Chef Pietro Scotti…on 25 years in Westport!
On the day after Michel Nischan sadly announced the closing of The Dressing Room, I was sitting in the cozy dining room off the kitchen of Chef Pietro Scotti’s home talking with Pietro and his wife, Janine, about the changes in the restaurant scene and in particular dining in Fairfield County.
An anchor in Westport for over 25 years, Da Pietro’s Restaurant on Riverside Ave was one of the first “fine dining” establishments in Fairfield County, and immediately became popular as the “go to” place for special occasions and romantic dinners. Reviewed as “Perfection” by The New York Times and “Excellent” by Wine Spectator, the intimate 25 seat restaurant specializes in fresh pastas, creative starters and hearty and seasonal entrees.
Pietro, known for his big smile, warm personality, and unfailing generosity to local community events and causes, has helmed Da Pietro’s since the beginning and can still be found in the tiny restaurant kitchen every day during both lunch and dinner.
Pietro’s story of his childhood growing up on a winery in Ischia, an island off the coast of Italy, and his rise to popular local Fairfield County chef made me smile as he shared stories of his family, which still number 40+ in his home town of Barano, and with whom he visits every year with Janine and his two children. His mother, Caterina, turns 89 on Valentine's Day, and his five younger brothers and sisters all live in Italy.
With excitement and a touch of nostalgia in his voice, this year, Pietro will host for the first time a week long Culinary Excursion to his hometown on Ischia, where guests will be welcomed into the Scotti family for meals and stories, cooking classes, excursions to Capri and Sorrento, local concerts…and a very special, “Chicken In the Sand” dinner.
Ischia is a volcanic island, rising 2500 feet above sea level, with thermal spas and volcanic beaches along the Gulf of Naples. Moronti Beach is known for its hot sand, which makes for a perfect natural oven. Pietro explained that the chicken is seasoned with fresh herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme, stuffed with a fresh lemon and then wrapped in cheesecloth and buried 2 feet under the sand to cook for about 45 minutes. What results is, according to a very passionate Pietro, “ the most amazing, succulent, juicy” chicken you will ever taste.
If you have ever dreamed of really being Italian…sounds like this experience will not disappoint! He told me that each trip inspires his creativity to try new dishes, new ingredients and new preparations in his kitchen at Da Pietro’s.
But, as I looked around his home, I realized there was more to Pietro than just his successful restaurant and his Culinary Excursions. Open on the dining room table was a catalog: "Stromberg’s Catalog of Chicks and Game Birds Unlimited.” When I asked about the catalog, a huge smiled spread across his face and he asked me enthusiastically if I wanted to see his chickens.
Donning our snow boots, him with shovel in hand, we trudged thru the foot of snow to his backyard where, sure enough stood a chicken coop. Pietro told me that one day last year he surprised his wife with 20 baby chicks, The coop had not yet been built, so the chicks lived in the upstairs bathtub, while he built the coop using leftover wood, shingles, palettes and old wine crates and boxes.
Like a proud papa, he led me inside to the heated nesting area where, he showed off two fluffy baby chicks just one week old and collected a dozen eggs. He pointed out which chickens had laid which eggs as certain eggs had distinctive markings and sizes.
It was here that I asked Pietro, “ If you weren’t a chef what would you be”, and he answered wistfully “ A farmer…with chickens and other animals, bees, and produce like eggplant, arugula, kale, peas, and fruit trees…like figs, and lots of tomatoes”. Pietro confided that he does not go a day without eating one to two tomato sandwiches.
Pietro became serious when I asked about the changes he sees in food and restaurants today. He thinks it very good that the food movement is more towards healthy eating, organic farming, and supporting local farmers and farmers markets.
He likes seeing trends in food emerge like the use of Kale and Root Vegetables. He credits the rise of cooking shows for contributing to this sort of Food Revolution and raising awareness, but cautions aspiring chefs or cooks to not expect that a culinary degree will lead to being a celebrity chef like Mario Batali.
My final questions had to do with his “favorites”…
His favorite dish to cook for himself is a braised rabbit with white wine, tomato, olive oil and fresh basil.
His favorite restaurant other than Da Pietro’s is Bernard’s in Ridgefield. He has much respect for both Bernard Boussiou and his wife, Sarah.
And finally, I asked, ‘If you could cook alongside any chef…alive of dead, who would it be?” He named French chef Jean Louis Palladin, who passed away in 2001, the chef and media personality, Mario Batali, and the iconic, Jacques Pepin.
Or just stop by for lunch or dinner and enjoy the warmth and intimacy of Da Pietro’s and Chef Pietro.
Da Pietro’s Restaurant
36 Riverside Ave
203 454 1213