If you’re lucky enough, you have that gregarious uncle. You know the one. The one who never met a party he didn’t like or turn down an opportunity to not only entertain his guests with a good story, or make sure everyone is happy. The guy that is typically the first in the kitchen to start the meal and won’t stop serving up wonderful eats until everyone is happy? Yes. That is Michael Cirafesi. Owner and Executive Chef at Ombra Cucina Rustica in The Village at Wexford.
“Let’s talk first, then I’ll prepare some dishes for you to photograph” is what I get immediately after a quick hello. Clearly he’s done this before. Clearly he knows how to welcome someone into his home. No complaints from me, immediately we not only feel comfortable but right at home in this beautiful restaurant he’s had for just about a year and a half now after eleven years at Michael Anthony’s. Like any other chef who hopes to eventually open his own place, this restaurant was far from a forgone conclusion. “Not knew it was going to happen. I certainly wanted it to happen.”, he tells me. “Usually you have to have someone help you.” He got the backing, opened his doors and hasn’t looked back.
Beautiful and elegant? Of course. Stuffy? Nothing about Ombra says stuffy. Make no mistake, this is fine dining but not pretentious. “The menu is classic Italian.”, he says with confidence. “Based upon classic dishes. I am a little young, I try to be on the hip side. Try new things sometimes, but I try to stay classic.” TheTagliatelle alla Bolognese will tell you all you need to know about classic Italian. Absolutely wonderful. Attention to detail? It is most certainly there. If the dish didn’t wow me when I tasted it, the fact that Chef Michael asked to switch out his parsley garnish for a basil leaf before it was photographed is proof enough that he is paying attention. To everything.
It also helps to know your clientele. The island is a small place. Every restaurant has it’s fair share of regulars and Ombra is no different. It’s not uncommon for them to field phone calls from those regulars asking “What is the ravioli today?” Michael laughs at this knowing that there is a delicate balance between keeping people happy and offering something different. The ravioli, however, pretty much changes every day or so. “Sometimes we tell them, today we are doing the black truffle. Tomorrow the Burrata.” You then get the impression some people are making their plans for dinner that week based on the availability of the dishes, which he tries to keep seasonal. Mixing local ingredients, like peaches from Estil and using them in a classic Italian recipe. We sampled the pasta, a seared veal chop with mushrooms and a red wine sauce and the panna cotta – an egg-less Italian custard served with assorted fruit. All of it eye-rollingly wonderfully. I don’t know if “rollingly” is a word, but I just used it anyway.
When you try these dishes and taste for yourself how perfect they are, then you realize the menu he has whipped up for the 29th Hilton Head Island Wine and Food Festival is a show stopper itself. At least it was for me. The theme is “Spring in Tuscany” and starts with Grilled Shrimp and White Beans, adds a Ravioli, then there’s a Bistec alla Fiorentina and finally the Bomboloni. Fried Italian doughnuts filled with lemon crème and serve with vanilla gelato. “Dunkin Donuts has got it going on, but the Bomboloni are out of this world.”, he says with a laugh. The entire menu just makes any foodie sigh with envy. Pair the courses with wines from Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi – one of the best known wine makers in Tuscany – and you’ve got a near perfect evening lined up and a certain fun time. “The food is always formal.” He says “the wine is always great, but the crowd and the energy is always very fun.” Sure sounds like it.
For more information on Ombra Cucina Rustica and their wine dinner as part of the Wine and Food Festival, visit them at www.ombrahhi.com.
I have no doubt you will Eat It and Like It.