back of the house

At the Maestro's Table

By Sara Stovall / Photography By Kathryn Brass-Piper | October 12, 2017
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Puccini’s

The last thing Chef Richard wants for Puccini’s is more good press. He’s been down this road before, and what usually happens is this: A glowingly satiated review gets published, throngs flock to his 42-seat restaurant with sky-high expectations of what dining out in Sarasota ought to be—and someone ends up, well, outspokenly disappointed. After all, this is a town famous for its service industry, emphasis on the “service.”

Chef Richard isn’t here to put your salad dressing on the side. When he says the restaurant only serves water, he means it. No whining when you can’t get an espresso with your dessert. By all means, bring anything you want to drink with dinner—there’s never a corkage fee—but you must open and decant your own bottle.

Even if you’ve searched for half an hour to find the front door (almost totally obscure in a Clark Road shopping plaza with no signage visible from the street), don’t even think about walking in without a reservation.

It’s worth noting that the aforementioned complaints are never about the food. Perhaps in fear for their favorite hidden gem, Puccini’s fans seem loath to praise too loudly Chef Richard’s impeccable treatments of fish, his otherworldly pecan pie, his charismatic delivery of both dinner and show behind the chef’s table. Puccini’s detractors fail to appreciate that, when a 40-year veteran of the culinary profession decides to pursue his passion and craft to the very best of this ability, he has no option but to do it his way.

Chef Richard’s way, six days a week, is first to visit his neighbors—Detwiler’s Farm Market, Alpine Steakhouse, Geier’s Sausage Kitchen—to handpick that evening’s dinner ingredients from the freshest and best available. His classical education and keen instinct for customers’ palates tell him how much of what to buy for 80-plus delightful meals. Back at Puccini’s, working at his sumptuous chef’s table in plain sight of half the restaurant, he prepares his sauces from scratch with homemade stock. He creates one or two kinds of fresh pasta (his lobster ravioli weakens knees). And if something sells out that night, it’s gone—Chef Richard doesn’t waste energy wringing his hands. It means he created something delicious, everyone loved it, and nothing was wasted.

Chef Richard explains, “When you’re small like that, and you’re not committed to having the same menu every day, the people are getting a super-fresh experience, and I’m not bored. Which, after 40 years, I don’t wanna be bored cooking. It’s horrible.”

Chef Richard is not a curmudgeon. He’s simply made a commitment that escapes far too many of us: Seize your own destiny, and build a life worth sinking your teeth into every single day. Puccini’s is a pure product of this.

“And realistically, if I’m not in the restaurant, I’m at the beach,” Chef Richard says. “I see a lot of my customers on the beach, walking up and down. I give ’em a nod, and they recognize me. Yeah—I’ve kinda got a cool life. It works out well.”

Puccini’s is modeled on values Chef Richard developed in childhood, learning at the family table what it means to make meals together, share food, and feed the soul.

“I grew up in an Italian family that played opera all day. And everybody sang, even though they couldn’t sing,” he remembers. “My father didn’t care, and my uncle didn’t care, and my grandfather didn’t care. They loved music and they loved to sing.”

Like they did in his family’s kitchen, the aromas in Chef Richard’s restaurant mingle with rich strains of opera. The music moves him as he performs each night’s culinary concerto, but much like his mother and grandmother, Chef Richard’s chief delight is to feed you, and to feed you well.

“The menu’s small,” he says, “but if you’re a regular and you want something specific, I always do it.” Customers call a couple days in advance to request delicacies such as sweetbreads, pork belly, or scungilli. “And it keeps me interested because there’s always variety, and it’s always something to do. … They get it, and for me, that’s the ultimate. ’Cause [in the off-season], who’s supporting you? It’s your regulars. I love the tourists, but that’s the gravy. The people here all year ’round are what makes you stay in business for eight years.”

Chef Richard is an artist who sincerely loves his crowd. He constructed his stage; he writes and performs his own arias. Puccini’s is his house. You are a guest, so come in prepared to behave like one—and be richly rewarded for it.

Puccini’s: 2881 Clark Rd, Sarasota; 941-923-7002

Article from Edible Sarasota at http://ediblesarasota.ediblecommunities.com/eat/maestros-table
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