Prepping at Restaurant Picco

| September 15, 2008 | 2 Comments
  • 2 Comments

Restaurant PiccoLast month, during one of those gorgeously sunny weeks, a friend visiting from China (read: escaping from Beijing’s craziness) requested a fun outing that would include a meal highlighting local foods. The perfect side trip came to mind immediately. There’s no better way to take in the Bay than on a leisurely ferry ride. And for local flavors, Restaurant Picco offers Marin Mondays, special weekly prix fixe dinners that highlight the best of Marin Country farms. I told my friend to meet me on the Larkspur Ferry.

Skimming along the water, with both bridges within view and plenty of time to catch up on the years that have passed, who wouldn’t prefer a ferry ride over stop-and-go, rush-hour traffic? Add Chef Bruce Hill’s special menu, and it’s a dinner excursion that both visitor and local will long remember.
The Larkspur Ferry leaves regularly from the San Francisco Ferry Building, and a taxi at the other end whisked us within minutes to Restaurant Picco’s door. That week’s six-course Marin Monday menu featured crudo with local albacore, delicately fried squash blossoms, housemade fettucine with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes and Marin Sun bacon, roasted chicken with fresh butter beans, a cheese course with Point Reyes Original Blue, and for dessert a generous swirl of Picco’s famous Strauss Dairy soft-serve ice cream.

Picco courses

After our dinner, I wrangled Bruce into giving us a tour of his amazing kitchens. Beneath the restaurant’s hotline and his pizzeria’s wood-burning oven lies another whole, wide world of food prep. We walk around back, descended the wooden stairs, and there entered a huge complex dedicated simply to prepping the food before it heads upstairs to be finished and plated and served.

Picco prep room

It is a rare and precious thing to have so much space in a restaurant. (I used to shape brioche bread for a leading San Francisco restaurant on a cutting board precariously balanced on a stack of milk crates in a tiny, dark storeroom.) So I took my time admiring the separate kitchen completely equipped with a functioning hood, shining tables that stretch over twenty feet, cavernous walk-in coolers and freezers, and numerous secret corners where Bruce’s sous chef, Jared Rogers, cures salumi and experiments with naturally fermented pickles. (How many restaurants boast a working sauerkraut crock?)

Benefitting from the generous budget that spoiled Roxanne’s, the previous business operating in that space, Bruce’s kitchen staff certainly loves all that roominess. More importantly, though, they enjoy his encouragement and support to explore new techniques. Jared has learned to inoculate their salumi with good microbes against the unwanted molds, to cure dense yet silky coppa, and is currently nurturing a completely new colony of flavorful critters in that sauerkraut crock.

Picco saumi

Curing meats involves a fair amount of guesswork and intuition, much trial and error. Some advice from Jared for home cooks interested in making salumi on their own: “Research, start small, take your time, and remember that it’s a labor of love and dedication.” He recommends starting out with coppa, the easiest cut of all to cure. (Check out Jasonmolinari’s detailed blog, Cured Meats: The Art and the Craft, for illustrated, step-by-step instructions to make classics like coppa, braesola, pancetta, and salame al Barolo.)

Picco Nilma vegetable washer and dryer

Back in the prep kitchen, Bruce showed off a high-end Nilma vegetable washer and dryer. This enormous lettuce spinner is actually the baby of the Nilma family. With an office in Reno, the “American European” company sells large-scale kitchen equipment, including the Pioneer Integrated Potato Peeling Line, the Maxim Onion Peeling Machine, and the 3-D Super Dicer, the workhorse of cutting machines. It’s rare to find one of their pieces in a small-scale restaurant like Picco — again, a legacy of Roxanne’s over-the-top extravagance — but anyone who’s ever been on spinach duty (like yours truly) will fall in love immediately with the Nilma spinner.

Picco Big Chief smokers

While few of you will need any of this specialized machinery, Bruce’s prep kitchen includes a piece of equipment that many hunters, fisherman and serious barbecue folks do have in their home set-up. Those in the know don’t waste hundreds or thousands on fancy smokers. Instead, they send off for one of Luhr Jensen’s front-loading Big Chief smokers. Easy and efficient, inexpensive and effective, it’s one of those perfectly designed pieces that will function exactly as it should free of all gilding and gadgetitis.

As for those who have neither the patience to cure nor the room for even a Little Chief, well, thank goodness we can depend on the good work of professionals like Bruce and Jared to create all these delicious foods.

Picco slicer

Restaurant Picco
320 Magnolia Avenue

Larkspur, California 94939
(415) 924-0300

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About the Author ()

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place. Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.
  • http://www.jerirogers.com Jeri Rogers

    Thank you for this wonderful review! I too love Piccos! Jeri

  • http://domdivas.blogspot.com/ Jen

    What a wonderful review! It really captures the essence of the great food they make at Picco’s! Can’t wait to go back again…