Chef’s journey: Timon Balloo recounts Italian trip that shaped Bocce Bar menu


Special to the Miami Herald

No matter how experienced you are, opening a restaurant presents a specific set of challenges: What do you offer that isn’t already on the table elsewhere in town? How do you make your place so inviting that guests will want to visit again and again? And where do you find inspiration?

We answered the last question first for Bocce Bar, which serves its first dinners on Friday night. Since opening Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill three years ago, I have had an ongoing conversation about Italian cuisine with two of my business partners, Danielle Billera and Shimon Bokovza. Danielle is from Italy, and we all love the country’s clean, fresh, unpretentious cooking.

When a space became available in our Midtown neighborhood, we knew we wanted to open an Italian restaurant that embodies the spirit of the country. And what is more Italian — and more inviting — than bocce? (The restaurant will have Miami’s first official bocce-ball court.)

When it came to creating a distinctive menu, I realized that I would have to go the extra mile — literally. I went to Italy for nine days in September, traveling from Sicily through Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Naples to Rome, stopping at more than 30 bars, caffes, gelaterias, markets, osterias, ristorantes and trattorias along the way.

I sampled coffees at Sant’Eustacchio and Antica Caffe Greco, two of Rome’s most venerated espresso establishments, and sous-vide hen with nuts and smoke at Ristorante Ora D’Aria, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Emilia-Romagna.

In Palermo, I feasted on organ meats —tripe stew hand-scooped by the maestro of the caldron at Capo Market; charred, chewy sigatela (intestines grilled with salt and lemon) at a street festival and milsa, a pleasantly pungent sandwich of spleen, heart and lung, at Trattoria Lombardi.

The concept for Bocce Bar’s menu – small plates in categories including “Vegetables,” “Fish,” “Meat & Cheese” and “Pasta” as well as larger portions, “For the Table” — was largely set before the journey. But the trip fortified my thought process when it came to completing the dishes.

It also reconnected me with Europe, where I had training in Belgium’s Hotel Métropole under French master chef Dominique Michou, and reinforced my ideas about how technique can align rather than war with culinary imagination. Eating such a varied selection in so many places also reminded me how to cook with a European palate and flavor profile in mind.

Offal, for example, isn’t widely popular in this country, but I have faith that Miami epicures, who have been turned onto pig ear and lamb tongue at the Pubbelly and Michael Schwartz restaurants, can embrace it.

I’m not saying we’re ready a food truck like the one I saw in Florence that sold four different parts of lamb stomach, or a butcher like the Florentine one I encountered who specializes in innards including lungs, tongue and cartilage. But tripe fans will find it on the menu at Bocce Bar, served with rosemary potato crisps, along with sweetbread with cèpes and potato purée and pork face with pickles.

My traveling companion, Bocce Bar beverage manager Pietro Riccobono, had family in Sicily, so we joined in celebrating his nephew’s christening with a 15-course meal at the oldest restaurant on the island. I sample the sweet, creamy, hand-turned sheep’s milk ricotta for which the island is renowned and discovered the charming custom of consuming a hard-boiled egg before a celebratory meal. It’s said to absorb the alcohol that will be flowing. I’m not sure if this is in fact the case, but I admire the whimsy of it and am toying with the idea of hard-boiled quail’s eggs to begin a meal at Bocce Bar.

While in Sicily we also visited one of Pietro’s aunts. Zia Rosa welcomed us to her home in Palermo with delicious eggplant caponata that I hope to replicate, and served us that luscious ricotta on its own and in a memorable eggplant rollatini.

My inspiration for antipasti comes from my visit to Rome’s Roscioli Salumaria. Dry-cured meats were available everywhere we looked in Italy – including a mortadella so big it could have served as a body pillow. Bocce Bar’s selection will include coppa, speck, porchetta di testa, duck prosciutto and La Quercia prosciutto Americano, produced in Iowa from heritage-breed hogs.

Of the many extraordinary dishes we sampled, one of the most memorable was the tortellini embrodo from the Michelin-starred L’Erba Del Re in Modena. As wowed as we were, we went on to a second lunch at Trattoria Bianca, famous for its gnocchi frito – like an airy, super-thin pita. You can only get this in Modena, so get it we did.

And then there were the bomboloni — crème-filled doughnuts, much lighter than the American style, which are often served for breakfast. We devoured bomboloni everywhere possible – only because we were following Italian custom, of course.

Timon Balloo trained at Johnson & Wales University and under chefs including Allen Susser and Michelle Bernstein. He is executive chef and partner in Samba Brands Management’s Sugarcane and its new Bocce Bar, which is scheduled to open for dinner on Friday at 3252 NE First Ave., Miami; 786-245-6211.

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