One of many charming things about Cattivella is that every single menu item comes with a story—a history lesson too if you ask for it from chef Elise Wiggins.
Wiggins travels to Italy several times a year, studying with chefs in small towns and big cities alike, visiting local festivals, and absorbing as much food knowledge as possible. She has been going for decades. Cattivella is the culmination of this knowledge. The restaurant combines her passions, her loves, and her wisdom.
Take the focaccia di Recco as our example. She was visiting the small coastal town of Recco several years ago and she learned to make this dish. “Back in the day, this was no man’s land. The Roman Empire had just fallen. Ruffians and thieves would come into town to loot everyone’s homes. So the people would grab what the could and flee to the hills and hide,” said Wiggins.
“They would take some very specific things with them: a cast iron skillet, flour, oil, prosciutto because it lasts forever, and young cow’s milk cheese. And from these ingredients, they would make this dish, which their region is now known for.”
When she talks about her food, about Italy’s food, she can barely contain her excitement. And it’s with this enthusiasm that she approaches her cooking.
“We knead every single piece of dough from scratch. Every single one of us has lost weight since we opened the restaurant from the physical work we put into making our food.”
The focaccia di Recco starts with fresh dough made from water, flour, and high quality extra virgin olive oil. She kneads it for several minutes, working it smooth. It’s then rolled paper thin. “The thin crust, combined with a lot of olive oil is what makes the top layer almost like a cracker. It bakes into a beautiful crisp,” explained Wiggins.
She spreads the dough over cast iron, adds a generous amount of prosciutto, creamy crescenza cheese, and adds the second layer of dough. She snips a few cuts to let it breathe in the oven, brushes the dough with butter and more olive oil, and then bakes it for 20 minutes.
“I hate to say it because it’s cheesy, but it really is worth the wait,” she said. And her guests agree. She sells almost 12 every night, and double that on a weekend evening.
The final touches to the dish are a handful of arugula and small droppers full of delicious, 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. “You can eat it however you want, but I always say that just a few drops is all you need.”
“Because I’ve been to Italy so many times, I’m able to find these small, little-known dishes that have rocked my world. And I want to rock other people’s worlds with them.” And trust us, this one will absolutely rock yours.