A Modern Spin on a Classic Feast
Chef Michael Vincent Ferreri combines tradition and style to make his signature Sicilian foodSarah Maiellano
March 12, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Sarah Maiellano examines the modern Sicilian cuisine of Philadelphia hot spot Res Ipsa, and how it's chef Michael Vincent Ferreri is marrying heritage with honed fine-dining skills to make a menu that's entirely his own.
When chef Michael Vincent Ferreri moved to Philadelphia in 2011, the city’s now-hot food scene was just beginning to simmer. “Philly only had a few major players in 2011,” the Rochester native remembers. “Zahav [Michael Solomonov’s James Beard Award–winning modern Israeli restaurant] was just becoming big on the national scene.” Ferreri credits his early entrance into the city’s culinary scene as the springboard for his career.
He started at JBF Award winner Jose Garces’s Basque-themed Tinto, then moved on to the chef’s counter at Zahav. Solomonov then connected him with Joey Baldino [chef/owner of Zeppoli] who was looking for a new sous chef. “Michael said I should go [because] ‘Joey makes the kind of food you like to eat and he’s a good teacher,’” Ferreri recounted.
“Joey taught me a lot about the beauty and simplicity of food and ingredients,” Ferreri recalls. “The fun part of Sicilian food is that there’s no wrong or right way to make it—everybody has their own interpretation.” His next gig, as sous chef at George Sabatino’s Aldine, was an education in modern cooking and plating techniques.
Two years ago, Ferreri joined the owners of a local coffee purveyor and a popular pho restaurant to open Res Ipsa, an all-day cafe with a twist—at night, the space transforms into a Sicilian BYOB. The new restaurant was his first opportunity to take center stage and showcase the hard-earned skills cultivated under Garces, Solomonov, and Baldino. Res Ipsa almost immediately became a destination, driven by the appeal of Ferreri’s signature cuisine: traditional Sicilian through a modern lens.
He makes pasta by hand, artfully recreates his great grandmother’s Sicilian eggplant caponata, ash-roasts potatoes, cooks traditional spaghetti alle vongole, infuses agrodolce chicken with the aromatic flavors of produce scraps, and works with local farms to grow Sicilian ingredients (and mill fresh flour) for his restaurant.
Ferreri, whose great-grandparents came to the U.S. from Caltanissetta, Sicily, aims to adhere to the cooking methods of “a 90-year-old grandmother,” while elevating homecooked rustic fare to make “aesthetically beautiful dishes.” The menu at Res Ipsa embodies the traditional flavors of Sicily, particularly the island’s iconic agrodolce, a combination of sweet and sour that Ferreri finds endlessly fascinating. In fact, it will serve as a central motif of his upcoming dinner at the James Beard House on March 19.
At the celebratory St. Joseph’s Feast meal, Ferreri will serve his favorite dish: pasta con le sarde. It’s considered a national dish of Sicily and is “something they always eat on St. Joseph’s Day,” he says. The recipe includes sardines, pine nuts, raisins, fennel, tomato, saffron, and—symbolizing the sawdust in St. Joseph’s carpentry shop—bread crumbs. “It’s so different—agrodolce isn’t a flavor you normally find in pasta dishes,” he explains. Customarily, bucatini pasta is used, but Ferreri’s version features handmade malloreddus, a miniature version of gnocchi found in Sardinia.
Ferreri became familiar with the traditions of the Feast of St. Joseph while working with Zeppoli. “It’s a promise that the Sicilian people kept,” Ferreri says. During a famine, they prayed to St. Joseph for food to grow and the first crops sprouted on March 19. Since then, Sicilians celebrate their patron saint with a massive feast every year.
As one of the first things that grow in springtime, Sicilians serve fava beans in a dried form, called maccu, on the holiday. His Beard House menu doubles down on the beans in an appetizer of maccu toasts with fava bean pureé and fresh fava bean salad. He’ll also serve traditional Sicilian scacce—yeasty bread stuffed with anchovies and tomato. “Every bite is like the edge piece of lasagna and the best bite of pizza,” he says.
Seafood is another St. Joseph’s feast classic, as are hearty foods like chickpeas and lentils that help stretch out a meal when the crop yield is low. In that tradition, Ferreri will serve grilled octopus over olive oil–coated lentils, squid ink purée, garlic yogurt, chile sauce, and risotto crackers. More seafood will come in the form of smoky swordfish, grilled with a hunk of orange and served over chickpeas and Castelvetrano olives.
Pastries, especially sfinges (ricotta-filled fried dough), round out the feast day, and will be served as part of dessert (along with cannoli and pine nut–studded cookies). And Ferreri is bringing local ingredients—fresh herbs, pasta flour, heirloom onions, and Parmesan-style pecorino—from a farm in the Lancaster area.
He sums up the meal this way: “We’ll adhere to a lot of the traditions of St. Joseph’s Day, but with our own twist. The way we do at Res Ipsa. Simple, but insanely good food. A lot of thought, love, and care goes into it.”
Ferreri, whose parents both cooked for a living, says, “It was always a dream of my dad’s to move to a big city and see if he could cut his teeth, but he never got the chance.” Getting to the point in his career where he’s headlining a Beard House dinner is something Ferreri considers an “honor and distinction.”
“I always hope that my food evokes a memory for people,” Ferreri says. “A warm memory about the food that their grandma made, a trip to Sicily, or dinner at an Italian friend’s house...[creating that] feeling is one of the most important things we do [as chefs]. It makes me feel really good about doing my job.”