tuna. I hid the can until we sold the house a decade later. But I figured I was in good hands at the CIA. Good choice! They served Scombri “in Tortiera” ($9.00), baked mackerels with potato and aromatic bread crumbs. It was tender, not fishy, with an interesting tang. I’d order it again.

I have a red velvet covered book, The Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini de Vita. In it, the author describes how desperately poor most Italian city-states were for centuries. Only the aristocracy could afford traditional wheat flour pasta and rarely at that. Chestnut flour – encouraged around 1077 by Matilde di Canossa, consort to Pope Gregory VII – was utilized as a substitute. It’s now an authentic Italian flavor. I tried the Pappardelle di Castagne, Ricotta e Broccoletti ($16.00), chestnut pappardelle with ricotta cheese and broccoli. Chestnut flour makes for a much milder flavor than wheat pasta.

Another rustic item on the menu was Costoletta di Cinghiale e Crostone ai Porcini ($28.00), grilled boar chop, mushroom crouton and blueberry-apple compote. For my entrée, I ordered the Coda alla Vaccinara ($22.00), Roman style braised oxtail and broccoli Romanesco. This is a dish that the students had to come in hours early to prepare so perfectly, slow-slow-slow cooked. It was rich and meaty; I wish that I had been able to eat it at home, outside of polite company!

For the salad course, I tried Insalata Autunnale con Uva e Noci ($7.00), Autumn salad with grapes and walnuts and some of the Insalata di Barbabietole e Ruchetta ($7.00), beet salad, arugula and aged Ricotta cheese. At first glance, one might think these salads are familiar from other restaurants. Think again! They use the freshest veggies grown onsite. Also, there are little gourmet touches – like a hazelnut oil drizzle – that make all the difference in the world. The crunchy, bitter herbs are the perfect counterpoint to the rich meat of the entrée.

For dessert, I wanted something light, so I tried the trio of house-made sorbets. My favorite was the lemon, because it wasn’t “dumbed down” like others’ lemon desserts: it was tangy and not overly sweet. It was like biting into a fresh lemon.

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