While many of today’s chefs forecast their passion for food with tattoos depicting butchering diagrams and meat cleavers, Cesare Casella has an even more visceral way of declaring his trade: A generous bouquet of rosemary tucked into his breast pocket. He calls it his droga (drug), and it serves as a fitting cologne for a man who traces his love of cooking back to his mother’s herb garden in Italy.
While he may not have dreamed that he’d one day be running the two uptown locations of Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto in NYC, Casella has been in the kitchen since before he could walk—his parents, grandmother, and aunts ran a restaurant out of the first floor of their house in Lucca, Italy. “The restaurant kitchen was also the kitchen where we ate. In the morning, we used the bar for the breakfast room,” he says of growing up above Vipore (which would later earn a Michelin star with Caeslla behind the burner). Food was “the only priority,” and Casella remembers how every family conversation seemed to revolve around the next meal.
But while it seemed like fate that Casella would pursue a career in cooking, his parents fought him when he decided that he wanted to attend culinary school, telling him he had to work and pay his own way. He enrolled anyway at a school in Montacatini, boarding a train at 6:30am each day to get there. The ride to class—located between Lucca and Florence—gave him a chance to experience other regional dishes (like tripe sandwiches in the Tuscan capital) that would later influence his menus.
He got his first taste of New York consulting for the restaurant Coco Pazzo, working with the legendary restaurateur Pino Luongo (“I thought, New York is not so bad,” he chuckles). But he truly began to dig his feet in when he started running the show at his own spots—Beppe, Meremma, and finally, the two Saulmerias.
Along the journey, Casella has demonstrated a knack for soaking up new flavors while always honoring the traditions of his family and the ingredients from the mountains of Lucca. His first experience with barbecue inspired him to create Italian-style spare ribs, while a sandwich at a hole-in-the-wall Cuban spot led to the creation of the Cubano Tuscano.
Here, Casella takes us back to the mountains of Lucca, charting his path from tripe-eating toddler to one of New York’s most beloved ambassadors of Tuscan cuisine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.