Each spring, Charleston plays host to Spoleto USA, one of America’s premier performing arts festivals and the stateside counterpart to sister city Spoleto, Italy’s Festival of the Two Worlds. To celebrate this fusion of Italian and Southern culture, the Local Palate throws an al fresco fête, Toast to Spoleto, with Charleston chefs dishing out their takes on charcuterie, pasta, pizza, gelato, and more.
Ahead of the festivities, we sat down with participating chef Vinson Petrillo, whose childhood in an Italian household—hello, Sunday family dinners—informs his cooking today at the helm of the Zero Restaurant.
How have your Italian roots influenced your cooking style and approach to creating a meal?
My cooking style is very much based on the idea of Italian food, less is more—letting ingredients speak for themselves. All of my dishes are based off of three ingredients, and each one is transformed in a unique way.
What are your favorite food memories from growing up in an Italian household?
Growing up, Sunday dinners were what we looked forward to the most. My father and I started cooking early in the morning, making Sunday gravy, eggplant parmesan, cleaning shellfish and squid. We’d put out meats, fresh provolone, and Parmesan.
Your career has led you to cook in kitchens both in Charleston and Italy. Have you found similarities in their approach to food?
I think that whether you’re in Italy or in Charleston, all great chefs treat ingredients with respect. For example, working with purveyors to find the perfect tomato or with fishermen who care as deeply as you do about quality. With quality ingredients, you should be able to highlight it rather than overpower it. It comes down to restraint and respect.
What moments stand out when you look back on your culinary career?
I’ve been cooking for more than twenty years, so there are many memorable times. The most rewarding moment was when I was awarded the New York City Zagat’s 30 Under 30 award at 26 years old. Some of the nation’s current best chefs were on that list, and it was the moment I realized I was on the right path and that all of my hard work was worth something.
What inspires you most to continue creating on a day-to-day basis?
Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes for me, from my children thinking anything is possible to the ingredients I get to use. I try not to think too hard about a dish and instead, let it evolve naturally. It’s important to have a good pantry to help balance your food and flavors. I like to think that I have the mind of a child when it comes to food—flavor is the most important and surprises are second. For me, it’s important to continue to change. It keeps the staff motivated and I believe in moving forward, not backward.
What flavors and ingredients are you most excited to experiment with this summer at Zero Restaurant?
Charleston has so many great ingredients. My favorite summer dish is our tomato sandwich, where we showcase the best tomatoes we can find. We grow our own herbs at the restaurant, and I love shiso with tomatoes and classic Wonder bread. It’s one of only two or three dishes we bring back every year.
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