The kitchen doors fling open inside the swank new Sicilian restaurant at Cooper and Young.
Out walks Strano's owner and head chef, Josh Steiner, some two-day stubble failing to camouflage that Steiner celebrated his 23rd birthday on May 30th in conjunction with the restaurant's grand opening.
The third of four siblings, Steiner spent his childhood in the kitchen with his Moroccan and Italian grandmothers. Soon he was working at Russo's, the family's Italian restaurant in Germantown, collecting kitchen equipment for his birthdays, working with Karen Carrier at Beauty Shop, and taking a three-week culinary crash course in Sicily.
Sourcing ingredients from his family's nearby 100-acre farm and using FedEx to overnight his fish — a nod to the 11-hour expiration rule of his Italian mentors — Steiner takes a traditional approach, avoiding heavy sauces and focusing on foods like vegetable couscous and stuffed eggplant.
The twist is in the presentation, like the column of white oak wood smoke that emerges from the glass chamber on top of the grilled swordfish ($26).
- justin fox burks
- Josh Steiner
Steiner also uses an anti-griddle, he explains, while dashing back to the kitchen and emerging with a blob of caramel on the end of a toothpick that morphs into a dab of rich sauce in seconds. The anti-griddle flash-freezes salad dressing, which then melts in front of customers, or honey, which becomes marble hard before dissolving.
He adds caviar to drinks at the bar, which changes the flavor midway through, and injects strawberries and grapes with carbonation, using them instead of soda water in sangria.
"You can't create recipes. Every recipe has already been done. So the only way to do it is how you present it. I feel like people eat with their eyes, their ears, their nose, not just their mouth, and so I play with senses, I play with textures. I even play with time," Steiner says.
But it's not all flash and new-age. "Grandma's Meatballs" ($8) come from an old family recipe.
"My great grandmother sautéed them for just a split second, just to change the color on the outside. I'm talking so they're still as rare as can be in the middle," Steiner says. "And then she let them sit inside her marinara sauce for 24 hours while it's on a low simmer. And that's how you get them so moist and falling apart."
Sabine Bachmann anguished over the name of her new Overton Park restaurant, heavy on Italian and Mediterranean influences, before settling on Ecco on Overton Park.
"Ecco is an Italian word. It means 'here it is.' I thought it was appropriate," Bachmann says.
Lounging on the back patio during a recent Sunday, snacking on hot wings and sipping a cold drink, Bachmann pointed out a small plot of grass that one day will produce tomatoes and herbs for the restaurant. She spent her childhood in Germany, Italy's dairy country, and France, where the family vacationed frequently; her dad made his own wine, and her neighbors were goat herders.
Her upbringing heavily influenced the atmosphere and menu for the restaurant.
"To me, food is not only about nourishment, but about people getting together around the same table and enjoying their time together," Bachmann says. "I like the concept of how they cook over there, which is to use really good ingredients and don't mess with them a lot."
Armando Gagliano, her 25-year-old son, is the head chef and created most of the menu after dropping out of nursing school recently to pursue cooking. According to Gagliano, the orange-glazed Berkshire pork chop ($19) has emerged as a customer favorite.
Served with white wine risotto and an apple-onion chutney, he uses a spiced orange tea brine and cooks the meat sous vide to retain moisture.
Other menu items are the linguini with kale pesto featuring Tuscan kale and pesto Genovese ($10); chicken legs with marinated lemons and olives ($16); and a vegetarian lentil stew with tomatoes, potatoes, onion, garlic, and tofu ($10).
"People should live to eat instead of eating to live," Gagliano says. "That's kind of a stupid little cliché that chefs say."
Maybe so, but as the breeze wafted through the patio, the Ecco staff conversing over an unhurried meal, it seemed fitting.
Here it is indeed.