Stephen Lanzalotta is Executive Chef at Slab Sicilian Street Food. He is famous for his Sicilian pizza, which he used to bake for Micucci Grocery Store, and at Sophia's, his own bakery, before that. He is pictured here with a Bulleit Bourbon neat and an orange wheel, which he chose to symbolize his love for the marriage between American fixtures (bourbon) with Sicilian cuisine (citrus).
Tell me about your beverage.
I picked Bulleit Bourbon and an orange wheel, which is inspired by the crossover thing I like doing with Sicilian and American food.
Are you a bourbon drinker at all?
I don't drink it straight. I love the flavor, though. I don't do shots of it. Maybe I should start doing that! [Laughs]
Your goal is to marry American and Sicilian flavors?
Exactly. The goal is to give a point of recognition. Sicily is really not a part of italy. Physically and geographically they are a separate island, but they are also a completely different culture. It is more of an Arabic, African, Middle Eastern culture, which is really foreign to the Italian mainland. It's got some flavors, textures and juxtapositions of things that are not expected in mainland Italian cuisine. So it is going to be really different and refreshing and hopefully give a taste of the tropics in Maine, which we all kind of love and admire. Part of the way to get across that exotic and different experience is to give a little taste of American accessibility.
For instance, the cannoli [we are planning to serve at Slab] is going to be served in an ice cream cone instead of laid flat in a cannoli shell and so you have that Americanization. You have that bourbon chocolate filling. People can say, "I know enough about that so I am willing to try it" as opposed to "Gosh, that sounds like a scary name…" I really want to get the average Joe—the guy in fishing boots who I used to have come into my [former restaurant / bakery] Sophia's—to come in and sit next to the attorney in the thousand dollar Armani suit, who is next to the pregnant woman. I want that kind of demographic where it is all over the board and it feels very comfortable and accessible. I want a huge spread so that it doesn't alienate anyone. That is what I found works throughout the years. Give some little piece, either in the name or the ingredient where someone thinks, "This is not foreign to me. I like this. I am willing to try this new food or new combination."
How did food come into your life?
I started—believe it or not—when I was 4-years-old. I was tutored by Mohican Indians down in the Thames River Valley in Connecticut. That started very early where I was learning about wild culture. I became a survivalist off of that and began to eat really strong flavors and learned how to integrate that into cooking. By the age of 13, I got my first introduction to an actual kitchen when I became a commercial line chef for my uncle. At 13 I had good beard growth and so I looked older and I could pass as 16, or whatever was legally employable at that time. I was doing a beach shack for him where I was serving burgers and ice cream and stuff like that down on Crescent Beach in East Lyme, Connecticut.
So it was that kind of thing. I started from the ground up with wild foods and then American fast food. Those two things became the core of my culinary experience as I went on. You can see it here now. I love accessible street food. I love fun, conviviality, and people mixing together without pretense. You get that burger joint idea mixed with sophisticated things. You know, "Gee? There are crushed juniper berries in this coleslaw?" That's my culinary background. I have absolutely no professional experience and everything I have done is self-taught. I worked for my uncle for a number of years and then building my own places. That's how it was.
What about baking specifically?
The way I got into baking was crazy. My ex-wife—my wife at the time—and I had moved to Maine to get back to the land. I built a house out of the trees of the land, cut the Spruce logs down and built a log house. I built all of the furniture. While I was doing this incredible endeavor I needed some carb sustenance so I would make these big piles to burn off the Spruce and when it would get down to ash, I would make very crude breads by burying it in that ash.
In the neighborhood I was living, they were all back-to-the-landers. They had a whole community there and I was invited every Wednesday to go to their potluck dinners. These guys were way more sophisticated that I was. They had farms that were established for years and they knew how to ferment beverages. The only thing I had to bring was this ash bread. Curiously enough, it was the one piece of their dinners that had not been fulfilled. They encouraged me to keep baking and growing. As I got my house finished, I had built a small brick oven. I started baking loaves to bring to these potluck dinners. The dinners were open to the public and there was more than just the farming community coming and it got to the point where I would go to the potluck dinner on a Wednesday and I would have an order for 6 or 8 loaves of bread to sell. I started supporting my family little by little as a baker.
My reputation became so great that our house became inundated with people crossing the bridge to come for the bread so I found a place to set up. I found a local market that I could rent out at night to use their oven facility. It was tiny. I probably had 16 square feet of work space and a little Blodgett oven. I would load these 1x12 boards into my station wagon and work up this scaffolding system to support the breads at different stages of their development. I would drive back home, pick up my kids in the morning, then go on delivery rounds. It was a crazy cycle, but I got quite a reputation. It got to the point where I got local investors to back me and I was able to start a proper bakery on my own really out of community demand, though it was first out of family need. People noticed that these breads tasted really different or authentic, or they were getting flavors off of the breads that they weren't getting elsewhere.
That's the way it grew, really from the ground up. We really dug in the ground!
So why the specific focus on Sicilian?
Sicilian cuisine really fascinates me because the food is their legacy. Their cultural offering is their food. What they have to offer is that conviviality on the street. Their lives have been trafficked over so many times by so many different cultures that their main storage of hereditary information is in their food, their traditions. Meeting a guy on the street and sharing a sandwich and an espresso or a shot of booze… it is all shared that way. The mother-to-daughter transfer of information and bonding is done through cuisine so that was meaningful to me, as well as the exotic nature of the spices. Sicily—because it was occupied by Moors, Saracens, Arabs for so long—has all of this exoticism. There is cumin and caraway, things like that and in the rest of Italy that is just not present. You can be thinking you're eating Croatian food or Moroccan or Indonesian and you'll be in Sicily. Sicily has curry! It has curry authentically. It is part of some of their culture. You don't find that on the mainland anywhere.
I cut for myself a boundary, which I have always enjoyed doing in life. I like creating for myself limits. I say, "This is how far I am going to go, now how deep can I go into that experience?" That is what I love about Sicily. I can go back thousands of years and extricate all of these spices, nuances, and stuff like that and in doing so, I keep myself very well occupied.
NOTE: This interview originally ran in Spring of 2014.