In the kitchen with Cristian Pietoso: Inspired by his mother, grandmother and extra virgin olive oil

CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.  

Cristian Pietoso

Cristian Pietoso remembers being really cold in winter when he was young. Whatever the weather, he got up early to help his grandparents run their produce stands in Italy.

"We would go to the big market at four or five in the morning, and bring back the freshest produce to our stands," he said. 

Pietoso, who was born in Florence, Italy, is today the chef and owner of Via Vite on Fountain Square . He still holds dear early memories of food and family. 

"My love for food started when I was three, just being around my grandparents' produce stands," he said.  "Grandma even made me this little apron when I was about four, and I would wear that to help make sales." 

To this day, Pietoso has a keen understanding of seasonal produce because of his early exposure at the market.

Growing up, Pietoso loved his mother's and grandmother's cooking--as basic as it sometimes was. 

"My family was very poor. My mother used to make this 'beef stew' with no beef and all potato," Pietoso said. Today, this beef spezzatino (with beef) graces Via Vite's menu, as does the dish called "my grandma's peperonata."

At 14, Pietoso followed in his father's footsteps and went to Bernardo Buontalenti, a culinary school in Florence. He worked throughout his studies and eagerly challenged himself at the city's top restaurants, including Pane e Vino and Cibreo.

Pietoso made the move to Cincinnati in 2004 to join his father who, by then, was running a successful restaurant, Nicola's.

"I was my dad's chef for three or four years. But I was also looking for my little spot to own, a 10-by-10 lunch spot," Pietoso said

Through 3CDC, that "little lunch spot" grew into something much bigger: A piece of prime real estate on Fountain Square. With his father's help, Pietoso started Via Vite in 2007.

Pietoso acknowledges the restaurant industry is no walk in the park, but he would not have it any other way.

"I have been doing this since I was 14. This is my life," he said. "I love my job and always have. When I think about what we can do to make our guests happy, my eyes light up."

Food and cooking philosophy

"Select the right product," Pietoso said. "With Italian cuisine, the dish can be basic but stunning when the few ingredients work well. You could also make a terrible dish if you overcomplicate things or select your ingredients poorly."

Pietoso places a strong emphasis on the basics:

"When new guys come in, we teach them how to select fresh, quality ingredients. Don't overcomplicate things especially when you don't have the knowledge."

"Italian food is based on simplicity and the goodness of the ingredients."

Essential ingredients & tools

Pietoso's kitchen must-haves include:

  • Combi oven . Pietoso loves the steam injection, and has even used it to do sous vide.
  • Hobart mixer for making pizza dough and pasta.
  • Broiler. Pietoso uses it to finish a majority of his foods, including fish and lamb shank.
  • Blenders, both immersion and Vitamix
  • Extra virgin olive oil of high quality. Pietoso cooks "everything" with it
  • Salt and pepper
  • Plenty of fresh herbs like basil and thyme. Pietoso "never, ever" uses dried herbs. He estimates using at least 15 pounds of fresh basil a week.

Inspirations

"Everything inspires me. Every time I go out, I get inspired. If I see something awesome, I don't want to copy it because that's silly. But I want to take that concept, spin it around and make it my own."

Pietoso vividly remembers his mother's zucchini risotto, and phenomenal scampi (also known as langoustine), which she served with garlic crostini.

Pietoso's work at the top rated Pane e Vino restaurant in Florence , changed him. 

"They did cutting edge, new wave Italian cuisine without getting stupid," he said. "They changed the way I did things and pushed me."   

Pietoso remains friends with the owners, the Pierazzuoli family.

"We carry wines here that I discovered when I used to work for them," he said.

Favorite meal to cook for family: Spaghetti "aglio e olio" (4 servings)

According to Pietoso, this spaghetti recipe is a classic and authentic dish. 

"It's simple enough even for busy folks, or if you just want a midnight snack. I cook for living, so when we're at home we try to do simple things," Pietoso said.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound spaghetti of good quality (a must)
  • 4 cloves of fresh unpeeled garlic
  • 1/4 tbs red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup of great quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Directions:

  1. Boil 1 gallon of salted water
  2. In the meantime, peel and cut the garlic in slices
  3. Gently heat the olive oil, garlic and the pepper flakes for soffritto
  4. When slightly heated, add some of the hot water
  5. Add
    1. your spaghetti to the soffritto and cook according to the brand you have chosen, so it will result in al dente 
    2. Continue cooking together for a minute or so, letting the sauce thicken with the pasta
    3. Serve immediately.
    4. Add parmigiano cheese as needed

    (Photos by G. Yek)

    Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek .

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