We can’t stop craving Chef John Piombo’s classic Italian cuisine and hospitality at Nonna’s Restaurant at The Homestead in Glen Arbor, near Traverse City.
Kitchen confidential: My assignment is to go behind the scenes with Chef John Piombo, following him for a couple hours while he prepares for a busy night inside Nonna’s at The Homestead. Truthfully, to make that happen, I would have to tether myself to one of his black chef Crocs, given that he is darting between the front of the house—where gleaming silverware and stoneware plates catch the reflection of fire crackling in the two-sided stone fireplace—and the back of the house where his staff is preparing the line for a busy night.
Since keeping up with Chef isn’t a possibility, I’ve installed myself in a corner of Nonna’s kitchen to take in the scene. Stainless steel countertops glisten below fleets of ladles and tongs. Sauté pans blackened from years of use hang over two massive gas stoves outfitted with 12 burners. A shelf above my head is lined with the ABC’s of the world’s great spices—anise, bay, caraway, coriander, cardamom, curry, Jamaican jerk, sumac and on and on until I think I can make out za’atar at the end. The toasty scent of fresh, house-made loaves of Italian bread beckons from across the room. In another corner, a sous chef is crushing fresh pepper in a mortar and pestle. Meanwhile, the line cooks have prepared an arsenal of fresh basil, sage, foraged mushrooms, heavy cream, real butter, olive oil, pine nuts, hazelnuts, garlic, parsley, Stock 84 brandy and a host of other heavenly ingredients—all ready to prepare dishes from veal scaloppini (cream, foraged mushrooms, brandy) to whitefish (brown butter and sage) …
I am in culinary heaven, yet I’ve missed possibly the richest part of what happens in this kitchen. Pasta. As Chef, who has paused a moment between chores to chat, says: “Everything we can make homemade here we do.” Today it’s sheets of homemade ravioli al barbera (made luscious with barbera wine and aromatics), fettuccini (served tonight with artichoke, porcini and butter) and plump, perfect gnocchi (just waiting to be topped with gorgonzola and those hazelnuts). And did I mention the side of beef he and his staff butchered on these gleaming counters just days ago? Tonight, that will become ribeye steak with basil pesto, green beans and pecorino.
Wait, there’s dessert?
“I make all of our pastries for Nonna’s, but I never do the same thing twice in a row,” Chef says. He does, however, usually have an Italian cake on the menu—pastiera Napoletana—made with ricotta, lemon and pine nuts, similar to a cheesecake.
“Nonna’s is the heart of The Homestead,” Kristin, the dining room manager, whispers to me as she passes through the kitchen. “It’s Chef’s baby.” So true, with the blessing of The Homestead’s president, Bob Kuras, John Piombo puts his entire, authentic Italian self into this restaurant. Well, throw a dash of Spanish in there too. His father is Italian, his mother is Spanish. When he was young, Chef’s family lived in Genoa, Italy, where his father ran a pastry shop with his brother. By the time the family moved to Miami when he was 10, John had been up to his elbows in flour for many years.
Piombo’s career has taken him across the United States and around the world, and those journeys have made lasting impressions on him. “I couldn’t produce the food I’m doing without having had those experiences that bring it alive for me,” he says. “There are all of these senses that are activated, no matter what I do or what I’m making.” The scents spark memories, not only of the food itself, but also of the human aspect, the life that goes on around the food and is a part of it.
For Piombo, cooking is a gateway to getting to know people.
Chef Piombo would love to see people tune in more and focus on what they’re eating, where they are eating and who they are eating with. “That’s what I think is often lacking in our society today—the culture of enjoying our food, and enjoying each other’s company,” he says. He calls this his “crusade”—convincing people to slow down when eating. “Food is not just sustenance. It is a gift from the earth, from the fields and waters, and it is given to us to appreciate and savor.”
All of which is why, after all the prep tasks are done and he’s finished calling out orders with the crispness of a drill sergeant, he calls to his staff: “Time for family dinner.” Tonight’s entree for the family—his staff—is grilled ribeye steak. Thirty minutes before the dining room is open for the evening, they all sit down and break bread together. Food, dining, relationships … they are John Piombo’s recipe for la dolce vita. At Nonna’s, you can taste it.
By Elizabeth Edwards, Managing Editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine and Northern Home & Cottage.