When you sit down to brunch and biscuits are on the menu, an order for the table is usually non-negotiable. At Thanksgiving, skipping the turkey for a second helping of stuffing is a no-brainer, and at that summer cookout, it's all about the mac and cheese. No matter the season, sides dishes are always the biggest hits. At Andrew Carmellini's restaurants, they're mandatory.
That's why we've asked the prolific chef and restaurateur, who just opened Leuca in Brooklyn's William Vale hotel, to create our dream dinner party. One that skips the main course entirely and is composed of only side dishes.
"The sides, I feel, are almost more important than the main course these days," Carmellini says over coffee in Leuca's private dining room. "That's where you can really create something interesting."
Carmellini explains that when he plans a dinner party, he starts with ingredients that are fresh and sesaonal and builds the menu from there. A recent trip to the Union Square farmers' market, for example, led to the creation of his fire-roasted cabbage (see the recipe)—the first dish Carmellini selected for Leuca's menu. For this dish, the chef cures cabbage pieces before charring them over a hot fire, which makes the exterior crispy while the middle steams. Varied texture like this is as important on the plate at a dinner party as it is on a restaurant menu, Carmellini says. The dish has quickly become a fan favorite.
To round out this all-sides feast, Carmellini suggests also serving Locanda Verde's bright and nutty farro verde (see the recipe), Lafayette's Moroccan-spiced carrots (see the recipe) and Bar Primi's spaghetti squash with sage and walnuts (see the recipe). The farro, with its Castelvetrano olives and feta, is bold and flavorful, balancing out the rich, buttery spaghetti squash. The cabbage offers something acidic, while the carrots, sprinkled with toasted sunflower seeds, bring the spice and a touch of sweetness.
These dishes provide a range in color, style and heft that Carmellini looks for in a well-rounded menu. Start with a diverse array of ingredients and choose a variety of cooking methods—also important for maximizing space in a small kitchen—and you've already achieved variety without even trying. Finally, family style is the way to go when serving sides, so don't be afraid to get communal.
With his distinct capacity for striking a mood and creating a sense of place—the reason why stepping into Lafayette feels like you've just traveled to Paris—it's no surprise Carmellini is the master of mixing and matching dishes in a way that feels so on point for right now. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything Carmellini has a hand in feeling out of place.
Take Leuca, for example, which speaks perfectly to the neighborhood that Williamsburg has become, with a high-low patchwork in the design and dishes. Geometric steel chandeliers hang over clusters of rustic Italian pottery, while irreverent black-and-white portraits of a young girl hang on the wall. As for the food, he's developed all-new dishes, he says, as he casually rattles off with perfect pronunciation the Southern Italian regions that inspired the menu.
Pointing around him to the walls of swimming sardines surrounding the 28-seat dining room, he explains how a small painting from Puglia depicting a single sardine inspired him. One sardine became a total of 90, on a hand-painted, old-school mural that channels Southern Italy.
Whether it's Leuca's private dining room or one of the other personalized spaces at his restaurants, Carmellini is an expert at crafting special experiences. Up next, it's Baltimore, where he's opening two new restaurants this year, and Detroit, where he's opening one in the Shinola Hotel.
"Those are cool projects, because they're cool local partners," the Cleveland native says. "It's exciting for us to be part of the rebuilding of American cities narrative." If that means more side dishes to swoon over, consider us ready to hit the road.
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