Ugo Allesina of Prego, Part One
Of all the Los Angeles-area airports, John Wayne has the best food within easy striking distance. The traffic at LAX prevents people from eating nearby; Burbank's airport is in an absolute desert of food, and Ontario is even worse. Long Beach has some good options, but if you're on your way out on a long flight and need something to stop the temptation of the crap they sell on planes, head for John Wayne an hour or two early and eat a real meal at Prego.
This week we are proud to have Executive Chef and Partner Ugo Allesina on the line. There will be more Q & A tomorrow, and Thursday the chef himself will be sharing a great spring recipe. OC Weekly: What are six words to describe your food?
Ugo Allesina: Authentic, fresh, flavorful, simple, and simultaneously traditional and contemporary.
OCW: What are ten words to describe you?
UA: Passionate, dedicated, workaholic, easy going, loving, fanatic (for quite a few things), family-oriented, determined, punctual and curious (I'm always interested in learning about new things).
OCW: Favorite pastime:
UA: Watching movies. I love Braveheart--I've seen it 20 times and know lines by heart. I also like the Gladiator and "Spaghetti Westerns" such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
OCW: Most undervalued ingredient:
UA: Fresh herbs--they can really change the flavor of an entire dish. I only use fresh herbs in my dishes because even if the guests can't tell, I can.
OCW: Rules of conduct in your kitchens:
UA: At Prego, because we have an open kitchen, I expect anyone behind the line to act with the utmost integrity and know that they are being watched. I don't expect them to perform like actors, but I will say their cooking has been known to draw a crowd.
OCW: What's one food you refuse to eat?
UA: I'll eat anything. One can never say that they hate something without trying it. I'm pretty open.
OCW: What's one food you can't live without?
UA: Bread. There's nothing in the world like freshly baked bread.
OCW: Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
UA: Orange County itself is the best "Piazza"--that means that it is a great backdrop to showcase your art, mine being food.
OCW: What fast food is your least favorite?
UA: ALL of it... I try to stay away from all fast food. Not only for health reasons, but there is a misconception that it is cheaper than preparing a fresh meal at home.
OCW: What's your best culinary tip for the home cook?
UA: Keep your dishes simple. Don't go overboard with too many flavors. And keep it fresh--make a list and go shopping for your ingredients when you're ready to cook. Also, feel free to experiment. Sometimes deviating from a recipe may seem like a mistake, but some of the best dishes were a result of a mistake!
OCW: What's your after-work hangout?
UA: This one's easy--at home with my family. I don't value anything more than those I love and those who love me. My wife, Michelle, and son, Gianluca, who is 11 years old, are my world.
OCW: If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
UA: For the Pope at the Vatican. When I was a child, my parents wanted to be a priest! Of course, I've always been interested in food and I would love to see what the Vatican kitchen looks like!
OCW: Who's your favorite celebrity chef?
UA: Nick Stellino. He grew up in Palermo, on the island of Sicily, and came to the United States in 1975. In 1991, he decided to leave his lucrative career as a Wall Street stockbroker to follow his dream of becoming a chef. I admire his journey and fearlessness.
OCW: What are you doing right now that excites you the most?
UA: Having launched a weekend brunch, every Saturday and Sunday I have the opportunity to make a variety of egg dishes and Belgian waffles, beignets (with my own twist) and so many other dishes that have me excited and experimenting in the kitchen. This is a new chapter in the Prego story and I'm optimistic we'll really become a known brunch location (the bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys for $6.50 are already luring them in).
OCW: Celebrity chef who should shut up:
UA: I think anyone who speaks without having an educated response is best keeping his mouth closed. This is not limited to chefs.
OCW: What's your proudest moment as a chef/restaurant owner?
UA: Probably last year, when owners Ruth and Tony Bedi purchased Prego to restore it to its original state... this restaurant is now celebrating 25 years and has so much history to cherish. I've been here for more than a decade and have enjoyed getting to know the community. What wonderful people!
OCW: What's your favorite music to cook by?
UA: Bocelli, of course!
OCW: What's the best food place in the world?
UA: ITALY! You know I am going to say that, but if I could do one thing without regard for consequences, I would open a bed & breakfast in Tuscany. One that would be 100 percent self-sustaining: I would grow my own ingredients in a produce & herb garden, make my own wine & cheese, and focus on the little things in life. Of course, the Tuscan countryside would be enough to keep me happy.
OCW: What's your favorite restaurant in America?
UA: I can't really answer this right now, because being born and raised in Italy and now living in Orange County, one of my dreams is to travel the country. I love to see Wyoming--this may sound odd, given that my wife, son and I have traveled throughout Europe, but my trips to Wyoming were solo vacations where I was able to fly fish, go horseback riding and skeet shooting. The place I visited is 80 miles outside of Cheyenne and there was no electricity--it was very peaceful and an opportunity for me to get in touch with nature. I'm sure there are many more of those locations around the country, with great restaurants too!
Ugo Allesina is Executive Chef and Partner at Prego Ristorante, 18420 Von Karman Ave., Irvine; (949) 553-1333.
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