A Taste of Authentic Italy in St Louis: Michael Cross interviews Dawn Wilson of Vicini Pastaria
Where you are from originally and what inspired you to dedicate your career to making authentic Italian cuisine, and specifically traditional pasta making?
I was born and raised in St. Louis, moved to Chicago for college and grad school, and stayed for 20 years through a major career change from a research scientist to a chef, and the launch of my two businesses, A New Dawn cooking school and personal chef service and Vicini Pastaria. I had always loved Italian cuisine and dabbled in pasta-making for some of my personal chef clients but it wasn’t until a spontaneous move to Italy for culinary training in 2011 that my true passion for Italian cuisine, especially fresh pasta, was truly ignited. It was there that I realized how integral pasta is to Italian culture and the impressive diversity of pasta shapes that exist throughout Italy. I absolutely love making pasta from scratch. I find it remarkable that you can make one of the most adored and delightful foods in so many different varieties of texture and flavor from just a few simple ingredients and a little bit of “elbow grease”.
For how long did you live in Italy and which is your favorite region?
I lived in Italy in a small central Tuscan town called Colle di Val d’Elsa for about five months in 2011 and have been back for shorter stays several times since to explore other regions. During my stay in Tuscany, I worked full time in a small, rustic slowfood restaurant called Officina della Cucina Popolare, learning more about handmade pasta and Tuscan cuisine. Following my stage at Officina, I traveled and tasted my way around Italy with stops in many regions including Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Umbria, Veneto, Piemonte, and the Amalfi Coast. It’s certainly hard to pick a favorite region as there are still so many more that I’m eager to visit and they are all so unique and wonderful in their own way, but I’d have to say I’m partial to Tuscany, especially the small hill towns, as that is where I’ve spent the most time and my stay in Tuscany was such a life-changing experience for me both personally and professionally and really shaped and focused my culinary style.
Americans can often confuse Italian-American food and authentic Italian cuisine. As an American, Dawn, what can you teach native St Louisans about authentic and traditional Italian cuisine?
Let me just start by saying that I adore both Italian-American and authentic Italian food, but I would agree that they are two very separate and distinct types of cuisine. For me, I’ll always be a “student” in all aspects of life, constantly learning, changing, growing and greedily soaking in all the new information and life experiences that I can. There is always more to discover about Italian cuisine and I still have so much more to learn so a lot of the fun and joy for me is to explore different regions, variations, recipes, and dishes from the traditional well-known classics to more obscure regional dishes and variations through my travels, connections I made while living in Italy, cookbooks, and also talking with guests at the restaurant about their own experiences in Italy and with Italian cuisine. I love to hear our guests’ stories of their connections with Italy, from tales of their latest trip to the Amalfi Coast or growing up in Florence, to Nonna’s famous meatball recipe, to helping me practice my rusty Italian language skills, or discussing Italian family ancestry so I feel like we all have a lot to teach each other and are learning together.
What is the story behind the name Vicini Pastaria? Why did you choose the Lafayette Square neighborhood for your shop/cafe?
Vicini means “neighbors” which I chose because all who walk through our doors are welcomed as neighbors, friends, or family. I love that a shared meal has the unique and remarkable ability to bring people together and remind us that we are all neighbors in some sense whether we are sharing the same neighborhood, city, country, or even the same planet. At Vicini, we strive to create a genuine Italian experience in a comfortable, inclusive, inviting atmosphere that feels like you’re just popping over to a neighbor’s or friend’s home to share a meal. Lafayette Square felt like the perfect place to open Vicini because this neighborhood is so welcoming and inclusive as well and there is such a strong sense of community here
What types of dishes do you serve at your cafe? What varieties of pastas do you make daily?
We serve a small counter-service lunch menu focused around our artisanal handmade pasta dishes and panini on our housemade schiacciata bread. The menu changes up a bit from week to week but we always keep our signature hand-rolled pici pasta on the menu along with a variety of panini on our housemade schiacciata bread, a handful of antipasti including house-marinated rosemary-orange olives and caperberries and prosciutto e burrata and offer at least 1-4 specials each week. Our selection of pastas sold raw to cook at home is always changing but we typically have a variety of hand-rolled or hand-cut pasta shapes such as pici, tagliatelle, farfalle, or spaghetti alla chitarra, stuffed pastas such as goat cheese ravioli, truffle-hazelnut agnolotti, or ramp-ricotta culurgiones, and artisan bronze die-extruded pastas such as spinach-arugula campanelle, reginette, or casarecce along with a rotating selection of housemade sauces including puttanesca, arugula-almond pesto, sugo all’amatriciana, and/or many different varieties of ragú.
What is your favorite Italian dish to make?
Pici cacio e pepe. Our signature pasta and one of the most loved pasta shapes originating in Siena is pici, a rustic hand-rolled rope-shaped pasta somewhat similar in shape to spaghetti but much thicker and more rustic. Few restaurants, even in Tuscany, still roll their pici by hand but I was lucky enough that the restaurant I worked for still practiced that dying art and I learned to meticulously roll each strand of pici by hand. Aside from the fact that it’s nostalgic for me and reminds me of my time in Italy, pici is also one of my favorite shapes of pasta because it is “perfectly imperfect” with slightly thicker and thinner sections along each strand due to the hand-rolling. This inherent variability in texture; ranging from tender to chewy; changes the diner's experience from bite to bite. Hand-rolling pici certainly is a “labor of love” but it’s also quite therapeutic and incredibly satisfying to see a mound of flour magically transform into a delicious plate of pasta using your own two hands while your mind wanders. I was also blown away the first time I had cacio e pepe that so few ingredients could create such an incredible dish.
I'd like to thank Dawn for agreeing to this interview. I'm more than impressed by her passion and talent. There is nothing quite like Vicini Pastaria in St Louis. For those craving an authentic taste of Italy in St Louis, and for all the Italian expats here, you won't be disappointed! You can find Vicini Pastaria's location and hours of operation by visiting Chef Dawn Wilson's website: www.vicinipastaria.com
Thanks for reading! - Michael Cross