Chianti Il Ristorante
What’s in a name? Take Chianti Il Ristorante. Named for the most famous wine region in Italy, it evokes the sunny, charming hills of Tuscany.
Tuscany, of course, is a pristine region of forest and farmland teaming with wild boar, groves fragrant with olive trees and vineyards thick with grapes. Five rivers—the Pesa, Greve, Ombrone, Staggia and Arbia—snake through, providing natural air-conditioning to sun-parched vines.
Chianti also evokes the wine itself, which despite its reputation as either a straw-basket throwback to 1970s sauce joints, or—more distressingly—Anthony Hopkins’s drink of choice in Silence of the Lambs, Chianti is arguably to the food world what basic black is to fashion. Red sauce, wild game, steak, poultry, farmstead cheese. It goes.
The powerhouse duo behind Chianti Il Ristorante is as flexible, spicy and refreshing as the ancient Tuscan wine.
“We met over a dish of sushi in California 25 years ago,” David Zecchini, Chianti’s founder and president, tells me as he whips up espressos for us and the staff members who have started trickling in to prep for the dinner rush. “I had opened a hole in the wall in Southern California, and Fabrizio and I immediately hit it off. We understood each other. He came to work in the kitchen.”
For five years, Fabrizio Bazzani and David, hailing from Verona (“the city of love”) and Rome (“the eternal city”) respectively lived their American dream, bringing the grand simplicity of classical Italian cuisine to the sandy, golden beaches of Southern California. But something was missing.
“In Southern California it may be sunny 365 days of the year, but no one is ever smiling,” David says. “I visited a friend in the area here and I noticed a certain depth that you don’t get there. Here you have a miserable day and like one second of sun, and everyone is smiling and celebrating and really never for one second taking the good in life for granted.” He returned West briefly and, after an ill-fated attempt to run a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, packed up his truck and headed to Saratoga, where he could find others who share his “passion for life’s extremes and ups and downs.”
Fabrizio soon followed. Like many long-standing successful business partners, their roles are completely separate and wholly complementary. David is the visionary general; Fabrizio is the highly disciplined army necessary to execute his war plan.
“We live differently and have different ways, but we have never once had an argument,” Fabrizio says. “We understand that we are not perfect, and if a problem comes up instead of focusing on who did what, we try to find a solution.”
The stylish space, with its rustic walls, metal accents, green onyx bar and a priceless treasure from the Vatican (more on that below), is footsteps off Broadway on Division Street. David opened Chianti in 1998 and then went on to launch Forno Bistro and Boca Bistro under the auspices of DZ Restaurants. In 2014, he purchased the 65-acre DZ Farm in Galway, from which many of his restaurants’ seasonal ingredients are plucked. David opened Chianti’s second, more central location in Saratoga in 2008 to complete his vision for the restaurant as more than just a place to go on a special occasion to eat.
“I am Italian and my whole way of living is all-encompassing and passionate,” he explains. “Why would I want to create a restaurant that is just for a birthday or anniversary? I want a place families can walk to together, to make Chianti part of their culture of family. I have three generations coming here together, introducing their grandchildren to the perfect plate of pasta that brings back their own childhood in Italy. To us, food is memory, and you pass it along through your family. To me, if I can do that, that is success.”
The sophisticated menu offers both traditional spins on Nonni’s classics (spaghetti Bolognese, penne arrabbiata) from all over Italy and rarefied Northern Italian cuisine (risotto de Medici with filet mignon and truffle oil, quaglie ripiene, sausage-stuffed quail in a white wine glaze) filtered through the bounty of the Capital District’s fields. (No lemon trees here!)
The holistic ethos of family, food and culture informs every business decision David and Fabrizio make. Even when it comes to a simple plate of noodles, oil and garlic.
“Many restaurants don’t run themselves like David runs this one, and that’s why I still love working here,” Fabrizio says. “For us, we aren’t trying to honor a certain fashionable region or type of cooking in Italy. We will cook dishes from every part of the country, but they have to be the best. And that means the best, freshest ingredients prepared simply.”
David and Fabrizio reconsider every item in their larder at least once a year. “Believe it or not, olive oils change drastically season to season depending on the weather and the harvest,” David says. “Fabrizio and I drive everyone crazy, but we test everything together, compare labels and spend hours figuring out the best ingredients available. We just have to take a sip of something, look at each other and we immediately know ‘No good!’”
But their obsessive tinkering isn’t subsumed merely by specialty tinctures, oils and flours. David and Fabrizio recently launched the only in-restaurant aged meat program in upstate New York.
“We couldn’t find the kind of meat that we wanted, so we created it ourselves,” Fabrizio says. “It requires constant vigilance, and we need to trim the meats or check their bacteria levels and temperature levels daily. We do different cuts, and it depends on how much fat the meat had to begin with, but on average we age our meat for between 25 and 40 days.”
Through his own ceaseless monitoring, attention and artful touch, Fabrizio achieves the deeply unctuous concentration of flavor and meltingly tender texture beef connoisseurs hanker after. Their dry-aged cuts, labeled as Chianti select, cost more than their regular T-bones, rib eyes, bone-in strips but sell out almost nightly.
“As the meat ages it loses weight, and the result is perfectly concentrated flavor and delicate, buttery texture,” David says. “Perfection.”
Perfection. A word that is always on the tip of David and Fabrizio’s tongues, and one that clearly influences more than just their choice of olive oil.