Food Interview

Homestyle Italian, With Love

In the kitchen with Lia Labbadia of Enoteca Umberto

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Take a walk down Atwells Avenue and you’ll find a tiny, hidden gem amongst the finest Italian restaurants in Providence. Over the last year and a half, Enoteca Umberto has showcased its southern Italian home cooking in an ultra-focused and authentic way. Chef Lia Labbadia runs her kitchen as if it were her home, with handed down family recipes and a love for the ingredients she grew up with. Chef Lia describes her ethos for simple, refined cooking, and how she elevates “peasant dishes” to new heights.

What are some advantages to running a smaller establishment?
I don’t feel like I’m cooking in a restaurant. I feel like people are at my house and I’m cooking for them. That’s how I run the kitchen here. We are what we are because of the size. My husband, Umberto, is waiting on you, I’m cooking for you, my father is making coffee, my mom is helping with the dishes.

How has your menu developed over time?
For the first month or so, I didn’t even have a menu. I wrote what we had for the day on a board. Our customers helped build the menu as a whole, and as we learned what they wanted we developed a very small staple menu while keeping true to authentic traditional foods. I try not to veer from that staple menu, but we always have a board full of specials. Sourcing locally everyday provides the special menu [we do].

What type of food experience can hungry diners expect?
A lot of our guests just let us pick what they’re going to eat. That’s really cool for us. Umberto will pick out a wine to go with the first two courses, and a wine for the last two courses. We usually recommend four different plates per couple. It’s not your traditional appetizer and entree set up – it’s just courses, like how we grew up at home. When it’s ready, it comes out and you eat it together.

Why is it important for you to let the ingredients speak for themselves?
If you ate at my Nona’s house, she’d make a sauce with tomatoes, a leaf of basil, olive oil and sea salt. Four ingredients. She wouldn’t garnish with micro greens or anything. It’s a very simple style of cooking. I love that I can do that. I love to put five ingredients on a plate and make you go crazy. That’s important to me. I use olive oil, sea salt, red pepper flake, pecorino, white white, red wine, etc. I can use the same ten ingredients in every one of my dishes but none of them will taste the same.

What is one dish your customers keep coming back for?
We import my cousin-in-law’s Mozzarella de Buffula from Campania twice a month. We are lucky to be the only ones who carry this special mozzarella in the States. That’s something that we’re very proud of and a lot of people are blown away by it. Depending on the season, I’ll change how we use it. [Currently] we have a fennel and arugula salad with the mozzarella, topped with lemon juice, olive oil and sea salt.

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
My favorite is the Frissele, which requires a two-day process to make. We make the dough, and once it rises we separate it to make it look like a large doughnut. Then, we bake it. Once it’s out of the oven, we cool it, slice it in half and bake it again. It becomes very hard, so you can leave it on the shelf for months at a time.

What can we expect to see on the menu and special’s board going into the winter?
I’ll bring in soup specials like Jambotta, which is a “whatever you have in the fridge at the time” soup. Growing up in my family, it was potatoes, zucchini and San Marzano tomato sauce. You stew it together, put stale bread at the bottom and pour it over. Done.

I try to pull in Christmas desserts during this time, like Strufolli, which are little balls of dough that you bake then cover in honey. You then shape them into a wreath and present to people’s homes on Christmas.

Enoteca Umberto
256 Atwells Avenue
272-8466