It’s been fifteen-plus years since I worked with Gina DePalma at Gramercy Tavern, but when I close my eyes I can see her knowing hands on dough, recall those images I formed when she described how her grandmother would use every surface available — including her bed — to drape drying pasta, and hear her strong voice, close to my face, imploring me to move faster. Gina DePalma and the late Heather Ho were put in charge, by Claudia Fleming, of catching me up to speed, in just a few shifts, so I could work on that intimidatingly busy line. It might be the hardest position I have ever held.
Even then I knew she was different. Gina’s fingers and body led her, as if they were teaching her, not the other way around. Although we were in our early twenties, Gina joked that she’d already lived a lifetime. She never looked awkward learning a new recipe or training the latest assistant.
When I heard the news that Gina was going to be Mario Batali’s opening pastry chef at Babbo Ristorante and Enoteca, I thought it was a perfect fit, for both of them. Fifteen years later, no other pastry chef is more closely associated with Batali’s Italian empire than Gina.
With her wildly popular first book, Dolce Italiano; her firm grasp of Italian culinary history; and her dessert menu at Babbo, where she introduced olive oil gelato to the Manhattan masses as early as 1998, Gina’s truly Italian last courses defined and paved the way not only for all of Batali’s restaurants afterward, but for ensuing waves of new Italian restaurants since. Whether she knows it or not, her legacy is like the wake of a tugboat, steadfast and strong.
I asked Gina what it was like coming up with her first menu and working with Batali in the early days of Babbo.
“I wanted him to taste things, always, and never felt like it was some stamp of approval or judgment. When you have a strong, creative relationship with someone, you feed off that energy; you can’t wait to share your own ideas and get more from your colleagues. Mario is a dream that way. He’s a very positive person, and in the beginning years he inspired me with just his energy and excitement about food and ingredients, and our mutual love of Italian cooking.”
Gina’s adherence to the tenets of traditional Italian cooking reflects her upbringing.
“I always work with the seasons and respect ingredients. It’s part of the [Italian] culture for food to be delicious, but not a fetish.
“My mom is my favorite person in the world to cook with. More often, I like to cook for her — she deserves to be off her feet, after so many thousands of meals she cooked for me! She taught me everything I know about generosity, through sharing meals. I talk about that a bit in the introduction to my second book. As a widow trying to raise three children on a tight budget, she always made room for anyone who wanted or needed a spot at our table.
“I have vivid memories of my grandmother teaching me to make a crostata, and I remember standing next to her, on a stool, watching her make the crust dough. She measured everything by sight, using handfuls of flour, and she made it on the counter, on the great big wooden board she used for making pasta. Like for pasta dough, she made a well of the dried ingredients, cracked eggs, and put blobs of butter in the center, mixing it with her hands. I was really little — maybe six or seven years old. She used to say, ‘Now, watch Grandma….’ Her hands flew. She had this innate knowledge and confidence that can only come from so many years of experience. I remember being in total awe and thinking that I wanted to do this myself, to be just like her. To this day, I prefer making dough by hand. I think of my darling Nonnie every time.”
So much of baking is body memory. More than recipes, memorization, or even ratios, it is physical intuition that trumps years of expensive schooling and fancy names on high-quality cotton jackets. A method attached to a list of ingredients is nothing if hands aren’t talking to nose and mouth, and a pair of curious eyes aren’t in the loop.
“As pastry chefs and desserts changed in NYC, I could have become a little more contemporary, but I wanted to stay true to tradition. I’ve always been a hard-ass about Italian food, even though in Italy, now, chefs are becoming more experimental.
“Overcomplicated, highly technical, froufrou desserts never had a place at Babbo. My plates fit into Mario’s — generous, sexy, wet, glistening-with-drizzled-olive-oil food.
“Also, I never had my own ‘pastry area.’ What people don’t know is that technique-driven restaurant desserts are dependent on temperature-controlled environments. The early days at Babbo were like working in Beirut. There was no air-conditioning in that kitchen for four years! It was only sweat, hard work, and grease.
“Pastry is grace under pressure.”
When I asked Gina which chef has had the most influence on her, she replied, without hesitation:
“The magnificent Claudia Fleming remains my idol. Claudia brought the style of Lindsey Shere and Chez Panisse to a big, legit, intense fine-dining establishment. Those years with her were magical. She taught me how to work and thrive in a busy restaurant, how to organize production, how to preserve the integrity of flavors, how to strive for perfection and not settle for less, and how to buckle down and survive the intensity of service in a kitchen full of male cooks. And she assembled teams of such massively talented people. In many ways, those years with Claudia and Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern were the happiest of my career, because it was all about learning, seeing, doing. You lose a lot of that experience when you become a chef, because you are teaching, showing, and supervising all the time.”
In fact, it was Claudia who recommended Gina to Mario. In the age before Craigslist, word of mouth and the opinions of heavy-hitting chefs meant more than the names of the restaurants on your résumé.
I lost touch with Gina for most of the years I worked in Northern California, but we reconnected in October 2001, after I learned that our mutual friend Heather Ho had died in the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11.
On the steps outside the service entrance of Babbo, I stole a few minutes with Gina to thank her. Just a few years into my own career as a pastry chef, I had begun to realize the influence she and Heather and Claudia had played in forming me.
And when Gina went on her book tour for Dolce Italiano, I brought my entire pastry team to meet her in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
Luckily for us all, Gina has recently finished her second book.
“It is a cookbook of Italian sweets, with a very personal point of view; all the recipes have great meaning to me because they either are from my family or were inspired by my time in Italy. In the process of writing it I was able to connect the dots between my childhood experiences, my career, and my travels.”
When I launched this column, I knew I wanted to write about Gina DePalma. She gave me so many hints and lessons and tools that have proven essential for training green and veteran cooks alike. Whether she’s forwarding the résumé of a cook she can’t use, passing along the name of a chef in need of pastry talent, fielding questions about a particular recipe, or dispensing advice on where to dine and have dessert in Rome, her generosity and love of sharing have given me gifts I may never be able to repay.