Locanda del Lago chef Gianfranco Minuz revives the lost American tradition of whole-animal cooking

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

Bite of the Beast dinners blend contemporary flair with an old-world culinary zeitgeist

Bite of the Beast dinners blend contemporary flair with an old-world culinary zeitgeist

Read any cookbook from a century ago and you’ll find tasks that are alien to modern kitchens. “The Settlement Cookbook” of 1901 included information on how to pluck a chicken, skin a squirrel and remove buckshot from a deer. Once you had accomplished such tasks, the book would go on to explain how to make use of every part of the beast, whatever it was — tripe, necks and stomachs went into sausages, chicken feet and rooster’s combs into soup, fish heads and bones boiled down for soup stock.

Present-day Americans often assume that these recipes were included because people were poor and had to get all the nutrition they could. Such thinking ignores fundamental changes in our tastes and attitudes. For one, organ meats used to be extremely popular in America. The 1941 menu from Perino’s, one of the fanciest restaurants in Los Angeles, included calf’s brains, liver and kidney — none of which have been in high demand lately.

Other cuts of meat tough enough that they are now usually used for pet food were popular because they added flavor to soups and stews and can be tastier than steaks when properly cooked. Your grandmother knew how to use those cuts, the kitchen staff at Perino’s knew how to use them, and so does Gianfranco Minuz, chef at Locanda del Lago in Santa Monica. Minuz had heard the idea that organ meats were eaten mainly by thrifty people, which he finds slightly ridiculous.

“These meats from inside the animal were not just eaten by poor people. Look at how foie gras, which is liver, is very expensive. Duck liver, used to make pâté rich and creamy, is another example. In Italy we ate the liver, kidney, everything, and we know traditional recipes to make them all delicious,” he said.

For the past three years, Minuz has been hosting special dinners at Locanda del Lago that feature exotic cuts of meat and fish, many of which are based on the cooking of his native region near Venice (not the one just down the road). Minuz ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in Vicenza before coming to California, and when I spoke with him he was planning a dinner using various cuts of bison. Though that animal is native to the Americas, his experience in Italy gave him ideas about what to do.

“In Italy we have buffalo related to African and Asian breeds, and we use their milk to make mozzarella. That buffalo is more tough, American bison is more tender, and both are more sweet and lean than cow,” he said. “We start dinner with carpaccio, the raw meat from the tenderloin, which has a completely different flavor from the cooked meat. Then we make pastas like tortellini or ravioli out of the belly, lasagna out of the shoulder and neck, a steak from the ribeye.”

Minuz has so much enthusiasm for these cuts of meat that it seemed natural to ask why he thought Americans moved away from eating them.

“Most people prefer the steak because they know the steak, they grew up eating it, and it is fast and easy to cook. The rest of the animal offers cuts that are more tasty — the shoulder, leg and shank — but they have to be cooked for a long time,” he said. “Americans are discovering these things and attitudes are changing. Nobody used to want lamb shank, as an example. Americans are used to lamb shank now, but not the cheek, and that is unfortunate — it is my favorite cut of lamb. That is also true of the cow and the pig. Cheek meat is some of the best on the animal.”

Minuz pointed out that the public has also embraced types of seafood that were once scorned. In the 1960s and ‘70s, squid was used mainly as fish bait, but calamari is now one of the most popular appetizers on the table. Thought it seems hard to believe now that seared ahi is so popular, tuna used to be scorned, too — the Van Camp Seafood Company marketed it as “Chicken of the Sea” to insinuate that it was relatively flavorless.

While cuts like ahi and toro have gone from sushi bars to mainstream restaurants, there is plenty that can be done with other cuts of tuna. Minuz will demonstrate this at a five-course tuna dinner on Aug. 27. There is no tuna in the dessert, but the other four plates will include the fish as carpaccio, with spinach pasta, over a risotto with pancetta, and marinated with Cinzano Italian vermouth.

Locanda del Lago calls these monthly events “Morso della Bestia,” which translates as “Bite of the Beast,” and they are available with wines paired to match each course. Lago sommelier Joseph Matlock says this is often a challenge.

“Sometimes I’m matching wines with things that most sommeliers have never heard of. I try the meat the way the chef intends to serve it and 90% of the time I can ace the pairing in my head — I taste it and know what in our stock is going to work. The other 10% is interesting. Sometimes I have to hit the books to see what is traditional and then taste a few wines with it to see how they work. There’s a set of classic rules for pairing French and Italian cuisines, and sometimes I have to go beyond them,” Matlock said.

Minuz is breaking ground, too, because the ideas in these meals are not purely from his home region, or even his home country.

“I try to pull together Italian tradition and the recipes of my family, but also American ideas. This is an Italian restaurant in America, not Italy, so I am thinking about what my American customers will like. I am using vegetables from the farmers market that might not be in Italian traditions but match my food and their preferences,” he said.

Minuz also sees these dinners as part entertainment and part education, and he was thoughtful when asked whether he thinks his customers will change their pattern of consumption at home after attending.

“It is hard for me to tell because I don’t go home with them, but I hope it will make them excited about cooking different cuts of meat and also trying more of them,” he said. “The materials for the things I am serving are available, and they can experiment and discover for themselves.”

Though “Bite of the Beast” sounds meat-centric, Minuz takes the same attitude toward all foods and had encouraging words for those who don’t eat meat at all.

“If you want to be a vegetarian it is OK with me, but you should explore everything — try all the plants and all the edible parts of plants, try all the cheeses and things you can. If you are going to eat meat you should investigate the whole animal. Waste nothing, from the nose to the tail. You can eat almost everything, and you will find new things to like.”

Morso della Bestia events happen the last Thursday of each month. The Aug. 27 dinner features tuna, Sept. 24 is pig, Oct. 29 is goose and Nov. 26 is turkey.

Locanda del Lago, 231 Arizona Ave., Santa Monica (310) 451-3525 lagosantamonica.com