To quote a certain Austrian nanny (since Austria does share a border with Italy), let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start. My profession as a chef and restaurateur of an Italian Trattoria did not naturally evolve from a lifetime obsession with Italian food, or from deep Italian family roots. It came from a suggestion by my seventeen-year-old son. Initially I had planned to open a satellite restaurant of Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox, a gourmet burger joint run by my friend Brian Cartenuto. We had both just won episodes of different Food Network shows and thought it might be fun to parlay our winnings and the resulting media attention into a couple of new Tucker Duke locations. While I was looking around for locations in Jackson, I got a call from a developer friend who informed me that the owner of the Congress Street Bar and Grill was looking to get out of the business. That night, I drove downtown with my son Whit and we stood on the sidewalk peering through the blinds at the restaurant space, which was only open during the day.
Let’s start at the beginning
“Umm, dad.” He said with his nose on the glass and his hands cupped around his eyes. “It really doesn’t look like a burger joint.”
“No.” I agreed. “It really doesn’t. What does it look like to you?”
His reply was quick (and correct). “It looks like an Italian restaurant.”
When the words hit my ears, the gears engaged and I started thinking about all of the fantastic Italian restaurants I’ve enjoyed over the years. Red sauce shops with checkered tablecloths and wax covered fiascos standing as makeshift candelabras…cavernous Milanese gasto-palaces patrolled by waiters in starched white jackets and sommeliers with tastevins…sleek modern restaurants…rustic osterias…bustling trattorias…so many of my favorites. When I got back home I immediately pulled all the Italian cookbooks off the shelf and surrounded myself with them, spread out like a picnic blanket with so much to devour in so little time.
I negotiated the deal with the restaurant owner and over the next couple of weeks I wrote my business plan, recruited Jesse Houston to help me flesh out some dishes, raised the necessary capital and took possession of the space on October 1st. Thirty seven days later, on November eighth, we opened the doors of La Finestra. My learning of this incredibly diverse cuisine started as a crash course and continues at that pace to this day. Every time I start researching a recipe, I find three more that completely surprise me. It’s a labor of joy.
We’ve been lucky. With the help of some very talented people, we have brought regional Italian cooking to Jackson in a way that hasn’t been done before and our love and passion for we we do is evident in our dishes.
Like an eager schoolboy, I want to share what I learn with you. Dine with me. Learn beside me. Teach me and inspire me. I’ll do my best to return the favor.