"My Signature Dish," Chef Jodi Bernhard of Fortina in Armonk

Lou Gorfain

"My Signature Dish" is a new CTbites column featuring a rotating cast of chefs, and the dishes that define their cooking style, or simply make them happy to fire up the stove. 

Jodi Bernhard hardly hesitated when choosing her signature dish at Fortina, Christian Petroni’s "casually hip" Italian restaurant in Armonk.  Her eyes gleaming, she said, "It's our Pork Braciole." Braciole, hip? 

If you grew up Italian, you probably hold memories of Braciole near and dear.  This classic rolled, stuffed meat roast, usually serves as centerpiece for those sprawling homemade Italian dinners that lazily linger across Sunday afternoons into evening.  Braciole invokes home.  And family.   Instant Nostalgia.

Ok, so how does a chef modernize a memory?  Autograph a treasured family photo? 

“That is the gist of our approach at Fortina,” Jodi explained. “ We try to not stray too far from ‘mom's’ version, but still make it a restaurant dish with our stamp on it.  We are true to simplicity and flavor.”

The notion of putting  “Mom’s dish” on Fortina’s playful, hip menu was Christian’s, one of the restaurant’s owners.  (Patroni and and Jodi once cooked together at Barcelona in nearby Greenwich.) Though she and Christian work as collaborators, the task of “restaurantizing” this homey meal was largely up to Bernhard.  

Her major challenge was to give patrons a Braciole that was an homage to Mom’s cooking.  Only better. 

She immediately knew how. What could be homier than a fiery hearth?   Especially one few homes could afford. 

When building the restaurant, Christian had imported two beautiful, hand crafted wood fire ovens from Naples.    He reserved one oven for cooking the authentic Neapolitan pizzas that are a specialty of the house.  The other hearth was dedicated to select pastas, fish, meats and veggies.   

Under its brick dome, constructed to perfectly focus and circulate the heat, Jodi achieved a remarkably even sear on the roast,  far more complete than she could achieve in a pan or broiler.  The char was deeper, the carmelization sweeter, and the wood fire imparted a subtle smoky flavor to the pork.     Bernhard could stay true to home cooking, while enhancing it. 

But to translate the vernacular of a home-cooked roast into the more elevated parlance of restaurant dining,  Bernhard had to cut the big Braciole roast down to size.    At a home table, eating from the same loaf contributes to family communion.    At Fortina’s tables, however, everyone orders for themselves.  So Jodi decided to individualize the huge roast into small, personal loaves.  This reduction in diameter also increased the ratio of surface crust to the interior, thus building more  rustic flavor into the roast.  

Though every home cook puts her own signature on Braciole’s filling and sauce, Jodi stayed fairly true to tradition.  Chef Bernhard wanted to keep the ingredients simple.   For filling, she combined just three classic ingredients:  confit garlic, gently poached in olive oil until sweet and tender, fresh parsley, and sharp and salty pecorino cheese.   

After browning in the wood fired oven,  Jodi simmered the loaves for over two hours in a traditional “Sunday Sauce”  made of imported San Marzano tomatoes.  Rather than sugar, Jodi sweetened the sauce with carrot.  Then she played a little trick, inspired by her husbands’ Braciole.  After the simmering  sauce absorbed some of the meat flavors, Jodi finished it with refreshing mint which surprised and refreshed the acidity of the tomatoes. As a final touch, she garnisheed the sauce with torn basil.  

The Braciole was originally plated with broccoli rabe, a traditional side dish when served at home.  But  Jodi later decided to serve the roast with sautéed  baby spinach,  tender and buttery against the robust meat,  the vibrant green leaves floating in puddles of red velvety sauce.   

We ordered the Braciole in Sunday Sauce on a late Sunday afternoon this autumn.  The setting was warm and woody  in the fading sunlight.  Around us, at almost every table families enjoyed a meal together.   Instant nostalgia.   

In fact, the best description of Jodi Bernhard’s Pork Braciole:  “memorable”.  

When she worked as a Wall Street broker, Jodi Bernhard’s television wasn’t tuned to CNBC, but the Food Network.  She was totally addicted to their shows.  So Bernhard cooked up a plan to quit trading stock and start preparing it.  Though 31 years old,  she quit her lucrative job and enrolled at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Boston.  Since  graduation, Chef Bernhard has cooked at restaurants in Boston, New York and Connecticut.  What’s more she has eve viewed herself  as a guest chef on the Food Network .  Jodi makes her home in Manhattan ( where her husband does most of the cooking.