As Chocolate Covered Memories often examines, food can be based on family and, indeed, family can be based on food. Meet Michael DeLone, executive chef at Le Castagne, one of the restaurants owned by the Sena family, who have been showcasing Italian cuisine in Philadelphia for nearly-four decades. Yes, Chef DeLone is well aware of Le Castagne’s extremely devoted local following in the Rittenhouse Square area. And yes, he strives to continue the great tradition that has earned Le Castagne great accolades and recognition — winner of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and consistent high praise from national and local press alike. Yet, Chef DeLone is not afraid to push the envelope, breathing new life into classic Italian ingredients and northern Italian fare, as is evident by tasting his homemade desserts, breads, sausages and salamis and, of course, specialty pastas. Whether you are looking for a business lunch, a romantic dinner or just some cocktails and appetizers at their modern bar, Le Castagne aims to please all, just like family does. After recently enjoying some authentic-yet-modern appetizers — the marinara sauce, which accompanied the fried calamari, greatly impressed the hard-to-impress Italian-side of Ms. CCM — we conversed with Chef Michael DeLone via email to share some of his (Chocolate Covered) Memories …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the industry?
I found my niche in the industry as a 15 year old busboy at Sonoma in Manayunk (Pennsylvania), which is where I instantly fell in love with the business. From there, I started to reach out to the chefs who I worked with and inquired about a chef’s life. Needless to say, I received some really good advice. So I ended up going away to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America for a week for a career exploration program. Upon my return, I moved from runner to pantry and quickly “up the food chain” to where I am now.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
I have a ton of childhood food memories. Raised by my mother and grandmother, I had innumerable jobs in the kitchen. I’m not alluding that those are real industry jobs because it’s very different helming a commercial kitchen. But I’m Italian, and many of the jobs in my Nona’s kitchen felt commercial. I mean, have you ever been in an Italian kitchen at the end of August with a boatload of tomatoes and eggplant? I remember making a lot of tomato sauce, did a lot of baking and absorbed/memorized countless family recipes, which I draw upon to this day.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
I remember my grandmother made me broccoli rabe when I was a very little kid, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I still think it’s the greatest thing ever.
What foods remind you of childhood/Favorite foods growing up?
I remember my grandmother’s linguini with clams and shrimp — when people ask me about childhood food memories — along with my mom’s homemade sausage and pepper stromboli. They were my favorites.
Where does your love of food stem from?
Originally, my family. Currently, my family, peers and friends.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up?
I was not really a picky eater as a kid. The things I hated to eat then, I hate to eat now. I don’t want to say what those were, because technically as a chef I should be more open to using all types of ingredients. Let’s leave it that my personal eyes gravitate less towards mushrooms on a menu, despite living in Pennsylvania. I have, however, changed my opinion on olives. I despised them as a kid but really enjoy them now.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? How about now as an adult?
I enjoy an old fashion backyard BBQ. Burgers, dogs, ribs, corn, the whole nine yards, but I am not big on eating outside when I want to go out to eat.
What do you think of Italian franchises (like Olive Garden, Carrabba’s, etc.)? Will you eat at such franchises?
I think they are a disgrace to authentic Italian food. Overcooked pasta, tasteless sauces, mundane Cisco-product riddled salad bars and bottomless ad budgets to make them appear higher-end than they really are. There’s nothing good about them. No, I would never choose to eat at those places. When I go out, I go somewhere I’m curious about. When I want something fast, I can boil a pot of water, perfectly cook some linguine al dente and quickly toss it with some butter, cracked pepper, fresh Parmesan and get it to the table myself in about 13 minutes.
What do you think of the modern food world (from Whole Foods to franchises like TGI.Friday’s, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
I love tradition and authentic culinary masterpieces. It’s in my blood. However, the modern food world is great because it brings so much with it. There are so many exciting, new opportunities for everyone involved. If you asked me 15 years ago whether this industry would be this big, I would have said: No. I never would have thought chefs would be celebrities, the Food Network would be so huge, and apps on mobile devices for recipes and finding places to eat would be so widely popular. It really does amaze me the more I think about it. Wegman’s and Whole Foods have brought shopping and food awareness to new levels, and I credit them with being nothing short of amazing. Reading food blogs is hands down my favorite thing to do. I love seeing what food lovers have to say about different restaurants, and I always find myself turning to them when trying to pick my next spot to eat. I also like that blog posts, unlike a huge, long-winded review can be read in quick snapshots because I don’t have a lot of time.
What recipes do you want to share with us?
I’m running a healthier version of the traditional ‘Straw and Hay’ fettuccine dish on our summer menu, and I make a mean gnocchi of which I have tons of recipes. So I can share one that uses pumpkin which in a few months should be abundant!
In a world of celebrity chefs with big names and even bigger egos, Chef Michael DeLone prefers to let his food speak for itself. In his newest role as executive chef of Le Castagne, Philadelphia’s highly acclaimed and award-winning Italian establishment, Chef DeLone not only leads and manages his kitchen but also works on the line day in and day out. Chef DeLone is a hands-on chef who leads his team by example. Before coming to Le Castagne, he established his career at Monte Carlo Living Room where he found his love and passion for classic Italian cuisine. Working hand-in-hand with Chef Nunzio Patruno, Chef DeLone developed and honed his skills, becoming a true master of seasonal ingredients and culinary techniques. He previously worked at Sonoma, Derek Davis’ Manayunk establishment. Chef DeLone understands the Philadelphia food scene intimately, having received his formal training at the city’s Art Institute. He currently resides in Philadelphia with his wife Lisa. Outside of the kitchen, Michael enjoys trying new restaurants in the area, attending Eagles and Flyers games and golf. For more about Le Castagne, visit: LeCastagne.com. And link up with Le Castagne on Facebook and on Twitter.