Chef Michael Smith is slowly morphing into an Italian grandma — and he’s perfectly fine with that.
The chef sits at dining room table at his eponymous Michael Smith Restaurant in the Crossroads, intently rolling and cutting pasta dough then folding the pieces into strozzapreti, an elongated hand-rolled pasta typical of Emilia-Romagna.
Strozzapreti is an evocative name that means “priest strangler.” Thanks to a stack of cookbooks, YouTube videos and Italian restaurateur friends like Jasper Mirabile, Smith has been learning the history and stories behind Italy’s pantheon of pasta shapes.
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But there’s one that has eluded the James Beard award-winning chef: the Sardinian braided curlurgione, a filled pasta pinched closed so that it looks like an ear of wheat.
Smith is likely to master the curlurgione and more during a year-long “sabbatical”: He’s using his restaurant’s 10-year anniversary as a jumping-off point for his new “Finding Guido” pasta menu.
The menu, which won’t be available until the second week of August, highlights eight to nine rotating pasta dishes priced in the $14 to $15 range to serve as a first course. The menu will likely include Smith’s already popular braised rabbit gnocchi, but also give him the time and space to include newer shapes and preparations, such as a swordfish bolognese or a sweetbread and chanterelle mushroom spaccatelli.
But who exactly — or what — is Guido?
In 2014, Smith, his wife Nancy and two friends reserved a table at Pollenza Guido in Italy, a one-star Michelin restaurant set in a converted monastery that is now the campus of the University of Gastronomic Science, the heart of the world’s Slow Food Movement.
The restaurant was difficult to find, parking was a hassle and Smith recalls he came to the table hungry and frustrated. But during the meal he had a “personal epiphany” and knew it was time to migrate to Italian cooking. The “Finding Guido” menu is a response to Smith’s evolution as a classically trained chef who has spent most of his career focused on New American cuisine.
“I think our food is as colorful and creative as ever, but at some point I was looking at this incredible artwork on the plate and I realized I’m done being that way,” he says of the ornate dishes that receive critical acclaim.
Smith has been hosting popular Thursday “Big Night” pasta nights at the restaurant for awhile, and he’s trained a former dishwasher to help him ramp up his housemade pasta selections.
“At this point in my career there are few things that I crave, but I can name 40 (Italian) items I cannot live without — like Parmesan, tomatoes and prosciutto.”
And a wide variety of housemade pastas.
“I have just genuinely grown to love the food.” Smith says. “After a year, we’ll see.”
(On Aug. 9, watch a Facebook Live show on Chow Town’s Facebook page for an in-depth look at Smith’s pasta pursuits.)
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood or on Instagram at @jillwsilva.