Atlanta chef welcomes guests to the simplistic philosophies of Italian cuisine.
Like many of her friends at the time, Chef Linda Harrell found her first job at an Italian restaurant in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood.
She studied “The Escoffier Cookbook” from cover to cover and soon landed an apprenticeship through the American Culinary Federation under acclaimed Chef Daniel Yves Abid, who provided classical training in fine European cuisine. Yet, Harrell is still devoted to the cuisine of Italy.
“It’s where I started. I trained under French chefs and did the French thing for awhile but came right back to Italian,” she says. “I use some of my training in French technique when making sauces, when they need that refinement. But for the most part, the best Italian are the simple, more peasant- like dishes.”
At Cibo e Beve (which translates to food and drink) in Atlanta, Georgia, Harrell welcomes guests to an Italian family meal drizzled with her own spin. As chef and partner since the doors opened in 2011, she strives for a welcoming atmosphere for every diner. The inviting restaurant design features an open kitchen with an antipasto bar, where guests are welcome sit. “They can see everything that is going on and talk to some of my cooks,” she says. “We want guests to feel like they’re part of what is going on during service. And I always want to know how their experience with us has been.”
The Cibo e Beve menu focuses heavily on fresh, seasonal and local produce. “We let the food speak for itself,” she says, which is a central philosophy of Italian cooking. Dishes at Cibo are actually a blend of many Italian cuisines; Harrell focuses on the Tuscan and Southern Italy flavors while her sous chef, Patrick Money, specializes in Northern Italy, from which he hails.
Although she’s creative, it’s important for Harrell to preserve the classic Italian techniques. “I try to keep the traditions of how something is supposed to be made,” she says. “I think you need to really understand a cuisine. Once you do, then you can create things that can be considered just as authentically Italian as the classics.”
She looks forward to each season’s fresh bounty, whether squash, turnips or lemon drop melons, which are a favorite of hers. “It looks like honeydew but has a citrus flavor, and it’s so good,” she says. She uses it in her classic prosciutto melon offering, which is “really old school but really refreshing.” She’s known for putting an updated spin on old favorites, and melon balls with prosciutto is just one example.
Harrell herself prefers the simpler dishes. “I love a good tagliata (sliced steak) with sale aromatico, arugula and fresh tomato finished with a fantastic extra virgin olive oil,” she says.
It helps to be picky when searching for good ingredients, and she suggests bringing local vendors and farmers in for lots of taste-testing. “I think chefs are becoming more aware of Italian ingredients that aren’t as mainstream as say prosciutto, Parmigiano and mozzarella. Now, we are starting to see more availability of Italian specialty items than in the past, such as n’duja (spreadable salami), cotechino (sausage) and guanciale (salami),” she says. “It’s great because even items like the n’duja and cotechino can be found made locally. I know several chefs around town making their own prosciutto, and I make my own duck prosciutto, tuna prosciutto, pancetta, pasta (obviously) and limoncello—all kinds of things.”
Her team likes to get creative, too. Their Crispy Brussels dish features smoky bacon, a poached farm egg and Pecorino cheese. Entree specialty Tonno in Crosta consists of pistachio and sesameencrusted ahi tuna, baby arugula, farro salad and orange-ginger vinaigrette.
Throughout the years, Harrell has adopted a more polished approach to food. “You understand food more as you go along,” she says. “The passion has always been there, but I definitely grasped onto the local/neighborhood concept more than I ever have before.”
That’s why, inside her restaurant, everything is made fresh inhouse (except the bread, which is delivered daily). From pastas to desserts, it’s all made from scratch in her kitchen.
When it’s time to change the menu, Harrell aims to please her customers while being true to herself. “The reward is a passion for the food that we make and that smile on someone’s face because they loved your food—those are the things that make us happy.”