By Nikki Neu
When almost every head in a busy corridor turns around and stares at you, it could be unnerving. But Chef Carla Pellegrino seems to go unfazed.
“I normally don’t sit out here,” is the only acknowledgment given to the starstruck passers-by.
The bubbly, energetic Pellegrino has appeared on Food Network, was the executive chef of Rao’s and has settled in at the Tropicana, breathing new life and energy into their dining experiences.
Pellegrino oversees Bacio by Carla Pellegrino, an Italian restaurant and Pellegrino Pizza and Deli, a quick-service spot inside the South Beach Marketplace food court.
The chef also has a third local restaurant in Henderson called Bratalian. This Neapolitan-style restaurant is cozy, charming and serves delicious food cooked by Pellegrino’s sister, Chef Alessandra Madeira.
With Pellegrino’s success, it would be easy to have an ego or be too busy. But when I sat down with her this week, Pellegrino was humble, greeted her guests with a big smile and graciously posed for pictures when asked.
Sitting at a table at Bacio over a basket filled with housemade foccacia and breadsticks, the conversation turned to everthing from men (the 43-year-old is single) to running five miles a day. Here’s what she had to say:
How are Bacio and Bratalian different?
“Bratalian we want to keep comfortable. It’s mainly Neapolitan cuisine. The portions are bigger. It’s my style, I want to keep the homemade taste of it. I want you to feel like you’re eating at home.
Here [at Bacio,] it’s a little more sophisticated. It’s smaller portions. We have more fish, shrimp, and black tagliatelli.”
What’s a signature dish at Bacio?
“Tagliolini Neri ai frutti di mare [fresh made tagliolini noodles served with shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and calamari sauce] and the branzino [pan-seared sea bass.]”
What’s a signature dish at Bratalian?
“At Bratalian Calamari in umido, which is just a stewed calamari in white wine and tomato sauce, olives and capers with garlic bread.”
How did you come up with the name “Bratalian?”
“It is me, it is my nickname from a friend of mine that kept calling me that for a long time. Before, I used to not like to be called that. Then we found we were talking about a restaurant and I thought it was a great name for a restaurant. It refers to my heritage, Brazilian-Italian.”
Where did you study culinary arts?
“I was 10 when I started to cook with Mom. My mother had a catering [company.] Because the whole catering staff was herself, every time she had a gig I had to skip school. My mother would fall asleep and I would just continue it and cook for the family. . .So I started to link cooking with love.
That’s something with my friends that I always did because it started there. Every time I like somebody I invite them to dinner. I want to cook for them. I want to feed them because I want to show them that I like them.”
“I went to Italy when I was 15 and I started to fall in love with food. Because my mother went to my aunt’s house and they kind of wanted to punish me. I got pregnant, all those things. They had all those plantations, of olives, fruits, they make their own wine, their own oil.
So to torture me, they used to wake me up at 3 o’clock in the morning in the middle of the winter to pick up olives. You know, it was to torture me but instead I was fascinated.
Every olive that’s already off the tree, that’s the regular olive oil. The one that you actually catch, you catch it before the sun comes up, that’s the cold pressed that’s the extra virgin. So I learned things you can’t learn in school.”
Do you think there is a difference approach to cooking for men and women?
“I think the biggest compliment a woman chef can have is to look in the eyes of her customers. We like the reaction that people have when they taste the food. Men like the success, they like to succeed. Food for a man is an art.”
Do you have any advice for young chefs?
“Now we have all these young kids who have the wrong goals. They’re all about Food Network and they see all the celebrity chefs they think they’re going to be a celebrity. They’re more worried about becoming a celebrity than a good chef. That kind of worries me.”
What advice would you give to young female chefs who want to be successful?
“The women should risk more. They usually just become pastry chefs, which makes no sense because if you are an executive chef, you cover that too. So, I would say, get off your butt, get out there because we can do it and we can do it actually better.
Do what you have to do, set up your goals and just go for it!”
A fan of yours asked: Would you share your meatball recipe?
Sometimes chefs guard their recipes. What do you think about sharing recipes?
“I need to give [my staff] recipes because if I didn’t I would never be able to be sitting down here. I give them exactly what I do, it’s all typed out, and I give them the book.
If I have 10 chefs all doing the exact same recipe, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be 10 different products. I know just by tasting with my cooks, I know each one of them. Even if I don’t know who did it, if you give it to me here, I know who cooked it. It’s a little slightly different, even if they are all following the same exact recipe. It’s weird right?
So there’s no need to guard recipes. You might want to guard your secrets! There are little things here and there—you might want to guard that.”
What do you do when you’re not cooking?
“I try to go out with friends.”
I know you’re an accomplished runner, how did you get into running?
“I’ve been running since I was 29. Since I realized my ass was getting down. I was in a bikini and I realized it wasn’t where it was supposed to be and I didn’t like it.
I’ve been running ever since.”
What do you see in your future?
“My next concept is to expand the pizzeria. Maybe make it a chain.
But what I really want to do is open healthy gourmet food, Brazilian gourmet food in L.A. So the format would be great—Brazilian super foods, juices and you can have great, great organic food at a good price… That’s something in the back of my mind.
My cookbook, hopefully, if everything goes well, I’m trying to get that done by next year.”