When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, I thought I would never eat in a restaurant again. Everywhere I looked, gluten loomed. And the dangers of cross-contamination seemed too much to brave. So I stayed at home and cooked. Sure, I ate better for all my meals being made from scratch in my own kitchen, and I found a passion for cooking I had never known before. But still. Never eat in a restaurant again?
To never experience sitting with friends at a table covered with crisp white linen and gleaming silverware, watching the waiters emerge from the kitchen with plates of beautiful food, and cross my fingers hoping that was my dinner. My food. To close my eyes in pleasure at the taste of creamy polenta or tender roasted asparagus or bacon-wrapped scallops. And then to stand in my kitchen the next day, hoping to re-create the feeling with my hands.
Thinking I would never eat in a restaurant again simply made me sad. But I knew, for certain, that I would never eat in an Italian restaurant again. Of course.
Well, watch what you think you know for certain. It could all turn on its head. Not only did I end up marrying a chef who turned his restaurant gluten-free, but we also went to Italy for our honeymoon. And not only is it much easier to eat gluten-free in restaurants than I was led to believe, but I eat regularly in one of the best Italian restaurants in the country, always safe, and always sated.
Volterra is the much-respected Seattle restaurant run by married couple, Don Curtiss and Michelle Quisenberry. They met and fell in love in Seattle, running monthly cooking classes in their home, and developing quite a devoted following. Since Don’s mother is from Sicily, and he had been cooking Italian food in restaurant kitchens for nearly 20 years, they decided to visit Italy together. There, they fell in love with a little Tuscan hill town called Volterra. The fresh ingredients and Tuscan way of life inspired them both. Don and Michelle were married in the town. When they returned to Seattle, they opened a restaurant with the values and flavors of Volterra in mind.
Almost immediately, the restaurant was considered one of the best in the city. And now, beyond. Rachael Ray proclaimed it one of her favorite restaurants in the world. Their flavored salts (including fennel salt and porcini salt) have shown up in goody bags for the Oscars and other glittering events.
Me? I just love their pork cheeks.
“We braise the pork cheeks — such an under-used part of the pig — in celery root, carrots, onions, horseradish, red wine, demi-glace, and chicken stock. By the time they’re done, they’re just so tender they fall apart in your mouth.”
I nod as I chew. Danny and I are sitting in front of a plate of the pork cheeks, served with buckwheat polenta and a plethora of seasonal vegetables, cooked just right. I’m taking notes on each of the dishes, listening to Don and smiling at Michelle. Mostly, though, I just want to put my head down and eat. I mean, look at that plate. Don’t you want to eat it?
While we ate (I tried not to smack my lips), Don talked more with us about pork. “The Italians love pork. Love it. Think of all the salumi — coppa, pancetta, and prosciutto. In the middle ages, to be rich was to have salt. Because if you had salt, you could cure the pork, and that meant you could always have meat. It’s just very Italian to use everything, to make something out of every part of the pig.”
Bless the Italians. Those pork cheeks were heaven — chewy on first bite, then fall-apart tender a moment later. Before I met Danny, and entered the world of restaurant cooking, I had never eaten cheeks of any kind. Now, halibut cheeks with sorrel sauce is a casual spring dinner for us. But pork cheeks? Oh my. We have to try making these.
And then there were the sausages.
Don told us how the kitchen at Volterra receives whole pigs every week, purchased locally, and breaks them down to use each part. They have begun curing their own guanciale. And for months, they have been making sausages by hand.
Oh, these sausages. Sweet Italian sausages flecked with fennel and fresh herbs. These were so addictive that we had to hold our hands under the table to not eat them all at once. Not everyone is so restrained. Apparently, the Sunday before, a famous Spanish chef had been into Volterra for brunch. He loved the sausages so much that he ate all the ones served to him, then drifted over to the chafing dishes, grabbed more sausages, and ate. Apparently, he finished 10 of them, in all.
To be fair, I should mention that Don and Michelle have become friends of ours, because of an exultation to their restaurant I wrote on my website, long ago. These two attended our wedding, and brought food. So you might think we’re being too effusive when we say: these pork dishes were orgasmic.
Really, though, we’re just telling the truth. Go to Volterra and try these for yourself. You’ll see. You’ll be back, for more pork cheeks and sausage.
5411 Ballard Avenue
Seattle, WA 98107