“Ottimo,” means “excellence” in Italian. I snuck into the kitchen at Ottimo Café in Lakewood, NJ to learn the secrets behind the vibrant and exciting—and very excellent dairy fare (and I brought some recipes back for you).
“We didn’t have any upscale dairy restaurants in Lakewood. I had a vision of the type of place I wanted—something unique, that isn’t even found in Brooklyn, where fresh pastas and homemade pastries were served. I wanted it to be beautiful and modern, and I wanted to find a chef—someone young and ambitious—who shared that vision,” owner Akiva Reiner told me while we sat in the restaurant’s large party room.
“It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be—I interviewed a lot of chefs until I found Jason. I brought him to my house to cook for two weeks—and then I knew he was the right one for the Executive Chef position.”
A graduate of Johnson Wales Culinary School, one of the top two schools in the country, Chef Jason had never cooked kosher food before.
“How did you feel about not being able to cook meat?” I asked Chef Jason.
“It pushed my boundaries. I took dishes and flavors that I am accustomed to eating, and tried to recreate them in kosher versions. We have a “BLT” on the menu made with crispy smoked salmon sliced really thin, with lettuce and tomato. Our “cheeseburger” made from tuna, has really taken off too. I get to be really creative.”
When I entered the kitchen, Chef Jason was standing in front of a whole salmon, ready to fillet. “The fish market next door, The Fishing Line, goes to Hunts Point every night. They call and tell me what’s fresh and of good quality. When they bring the fish back, I’ll go there and inspect them and pick what I like. I only order the fish I need for that day, and fillet them myself each morning, so you always get a fresh cut.”
Chef Jason began filleting by slicing off the fins, and strategically slicing off the head. “We use every part of the salmon, so nothing goes to waste. I use the bones to make the fish stock for our Seafood Bisque. You can get fish bones at your fish market. They should cost pennies if they don’t give them to you for free.”
Making a fish stock is just like making chicken stock, Jason told me, only it takes less time. “Simply boil the bones and vegetables with water for a couple of hours, and then strain.”
Chef Jason sliced off one fillet of salmon. “Smoked salmon is made from the belly of the fish. Most people will throw the belly away, but we’ll cure it and make our own lox.”
Once the fillets were ready, Chef Jason seasoned them and spread Dijon mustard on top. The Dijon mustard will take the place of egg, to secure the potato to the fish—but with more flavor. Then, he packed the grated potato onto the fish to form a crust on top. “If your grated potato has been sitting in cold water to prevent browning, simply give it a little squeeze,” he said.
In the Ottimo kitchen, the frying pans are always waiting on top of a flame. “We keep the pans hot to save time. You can add oil and let it slowly heat up, but here, every second counts.” When Jason poured in the oil, it sizzled on contact; he added the salmon, potato side down, immediately. “After about three minutes, when the potato is crispy and golden, we’ll finish by baking the salmon in the oven for six or seven minutes.”
It’s time to make the…pasta. Not just any—in a few short months, Ottimo’s pappardelle has gained celebrity status on the menu. Pappardelle are thick strands of pasta, and it’s made fresh at Ottimo.
“In the beginning, when we first opened, we were working crazy hours trying to keep up…starting at 6 or 7AM and going until midnight. We were afraid we couldn’t keep up,” said Akiva. “Should something give? Should we forget about the homemade pasta? No! We stuck to our original plan, and soon, things began to run smoothly. Homemade pasta is a signature of Ottimo. It’s not going anywhere.”
Chef Jason took out a piece of dough to show me how it’s done. The dough isn’t cream-colored, like typical dough. Rather, it has an orange-red tinge. “We color the dough with tomato paste,” Jason said. “It makes it distinctive—you know it’s homemade. And the tomato flavor pairs perfectly with the sauce.”
While those preparing a pappardelle dish at home can purchase fresh pasta in the freezer section of their supermarket, at Ottimo, the imperia, an electric pasta roller, is ready for use. “This baby is from Italy,” Jason said. He flattened the dough slightly, then rolled it through the machine at thickness level “8.” As the dough thinned, he adjusted the pasta setting. The final time the dough ran through the machine, it was at the “2” setting—slightly thicker than other types of pasta, but perfect for pappardelle. The dough was then hand sliced into pasta strands.
As Chef Jason cooked, orders came in from customers starting to arrive for dinner service. There is a large pot of boiling water with multiple compartments, kept perpetually on the stove, so every order can be freshly—and quickly—prepared one batch at a time. Our pappardelle pasta that Chef Jason cut went right into one of those compartments.
While it boiled, he prepared the sauce. “I told Akiva I’m going to give you one secret today—and here it is.” He took out the fresh roasted peppers and began to peel them—it’s a secret to the flavor of the pappardelle’s cream sauce. Once the peppers are very thinly sliced, he took out an orange-colored paste. “This is the tomato cream paste,” Chef Jason told me. “I make it by seeping sun-dried tomatoes in cream so they reconstitute a little, then add fresh basil and puree the mixture.” The butter, red peppers, shallots, tomato cream paste, and more cream make up the sauce—but there’s more. Chef Jason added a splash of sherry, and the entire mixture rose in flames as the alcohol immediately burned out.
The pappardelle was tossed with the cream sauce and plated. Parmesan cheese topped the dish and was done. I took a taste—it’s distinctive and refreshing, and nothing like the typical pasta dishes we have everywhere. It’s different enough to be exciting, but familiar enough for anyone to love.
Recipes from Ottimo:
Recipes by Chef Jason Cappetta of Ottimo in Lakewood, NJ.
As seen in Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Summer 2012 issue – Subscribe Now.