Feasting Famously with Chef Luigi Diotaiuti
The Italian-born Chef at Al Tiramisu chats about his passion for fresh ingredients & love of cooking
You’ve walked past it a million times, or at least something like it. A busy row of restaurants, a grocery store, a sandwich shop, a liquor store, an awning with a jester on it, a pizza place; a seemingly endless row of options and choices. Yet this particular awning with a jester on it nestled on P Street NW right off Dupont Circle, is home to an eccentric bald Italian with a red scarf around his neck and bow tie pasta fabric shaped buttons on his Chef’s coat, who is doing incredibly simple yet amazing things with impeccably fresh product. His name is Luigi, and his restaurant is Al Tiramisu.
Walking into a warm and comforting space with a small bar, clean white table cloths, a crackling fire towards the rear during the colder months, and often hearing the laughter from the kitchen, you feel warm. Almost like the space is hugging you as you reach your table. It’s nice; it’s familiar though you have never been. Wine seems appropriate. And like someone had him in a box and was winding the rod until he couldn’t take it anymore, out pops Chef Luigi. He’s happy; hell, he’s probably never unhappy. He sits, we talk.
Chef Luigi worked in renowned restaurants, such as the ones of Hotel Georges V in Paris, the Grand Hotel Bauer Grunwald in Venice, Il Gourmet restaurant and Hotel Bellavista in Montecatini, Tuscany and Costa Smeralda and Forte Village in Sardinia. Chef Luigi opened Al Tiramisu restaurant in 1996, after having worked in several Italian restaurants in Washington, DC.
Growing up in a farm in Italy where the closest neighbor was four miles away, they were very self-sufficient. I’m talking cows, goats, homemade cheese, self-harvested meats; they did it all themselves. “We only had sugar, salt, and coffee, everything else we made ourselves,” he says with a very healthy accent. “My sister still has the same culture from 60 years ago we still make cheese from,” and he says this tradition of making everything from scratch is something he still carries on at the restaurant.
“Immediately the first two weeks when I went to the culinary school, I was like ‘Oh my God where was I before,’” he says, “I felt like a sponge.” Chef Luigi says that food, and cooking with fresh ingredients is his calling in life. “I’ve never stopped learning and working since.” This dedication has resulted in Chef Luigi being the first certified Sommelier from the Association of Italian Sommeliers in Washington, DC.
The Chef recounts his experience coming to DC for the first time, leaving the plentiful fields of Italy where fresh ingredients meant you walked outside, and he says he’s seen the city transform. “I saw all the huge changes in the city and I’ve seen the food tsunami over the last couple of years hit DC. When I first started here, in the early 90s, there was nothing really. Steakhouse here and there, but no real fresh food markets, nothing.”
I make Italian like it’s supposed to be made.
Staying true to what he knows, he didn’t try to, or want to invent a new fusion of food, or a new genre. Chef Luigi sought out the freshest ingredients at the time. Now, he says he loves the local Dupont farmers market where he can source fresh product to make things like his in house duck prosciutto with fresh made fig jam, or use fresh arugula in a peppery salad. “One of the great things I did when I opened Tiramisu, I said, ‘Let’s do real Italian,’ there was a need for that, there was no need to invent anything new. I make Italian like it’s supposed to be made. I introduced a lot of fish; I show people a tray of fish. Some from Italy, some from others, just to show the variety.”
I ask Chef Luigi when he’s not cooking for himself, where he likes to go out to eat in DC. “You have ask yourself,” he says, “‘Why do you want to go? You go for a drink, or you going to go meet a bunch of friends.” For him, it depends what type of food he is interested in seeking out – and it appears he has his favorites. “For Middle Eastern I like Neyla, French I like Marcel, American I prefer Vidalia, new America I like Corduroy – it’s fantastic food and service.”
He does have aspirations for television however, but not the typical “power Food stars” one might think of, and certainly not food competition shows. “I’m more for culture and information, and how to teach people how to cook”, he says. He believes in the integration of Mother Nature, and people and products. “How are you going to say on TV ‘oh, I’m better than you and this is better than that’ no, it isn’t like that. Food is food, onions are onions, let’s go back to the fundamental first, how are you going to peel the onions, and know how long it takes to properly cook them.”
And he is true to his word; one of the things that the Chef does transform Al Tiramisu’s kitchen into the scene of cooking classes covering all 20 regions of Italy. Chef Luigi provides a real “flavor” of each region—its history, culture, inhabitants, and food and wine specialties—before students enjoy three courses with wine pairings from the region. Chef Luigi has even hosted cooking classes for elementary school children in his kitchen.
Admiring Chef Luigi for what he stands for, his love of life and food, and his humor, I tell him I am going to ask him to play a word association game. Taking a minute to explain this as perhaps it didn’t translate properly, he laughs boldly before saying, “yes, okay, let’s go!” and the Feasting Famously Fast Five begins.
Scallops – fava bean puree
Red wine – cheese
Lamb – ragu
Rosemary – sage (adding, “They go well together.”)
Italian women – hot
The Chef is honest and pure, as is the food. You won’t see towers of stacked food here, or pasta cooked to unrecognizable temperatures; it’s simple, as real Italian should be. If you’ve walked past this area recently, stop at the blue awning with a little Jester on it, as “tiramisu” translates to “lift or pick me up” in Italian, and the food does just that.
Read my review of Al Tiramisu on HungryLobbyist.com.