This week we are featuring Executive Chef and Partner Ugo Allesina of Prego Ristorante in north Irvine on the line. If you missed Part One of the interview, you can find it here. Stay tuned tomorrow for a recipe from Chef Ugo!
OC Weekly: What would you like to see more of in Orange County from a culinary standpoint?
Ugo Allesina: A focus on the freshest ingredients, organic produce and humanely raised meats. We are blessed with so many farmers' markets that are convenient and a better value than most supermarkets! I think that as the community gets more educated, they will understand. I teach this to my son and his friends, so they learn about their health and the importance of knowing what you put into your body from a young age. His school already has its own garden and they sell produce and herbs for fundraising efforts.
OCW: What would you like to see less of in Orange County from a culinary standpoint?
UA: I would have to say inconsistency. It's everywhere. Trend-driven concepts that have no staying power don't appeal to me. Those who are true chefs and restaurateurs understand that it is not just a business–if you are good at your art and are smart with branding and marketing, you will get business, but it is important to be able to keep those guests. Loyalty is key, and fleeting concepts and short-lived trends don't have the opportunity to gain a long-term following.
OCW: Do you write in your cookbooks? Which is the most annotated?
UA: I write on EVERYTHING–cookbooks included. When I was 14 years old, I made my own cookbook with pages of recipes from the 1900s that my boss gave me. Unfortunately, it was lost 15 years ago. It was a treasure–with lots of notes!
OCW: If you were on Iron Chef America and were given fresh fennel, what would you make?
UA: A Sicilian salad with sliced fennel, blood orange wedges and fresh mint, with extra virgin olive oil.
OCW: What show would you pitch to the Cooking Channel?
UA: Simple & Fun Everyday Cooking. I love simple dishes with true flavors and I also think cooking is one of the most fun, relaxing and creative activities–alone or with your family!
OCW: What's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
UA: Squid guts. It was at a sushi place–I told you I try everything. It wasn't bad.
OCW: You're making a dish of pasta. What dish is it?
UA: Pappardelle with porcini mushrooms, fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fresh parsley, salt & pepper.
OCW: You're at the market. What do you buy two of?
UA: Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena).
OCW: What's the weirdest customer request you've ever had?
UA: Pasta with ketchup (and no, it wasn't for a child).
OCW: What's your favorite OC restaurant other than your own?
UA: Well, aside from Prego… I'd have to say the Anaheim White House. Bruno Serato has been a friend for the past 19 years.
OCW: What's the hardest lesson you've learned?
UA: To be fearless and always expect the unexpected. Last October, I had a major surgery–an emergency diverticulitis. I never had a symptom and this happened suddenly. A major shock, but I feel like I came out a better person and cherish every day.
OCW: What would your last meal on Earth be?
UA: My mom's rabbit stew. It's the best, but more importantly, no matter how hard I try to follow the recipe, it never turns out the same.
OCW: Who's your hero, culinary or otherwise?
UA: My dad. Everything good in me comes from him. He has taught me values and lessons that I pass down to my own son.
OCW: What cuisine that you are unfamiliar with would you want to learn more about and why?
UA: African cuisine. I don't know anything about the cuisine in sub-Saharan Africa. Also, I would like to learn more about Middle Eastern cuisine.
OCW: What's the best sausage in the world?
UA: Pork butt and fennel. We make it here at Prego and it's delicious. We call it “luganega” and you have to experience it to understand it.
OCW: If you could set up a sample booth outside of the Olive Garden, what food(s) would you serve to teach people what real Italian food is?
UA: A spread of regional Italian cuisine: authentic pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, freshly made pastas, grilled fresh fish, spit-roasted meats and fowl, and, of course, homemade desserts and pastries! Have you seen Prego's dessert case?
OCW: What's your background, culinary or otherwise?
UA: I was born and raised in the region of Piemonte, Italy, and when I was a child, my parents wanted me to be a priest! Of course, I've always been interested in food. My family has owned and operated a restaurant and bar in Italy, and growing up, there was a well-known culinary school in my hometown. So, I suppose I would be involved with food in some way.
I began my career in the culinary arts in 1985 as a cook, responsible for creating appetizers and doing the daily meat prep at Hotel Orta in Orta San Giulio, Italy, then went on to cook at better-known hotels in Italy, including the Italie & Hotel Suisse, a 4-star hotel in Stresa on beautiful Lake Maggiore, before becoming Chef at the Regina Palace Hotel, a 5-star hotel also in Stresa. I then assumed the great responsibility of preparing the pastas at the Lido Palace Hotel Baveno, another lakeside resort on Lake Maggiore.
In 1990, I was brought to the United States by the owners of Ristorante Mezzaluna, a well-known high-end Italian restaurant in Manhattan. I was made the Executive Chef at the then-new Mezzaluna restaurant in Corona del Mar, California, where I stayed for six years until it was closed by the owners. Later, I joined Ristorante Il Fornaio at their Manhattan Beach, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica locations. It was not until July 2000 that I found my home at Prego Ristorante.
At Prego, I have been able to elevate my knowledge as a chef, but also transition into a restaurateur after becoming a partner. Now, with Ruth and Tony Bedi as the new owners, I am so excited to be part of a restaurant that is experiencing steady growth in these hard times.
OCW: You're relaxing on your day off with a tasty drink. What is it?
UA: Scroppino. It's a cocktail popular in Veneto–basically champagne with lemon sorbet. If you want to try it, let me know and I can make sure I have some lemon sorbet at the restaurant. It's absolutely refreshing.
Ugo Allesina is Executive Chef and Partner at Prego Ristorante, 18420 Von Karman Ave., Irvine; (949) 553-1333.