Behind every great Italian restaurant, there is an Italian grandmother or two.
Brian Ricciardi, chef and owner of Mozzarella Fellas in Winston-Salem, was taught everything he knows right in his own kitchen growing up.
“As much as the food matters, it’s really something more” Brian says. “Good is good, right?”. There is a very special feeling surrounded by family, getting together for the holidays, birthdays and Sunday dinners, he remembers. His grandma would spend all day in the kitchen.
“She would never sit down,” he says. “She still doesn’t sit down, but she has more help these days thanks to her.”
That special feeling is something Brian is in constant pursuit of, and the burning passion behind Mozzarella Fellas.
“Most owners are giving you a huge piece of who we are,” he says. “We are sharing our story.”
You will find the traditional southern Italian dishes of his childhood mixed in with his current lifestyle written all over his menu. Brian became vegan five years ago, to live a healthier lifestyle in the beginning, but as he’s progressed he considers the ethical ramifications of his choice more and more.
“We do some sick things in pursuit of our diet, and the way we get our food,” he says. “Most people don’t want to be inconvenienced, it’s not easy taking the road less traveled.”
But Brian comes from a long line of people who did things the hard way: grew their own food, made their own sausages and fresh pastas, cooked big pots of red sauce on the stove for days, all in pursuit of a culinary ideal. He’s a particular man, picky about his ingredients, picky about his lighting, thermostats, tables, layout and just about anything you can put a finger on. And he’s quite deliberate in the direction of his restaurant.
“My great grandfather was separated from his mother at 5 years old to come to America because she wanted the best life for him,” he says. “I refuse to do anything my heart’s not in.”
That means constant evolution, reinvention and change while still adhering to the tents learned in his grandmothers’ kitchens.
The fall menu has everything one would expect from such: pizzas, calzones and stromboli from a brick oven; pastas with red and cream sauces, seafood, sausages, a Bolognese sauce from an old family recipe. But there’s a gluten-free option on the pasta. Pizzas can come on a cauliflower crust, if the diner prefers. And there are ingenious substitutions on southern Italian standards. The fried “calamari” appetizer at Mozzarella Fellas is made with oyster mushrooms instead of squid — which might appeal to anyone who’s seen that particular cephalopod before prepping, vegan or not. “First, we wanted to be different,” Brian says. “We tried a few different things. Those oyster mushrooms worked perfectly — the texture, the smell; it tastes great. There’s a vegan version of chicken piccata and chicken parm that uses Lion’s Mane mushrooms instead of a traditional chicken cutlet. And, he says, for his Sunday gravy — a tradition in Italian kitchens as time-honored as the seven fishes on Christmas Eve — he uses jackfruit instead of pork, a suitable plant substitute that finds its way all over the vegan side of the menu.
There are jackfruit nachos and a vegan BBQ jackfruit sandwich, among other variations.
And while customers can still order traditional chicken parm, pasta Bolognese and other dishes for which all great Italian restaurants are known, they can also find comparable, healthier choices on the menu.
Within his own vegan lifestyle, Brian says, he doesn’t miss too many of the foods he grew up eating. A lot of his Italian relatives are now also vegan, and new culinary traditions have already begun in those old kitchens in New York, and here in Winston-Salem.
“Cheese is the hardest,” he says. So, of course, Mozzarella Fellas still has copious quantities of the delicacy for which it’s named, available in all manner of cooked and raw forms.
But just this month the restaurant debuted a vegan version of its most popular dish: vegan fried mozzarella. It took him a while to figure it out, but he finally did.
“My restaurant, my food is not always going to hit home with everyone. My grandmother didn’t always hit home with me,” he says smiling. “But she’s still the best cook I know.”