Chef Ken Vedrinski – Trattoria Lucca & Coda del Pesce – Charleston, SC & a Recipe for Espresso Gelato
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. ~ Harold Whitman
Passion. To be passionate about what you do is reflected in your work, your outlook on life, and if you are a chef, in your food. Food created out of passion is good food and when many people (including other chefs) in Charleston, South Carolina are seeking really good food, they book a table at Trattoria Lucca. When you think of Charleston dining, the area between King Street and East Bay offers some of the finest restaurants in the Untied States. A few years ago we were directed off the usual path to dine with Chef Ken Vedrinski in an area of town that was very unfamiliar.
When you call to make a reservation (if you can get one), it is likely that Chef Vedrinski will personally answer your phone call. As the chef/owner of Lucca, he oversees every aspect of his restaurant. You will find Vedrinski answering the phone, talking with his purveyors about what’s available that day, ordering the wines, writing the checks, and individually hand making about eighteen pounds of homemade pasta, each and every day. For Chef Vedrinski, Lucca is truly a labor of love as his day is quite different from the size and ambition of his past experiences.
No stranger to receiving accolades for his talent in the kitchen over the years, when Vedrinski was executive chef at The Restaurant at Woodlands Inn & Resort, he received the only Mobile Five Stars awarded to a South Carolina restaurant. The restaurant was also given the only perfect food score in North America by Condé Nast Traveler in 2002. With a focus solely on Italian cuisine, his Sienna Restaurant on Daniel Island, South Carolina was named one of the Best New American Restaurants in 2004 by Esquire magazine. Following Lucca’s opening in 2008, the restaurant was a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant in 2009 and Vedrinski was a semi-finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2011. Most recently, Lucca was named one of the Best Italian Restaurants in the United States by Travel & Leisure (2012).
The sparkle in his eye and his laughter as he works the pasta extruder tells us without a doubt that this is something he loves to do. You can also feel that vibe in his bustling restaurant in the evenings as Vedrinski makes the rounds with his guests, many times offering to cook for them, rather than having them order off the menu. Most importantly, with whatever you decide to order, the passion for doing what he loves most comes through in his food.
Over the past several years we have had the opportunity to spend time with Chef Vedrinski. We got to know the person, his desires and ambitions, so we were surprised to learn that he decided to open a second restaurant on the Isle of Palms, about twenty minutes outside of town. His new venture, Coda del Pesce, which means “Tail of the Fish,” was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up when it was presented to him. Located directly on the water (which is hard to come by) in an area that he felt needed more restaurants, this new concept allows him to create a menu focused on the two things he is most passionate about, great Italian food and as the name suggests, fresh local seafood.
Changing his menus daily based on what is available can be a challenge, but Vedrinski is committed to it. His respect for his purveyors is evident in every dish that comes out of the kitchen. “Italian food is ingredients driven, but it’s not everything,” he told us. “You can take something really great from a farmer or artisan who is very passionate about their product and as a chef, you have to give as much passion to the product as the farmer or artisan who created it. He added, “You have to be in love with cooking. If you can’t equal the passion on your side as the restaurateur or chef, it doesn’t matter what products you buy.”
We have dined at Vedrinksi’s Lucca every time we’ve traveled to Charleston over the past several years. We look forward to it. The restaurant is always packed. Vedrinski said, “We’re doing something right every night. I’m doing what I need to do to be more successful and to take care of myself. I’ve worked hard to get my own place and I cook what I feel is right.” He likens being a chef to marriage. “You don’t marry someone you like a lot, you marry someone you love. To be good at this, just as in marriage, you need to not just be in love the first day, you need to be in love with it year after year.” Commitment and passion are two things Vedrinski brings to the table every evening.
On our recent visit to Charleston we headed over to Lucca to get an update on the opening of Coda del Pesce. As we talk to Vederinski about the location of the new restaurant and the menu, we watch as he makes the pasta for the evening’s service. It’s fascinating to watch as he alternates between making perfectly textured hand rolled pastas, like raviolis filled with a luscious goat cheese mixture, hand rolled gnudi, or extruded pastas beautifully formed by his machine imported from Italy. All the while he is multitasking as vendors come and go, he writes the occasional check, and continues to answer the phone to make a reservation. “Can I get you a glass of wine?“ he asks, knowing the answer will be yes. “I have a wonderful white wine from Friuli I know you will love.” And of course, he’s right.
