EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 21, 2012

Chef brings Ligurian specialties to Beverly

Food for Thought
Heather Atwood

---- — When broad-smiling, Endicott College graduate Michael Magner, owner of Prides Pizza in Beverly Farms, needed a chef for his new restaurant, he posted an ad on Craig’s List. The one response that interested him, from Paolo Laboa, re-fashioned Magner’s venture from a “bar and grill” to an Italian “osteria,” and may soon place culinary stars on Rantoul Street in Beverly.

Paolo Laboa’s resume looked something like this: winner of the 2008 World Pesto Championship in Genoa, Italy, where the basil grows on sunny hillsides fed with breezes off the Ligurian Sea, and where Laboa’s family has been putting a pestle to basil and pignoli for at least 400 years.

Until late 2011, Laboa had been executive chef of Farina, the San Francisco restaurant declared by Mark Bittman in The New York Times as one of “my go-to places for regional Italian fare when I’m in San Francisco.” Gwyneth Paltrow lists Farina on her blog.

Laboa showed up for his Magner interview holding a copy of “Farina, Old World New: Family Meals from the Heart of Genoa,” an exquisitely photographed book celebrating the California restaurant and Laboa’s authentic Ligurian recipes.

Mark Bittman describes Farina’s cuisine like this: “foccacia di Recco, golden, poofy, cheese-stuffed dough made in a hill-town southeast of Genoa known for little else. Pansotti, triangular pasta filled with chard, nettles or spinach, depending on the month, and served with a pesto of walnuts. Mandilli, handkerchiefs of pasta served with classic pesto. Raviolini with shrimp, butter and sage,” and then adds, “in fact I have not had a pasta dish here that wasn’t perfectly cooked and well worth eating.”

Well, guess what’s on the menu at Pride’s Osteria? I recently pulled apart the foccacia di Recco, the tenderest wafer of hot pizza, dripping its interior of hot, melting cheese. We had it topped with prosciutto di Parma at first, and a second order bare; the former was divine, but the latter was “divine-er,” the delicately singed dough and cheese singing without distraction.

I’ve tasted the pansotti di sori con pesto di noci, handmade pasta with walnut pesto, and had three orders of the 121215 at my table, pastas so light and well married to filling and sauce the dishes deserve a shelf in a museum as art, if not in heaven.

I gush, but Laboa is a very serious chef who also shares what every Italian nonna (grandmother) believes, one must cook with one’s heart. Laboa also cooks with a mastery of culinary science, skills, and Italian history. We talked briefly about great Italian pastas, breads and pizza doughs, how the very best ones are allowed to rest for at least a day, allowing bacteria from the air to break down the gluten, making the products not only more tender but more digestible, which is why great pasta is readily accessible to people concerned about gluten in their foods; gluten is not an issue in artisanal pasta and bread made with time.

The Pride’s Osteria menu changes every day, “with availability and the weather,” Laboa says. He is not afraid of bringing honest Ligurian food to the menu; one night I was there we tasted a beautiful twice-braised Genovese-style tripe, served with San Maranzano tomatoes, olives, potatoes and herbs.

Magner, 28 years old, is all warmth and smiles, buona compagnia, as the Italians say; Magner only began to understand how good ingredients plus love can equal a whole different level of delicious cuisine after he purchased Prides Pizza, and brought his Italian grandmother in to teach him. Now, Magner just beams about the Osteria, recognizing how kind was the karma or fate that have the two partners heading to Marblehead together to dig out and re-fit a 15-year-old Italian pasta machine left in someone’s basement. It has the two partners walking down Rantoul Street together to catch lunch at Gloria’s, Beverly’s fixture of an Italian grocery store. Fate has the men traveling together to New York for Laboa’s cover story interview with La Cucina Italiana.

Laboa, 49, taut, muscular, his face all dark penetrating eyes above a short cropped beard, mixes English words into refined Italian sentences. Of Rantoul Street in Beverly he says, “I love it. I feel welcome, I feel it’s more my dimension; it looks more like Genoa (than San Francisco) with its little streets, the sea so close, the color and smells. I feel like I’m home.”

“Michael is young, but strong,” Laboa says of his partner. “So many people I talk with — they’re scared. They like the idea of my food, but then they say, ‘but how about chicken parmigiana?’”

Indeed, Laboa and his wife, Mercedes, left San Franciso to raise their two small children closer to her family. Mercedes’s father owns Halibut Point Restaurant in Gloucester. Yet placing an ad on Craig’s List for a bar and grill chef, and having Laboa respond, is a bit like looking for a pony for your child and getting Secretariat, but Magner — his earnest warmth, his joie de vivre, and his laughingly declared ego-less-ness — might be just the partner for this racehorse.

Lastly, here’s an affectionate nod to the growing Beverly food community: when Laboa mentioned that Pride’s Osteria would be a farm-to-table restaurant, that they already source vegetables from Alprilla Farm in Essex, Maitland Mountain Farm in Salem, meats from Blood Farm in Groton, and cheese from Valley View Farm in Topsfield, I asked how he had heard so quickly about these wonderful, small vendors. Chive Events, the caterers who famously source as locally and sustainably as possible, are right next door to Pride’s Osteria, helping and guiding their new friends.

Brooklyn is old news; keep your eyes on Rantoul Street in Beverly. (Coming soon: true Napolitano Pizza baked in an artisanal Vesuvian oven, the mortar Vesuvian sand and coarse salt.)

You can watch Laboa prepare his world famous pesto in the Farina kitchen on this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYdAW9sZQrQ&noredirect=1

Prides Osteria is locacted at 240 Rantoul St. in Beverly. For reservations, call 978-969-0083.

Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to heatheraa@aol.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.