Tuscan Roots of A Tavola
Chef Vittorio Ettore
Photos by Katie Noble
Chef Vittorio Ettore began our interview in the welcoming dining room of his Winchester restaurant A Tavola by praising the restaurant’s chef, Neal Palmer, its general manager, Lynsey Pellerin, and other staff members who work with him and share his unique culinary vision. That vision shines brightly in the chef’s two restaurants, Medford’s Bistro 5 and A Tavola, as well as in the Seed to Plate program he created for Ambrose Elementary School and in a mentoring program he offers to the Ambrose and Muraco elementary schools.
Born and raised in Tuscany, Ettore moved with his family at the age of 12 to Venezuela, where he lived until settling in Massachusetts at 21. His experiences in each location, as well as a self-guided transcontinental food tour, provided the basis and passion for a career in the food world. His childhood home, though not part of a farm, was surrounded by rabbits, chickens, a goat, a pig, a brick oven, and a small but densely packed quarter-acre property full of fruit trees and a vegetable garden. The household was very sustainable, he notes, well before sustainability became a trend. His father gardened and tended to the animals (with the kids’ help) and his mother cooked with the resulting bounty. “Growing up in Italy, I learned how to eat,” says Ettore. “If you learn to eat well, you have a better chance of learning to cook well.” Living this way affected the chef tremendously, and he’s committed to re-creating that environment for his own family as well as his restaurant and neighborhood communities.
While studying architecture in Venezuela, at age 19, Ettore began working in the front of the house at a formal, old-school “Ritz Carlton type” Italian restaurant. He continued working in restaurants, including the Boston Harbor Hotel, after moving to Massachusetts two years later. In the early 1990s, he landed his first job as a chef, at the former Ristorante Rosina in Boston’s North End. While there, he decided to embark on an extensive cooking tour in an effort to determine if his calling was a career in the food industry. While backpacking and staying and cooking with friends, he staged (pronounced “staaj”) at restaurants in Venezuela, Brazil, Switzerland, Milan, and Tuscany. Stage is the term for a culinary internship, where a chef spends time in a restaurant kitchen observing, learning, and practicing techniques. The luxury of time and his experiences during the tour, says Ettore, influenced him tremendously, and he returned home confident that he would be in the food business for a very long time.
Following stints at the former Pignoli Restaurant in the Back Bay and Ristorante Euno in the North End, Ettore’s dream of having his own restaurant materialized in 1999. He opened Bistro 5, which serves an eclectic mix of French-and Asian-influenced Italian food. In mid-2011, he saw an opportunity to open a second restaurant emphasizing the simple and delicious flavors of his native Italy—in his words, a “true Italian restaurant.” Such a restaurant had been a longtime goal of Ettore’s, and because customers have become more health conscious and appreciative of high-quality food and the effort involved in making it, he felt the time was ripe to give it a try. The core of Italian cooking, he explains, involves searching for the best ingredients, harvesting them when they are in season, and making everything from scratch.
The folks at A Tavola make fresh homemade pasta and sourdough bread with their own starter. As soon as the ground thaws in the spring, five garden beds stacked behind the restaurant are planted with a rotating crop of seasonal vegetables for use in the restaurant. In season, the garden’s mesclun, herbs, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cauliflower, and other vegetables fill the menu. To extend the season once the weather cools, tomatoes are preserved and vegetables are pickled. Local fish features prominently on the menu. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is porchetta, a classic Italian roast pork with regional variations, typically cooked in a brick oven. Ettore offers a dramatic presentation—the porchetta takes on additional flavors under a smoke-filled glass dome.
Yearly trips to Italy provide inspiration for all of Ettore's dishes. At A Tavola, those include pollo al mattone (rosemary brined chicken cooked skin down under a brick in a cast-iron skillet and flipped before serving), as well as salumi (cured meats) portioned in an old-fashioned hand-cranked slicer. “A revolution in food is here,” says the chef, “and now it’s time to turn it into part of our culture. It will take everyone’s effort, so get out there and make a difference! Cook at home, and educate your children about food. Support locally sourced ingredients and know what you eat.” atavolawinchester.com