On this particular day, while showing us how to make Corzetti (rolled and pressed pasta dough coins which he decorates with a wheat design from an old press he found in Philadelphia), Vedrinski told us “I love to go to Italy to get inspired. There is a Michelin 2-Star restaurant that sits right on the Adriatic, Clandestino Portonovo. You walk down a trail and there’s a little blue building that sits out on the beach. That seven course meal I had there was one of the best of my life and I’ve never forgotten any of the courses.” Maybe that dinner was the part of the inspiration for the evening’s Blue Crab Minestrone with fresh vegetables, a good Umbrian olive oil, and the precious little gems of Corzetti floating on the top.
“I recently turned 50 and at some point you just want to sit and relax. I thought about buying a house in Italy, but doing business there is…so Italian. They want $25,000 in cash up front before they begin to work with you,” he laughs, but tells us that his cousin did the deal with the guy and bought an old Roman farmhouse and it all worked out in the end. “I know I will retire there some day. Italian food is the best in the world. I believe it in my heart.” That retirement may be on the back burner for a while longer with two restaurants keeping him busier than ever.
In the meantime, Vedrinski is bringing Italy to Charleston by combining his talent, passion, and love for Italian food to both Lucca and Coda del Pesce. “Lucca is like a trattoria that you’d find in Italy. People are having fun and laughing. There’s a good energy. I come out and chat and then go back and cook. When you leave, you are happy. I think it’s the right way.” That strategy has worked extremely well for him at Lucca. I can’t wait to see what he does at Coda del Pesce. Table for two, please. Better yet, make that three. There’s nothing better than dining with the chef and listening to him describe his cooking techniques and feeling the love that goes in to each dish.
Chef Vedrinski’s desserts are a perfect way to end a meal at Lucca. The last time we were in town, we enjoyed his Strawberry Olive Oil Cake with Strawberry Gelato and a Strawberry Compote which was the inspiration for this dessert. We’ve also had a selection of gelato flavors at Lucca, so he thought a recipe for Espresso Gelato would be perfect to share with my readers for their summertime desserts.
This recipe was the first that I prepared in our new Breville ice cream maker and we were really impressed. I modified the recipe to work with this particular machine and took a few preparation tips from the booklet that came with it. The texture was incredible; smooth and creamy and really luscious.
If you enjoy coffee ice cream, you will adore the richer and deeper espresso flavor of this gelato. Serve with a shot of Amaretto or make Affogato for a delectable way to end a meal.
In fact, it’s so good, you may want to have a few scoops for breakfast the next day. It’s the perfect way to combine your morning’s espresso with eggs and a glass of milk.
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Yield: 1 1/2 quarts
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes plus chilling and freezing time
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
.45 ounces ground espresso (from beans, not instant powder)
6 egg yolks, at room temperature
7 ounces sugar
1. Combine milk, heavy cream, and ground espresso in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Stir thoroughly to combine liquids and ground espresso and let steep for 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, place egg yolks and sugar in a medium bowl. Beat with a hand mixer or wire whisk until doubled in size and the mixture is pale yellow. Set aside.
3. Strain the espresso grounds from the milk and cream mixture through a fine sieve into a clean bowl or large measuring cup. Gradually add the hot liquids to the egg yolks and sugar, tempering the mixture. Pour combined mixture into a clean medium-size saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, just until the mixture coats the back of a stainless steel spoon. When you can draw a line down the spoon and the mixture stays put, the custard is done. This should only take a few minutes. Do not overcook.
4. Pour the custard into a medium-size clean bowl. Let cool at room temperature and then cover. For best results, let the custard remain in the refrigerator overnight.
5. Freeze according to you ice cream maker's directions. Remove and place in an airtight freezer container, covering the top of the gelato with saran wrap to avoid ice crystals. Freeze until ready to serve.
* The texture of the gelato was best after just several hours in the freezer.
Recipe adapted from Chef Ken Vedrinski
Trattoria Lucca - Charleston, SC and Coda del Pesce - Isle of Palms, SC