The Grilling Gods laughed. But Chef Nunzio prevailed in the end.
We have all been there. You invite a bunch of friends over for an afternoon cookout. You get your mise en place all mise en place-like. You are ready to fire up the gas grill and then…nothing. No happy blue flame. Not even a flicker.
Such was the case when I recently attended a Cooking with Nunzio demonstration being held on the back patio of Nunzio Ristorante Rustico in Collingswood. And there was Chef Nunzio Patruno, doing anything and everything to get his grill going. Even with a couple of different members of the audience trying to provide assistance, it was clear that the patient was not going to be revived. But here’s the thing about skillfull chefs: they know how to improvize with what they have been given. And so, while the kitchen went to work preparing our meal that was to be grilled, Chef Nunzio brought his class over to the farmers’ market for a tour.
If you’re going to take a stroll through the Collingswood Farmers’ Market, and I hope you do so if you haven’t already, Chef Nunzio is one to have alongside. Besides being a born talker, he is genuinely excited about food and has strong feelings about the subject. When it comes to your food, he believes you should buy local as often as you can; the quality is better and you help to keep those businesses alive. If you get your salad dressing from the store, STOP IT, he says – you’re putting poison into your body. And don’t even get him started about what they charge for seafood at supermarkets, or even the quality that you are getting.
Chef Nunzio knows the purveyors at the farmers’ market, and was easily schmoozing with them as he conversed with his hungry band of followers. It was interesting to hear him compare different vegetables that can be found here versus what he was accustomed to back in Italy. He is not one of Italian-American descent: he is Italian, and his view of food is based on that upbringing. Simple cooking with ingredients of high quality.
After the market stroll, it was back to the patio and time for our meal. As the different courses came out, Chef Nunzio did demonstrations on how to prepare each dish. Plates of grilled vegetables were the first to arrive. To me, there are few things more simple and delicious than grilled vegetables.
Next up would be grilled sea scallops with spinach and balsamic vinegar. Over the years, I have come to appreciate scallops that are prepared with skill and care. One sure sign that scallops have not been prepared well? Crunching on grains of sand while you are sinking your teeth. These scallops, prepared by Nunzio’s kitchen, had not one grain. And they were tender. And they were lovely.
Then came the grilled lamb. I love lamb, and the chef’s grilled lamb had much to love. Served with salmoriglio sauce (lemon juice, garlic, oregano, parsley, and olive oil…with a few other ingredients added), which was also used as the marinade, there was a nice contrast of the heavy with the bright. A little charred, a little citrus, tender and pink in the middle…not much to grumble about here.
Speaking of not much grumbling…
When Nunzio’s opened back in 2003, they were one of five restaurants in Collingswood (now there are at least twenty-three at last count). It has become one of the anchor eateries in Haddon Avenue. As I sat and ate and chatted with the folks at my table, it was clear to see that many of them were regular customers. They could not say enough nice things about Chef Nunzio and his restaurant. As fun and exciting it is to be drawn to The Next Shiny Thing that comes to Collingswood, it is good to know that places like Nunzio Ristorante Rustico has found a place with locals and has carved a secure niche.
By the end of the event, Chef Nunzio and those who had gathered were chatting, joking, taking another relaxed sip of their wine. Happy. Content. Despite their best efforts, the Grilling Gods did not spoil the afternoon. And we still would have welcomed them with open arms and a glass of wine.
Nunzio Ristorante Rustico
706 Haddon Avenue
Chef Nunzio holds regular cooking demonstrations on Saturday mornings. Check the website for upcoming classes.