Getting a Taste of Little Italy in Taos

Out the window

Photo: Tina Larkin

The concept

Jennifer DeBow, Mondo Italiano partner, knew exactly what she wanted to do when she conceived of the restaurant—she longed to capture the flavor of the East Coast Italian American food that she had enjoyed during her childhood inManhattan. “I put together the menu based on the dishes I used to eat inNew York City,” she said. “Each item has been taken from a specific restaurant.”

Next, she and partner Genaro Jimenez set out to find the chefs that would make her vision a reality. They found them—Craig Kennah and Alex Giordano, both with extensive culinary and Italian backgrounds.

“We are thrilled with the chefs,” said DeBow. “The linguini with clam sauce (linguini alla Vongole) that Craig makes tastes exactly like the one I used to eat as a girl when my father would take me to Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.  I taste Craig’s and go back to that place and time. Alex’s desserts are amazing too. Sometimes people order a cannoli di Ricotta as an appetizer, then an entree, and then cheesecake or vanilla bean ice cream with chocolate truffle for dessert.”

The chefs

Craig Kennah grew up in Queens, attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, Florida and did his chef’s stage (a kind of internship) inFrance.

Kennah is a passionate skier and an outdoors person. After skiing in Europe he moved to Taos because it was “the place that looked more like The Alps in the whole country,” he said. He came in December 2000 and has been here ever since.

He has worked as a chef, first in theSkiValleyand now at Mondo Italiano, and is a culinary arts educator with Taos Youth. He also raises bird dogs, purebred English setters.

“The most rewarding part of being a chef is the genuine thanks that one gets from the satisfied patrons,” he said. “It makes my day to know that someone is really pleased with the hard work I do behind the scenes.”

It’s a great job, he admits, with only one drawback—the long hours that it requires. “As a working chef, I don’t have time for a social life,” he said. “It is difficult to meet women when you are ten hours in the kitchen. And the truth is, a good chef is always in the kitchen.”

Though Mondo Italiano offers a great selection of appetizers, pasta dishes, pizzas and salads, Kennah favors the simplicity of a three-course meal. “I like to celebrate both the earth and the sea in the appetizer and follow with a dish of organic meat and vegetables,” he said. “Finally, I can get crazy with fruit and chocolate; they make superb desserts.”

He confesses a weakness for a local product—chile. “Not only it is popular here, but it is great for the digestive system,” he said. “I like to use it to clean myself, mentally and physically. It tastes good and does good.”

However, Kennah wouldn’t use chile in a typical Mondo Italiano recipe “unless the costumer requests it.” he adds. He’d rather remain faithful to the tradition he represents—American-Italian food fromNew York.

He describes Mondo Italiano as a “red sauce restaurant.” They use lots of crushed tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, other natural oils, and basil. “Basil is our sweetener,” he said.

During spring and summer Mondo Italiano will support local farmers. “We already get plenty of greens and veggies from Lady Bugs Farms,” said Kennah. “They are always fresh and delivered right after picking.”

As for cookware, Kennah has a favorite—a heavy duty pot, 24 inches wide and 6 inches height, perfect for stir fry. “You can sauté anything in it,” he said. “On the lighter level, if you are planning to give a special present to a chef, you can’t go wrong with good knives and whisks. It is always fun to cook with a brand-new utensil.”

Julia Child said, “Have just a bite of cake, not the whole cake.” This is the best advice on life and food that was ever given to Kennah and he wants to pass it on to aspiring chefs. “That is a great way to be fulfilled; enjoy but not devour.”

After he stops working as a chef, Kennah plans to continue raising and selling English setters. “They are my retirement plan,” he said.

The other chef, Alex Giordano, is from Santa Barbara, California. He has been in Taos only since last October and feels that being here is “like being in the perfect vacation spot.”

A master baker, he says of one of his award winning creations —a cannoli filled with ricotta cheese and chocolate chips— that it is “the perfect final chord for any Italian diner.” He is right.

While Kennah takes care of the sauté meals, Giordano is the pizza aficionado. He makes traditional and specialty pizzas —shrimp, Margherita, eggplant, mushroom and many more.

“We work as a team,” he said. “We also train local kids who want to be good cooks. Our combined goal is to give people what they want, the best Italian American food in town.”

Right now, Kennah and Giordano are coming up with lite, cool entrees and salads for the summer. Giordano sums up their philosophy, “As chefs, we strive to give people the kind of experience that we would enjoy for ourselves.”

Three Italian Recipes

Ravioli Dough
10 Oz. unbleached all purpose flour
3 large eggs
Pulse flour in food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Add the eggs, pulse for 30 seconds until small pebbles form.  Add water 1/2 tsp. at a time until the dough sticks to side of bowl.  Pull out of bowl and roll into one tight ball.  Dust with flour and place in plastic wrap, chill in refrigerator 15 min.
Roll very thin with wooden rolling pin or use pasta machine (less than 1/8″ thick) into 3″ sheets.  Place filling in center and roll over end to end.  Using pastry brush, wet dough and press with fingers to seal seams.  Cut with sharp knife and boil in salted water for 3 min.  Toss in butter, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Place raviolis on plate and spoon tomato sauce on top.  Serve with grated Romano cheese.

Parsley and Ricotta Filling
1 C. whole milk ricotta
1 1/2 oz. parmesan cheese- freshly grated
1 large egg yolk
1/2 C. minced fresh parsley leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a bowl.  Use as a ravioli filling in 1/2 oz. portions

Pear Salad
2 C. romaine lettuce coarsely chopped
2 C. arugula
1/4 C. crushed walnuts
1/4 C. crisp cooked bacon or pancetta diced
1/4 C. crumbled bleu cheese or gorgonzola
Toss all ingredients together in:
1/2 C. balsamic vinegar
1/2 C. seedless raspberry jam  whisked together
Garnish the salad with slivers of red onion and thin sliced pear