In Enzo Febbraro’s kitchen at Allegro, some of the simplest, most impeccably sourced ingredients come together in the restaurant’s greatest showpieces.
It is 11 am and I am sitting across from Executive Chef Enzo Febbraro at one of his tables in Allegro, where passersby on a heavily trafficked path toward the casino floor can see me, through a large window, ostentatiously eating a creamy mound of burrata—a mozzarella curd pouch bursting with salty mascarpone, cream, and ricotta. A big sign at the door announces that the restaurant won’t open until 3 pm, but it’s not stopping Febbraro’s supplicants from seeking special dispensation. The flash of guilt I almost feel is gone in the next bite.
Febbraro pushes the cork lid of a prized salt container toward me. It reads: “Ingredienti: mare, sole, vento.” or sea, sun, wind. “Brilliant, isn’t it?” he says with a broad smile. It’s not surprising that this very simple compound spelled out on the label of a jar would resonate with him. the salt is sprinkled over a plate we are sharing whose ingredients are nearly as elemental as those on the label: tomatoes, burrata, olive oil, basil. and by sharing, I mean I am eating as he cheers me on like an indulgent grandmother.
The quality of the ingredients is crucial. The olive oil is tondo d.o.P., a bright green-gold oil made from the famous tonda Iblea olives on the estate of Marchesi Achille Paterno’ di Spedalotto in Sicily. “It’s just a little bit peppery at the very end,” he enthuses. The tomatoes are the deeply pigmented red-brown Kumato variety originally bred on spain’s Costa Almería and now sourced from California; he’s picked them because they’re firm and sweet, with a hint of sourness that gives the creamy burrata just a bit of edge. The salt has been harvested from salt pans since the Phoenicians established their western colonies in Sicily 2,000 years ago, and he describes where it hits on your tongue with the poetry of a master sommelier. When you are eating with Enzo Febbraro, you have to make a concerted effort to distinguish his charm from the food. Is this plate really so seductive or is it Enzo’s exuberance that attracts 270,000 diners to this 160-seat restaurant each year, hoping to dive headfirst into his lasagna Napoletana? Since he isn’t dining with all those clients, it must be the food.
Febbraro may have picked up the grandmotherly urging from his own, whose kitchen in Naples he began cooking in as a child. At 13, he was working in a Neapolitan pizzeria. “I’m a cliché!” he laughs. By 15 he was laboring in a restaurant kitchen in the Adriatic coastal town of Cattolica in Emilia-Romagna, and at 16 he had graduated from culinary school and was embarking on apprenticeships across Europe. Cooking took him through Paris, Nice, Munich, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Madrid, Milan, and London. But Chef Gino Angelini, for whom Febbraro worked at the Grand Hotel des Bains in Riccione, south of Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast, was the mentor who not only taught him about fine dining, but also brought him to the United States. Angelini had decamped to the landmark Rex il Ristorante, credited with introducing Los Angeles to grand Italian dining. “He brought me over for a quick job to cook for the Grammys,” Febbraro recalls. “That was 20 years ago, and I never left.” His tour of the US was no less extensive, winding through Philadelphia, New York, Las Vegas, and Washington, DC, where he was recruited by Steve Wynn, for whom he’d cooked at an event a decade earlier as chef of the famed Filomena Ristorante in Georgetown.
When he came to the US, Febbraro says, he was at a philosophical crossroads: “You can end up on this campaign to collect Michelin stars, or you can do what is true to your heart. Of course there is a place for that exalted and complicated food, but I want people to come here and get their soul filled—and reminisce about some wonderful place in Italy they traveled to.” To that end, dishes from grandmother and mama are on the menu, tweaked and perfected over time: lasagna with “Sunday Meat Ragu Sauce” and smoked mozzarella, and seafood risotto studded with shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels, and clams.
Febbraro and his team begin making burrata at 4 PM each day, tempering the mozzarella curd in a pot of hot water, melting it in a hotter pot so it can be shaped into a ball, then stretching it into a paper-thin sheet and cutting it into precise little squares. In one quick motion, he fills each square with a mixture of mascarpone cheese, mozzarella, heavy cream, and salt and pepper, then quickly wraps it in plastic, twisting it into a perfectly round little purse. It takes his kitchen crew only 45 minutes to make the 50 or so they’ll need for the evening. “You have to eat it within the evening,” he says firmly. The fresh burst of cream just isn’t the same on day two. On some days, the burrata is filled with lobster or crab as a menu special.
“You know, I’ve traveled a lot and I love the international influences,” Febbraro says, but a culinary life spent all over the world has only confirmed his love for his rich Italian heritage. “The greatest Italian cuisine is the simplest. You know that you can’t fake it. You choose a great olive oil, and a great tomato, and you can’t find a surrogate for good quality.” If this is a cliché, I’ll have another.