Tre Soldi’s executive chef masters Roman cooking – and he’s never even been to Rome.
Y’all ready to meet Texas native Brandon Wolff? After five years of training under Paul Bartolotta, one of the country’s most talented Italian chefs, the 44-year-old foodie returned to Chicago and worked at spots like La Madia, Osteria Via Stato and The Signature Room at the 95th. In June, he took his culinary talents to Tre Soldi, where Jack Weiss (owner of the Coco Pazzo Group) named him executive chef. He may have born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, but Chef Wolff’s knack for Roman-style cooking would make just about anyone believe he was born in Italia.
Why Roman-style Italian food at Tre Soldi? Jack’s other two restaurants are Tuscan, but he’s always loved Roman food and wanted to do a Roman-inspired restaurant.
What are the signature Roman elements? The old Jewish ghetto in Rome is inspiration for a lot of our dishes. We make crispy fried artichokes and have a ricotta cheesecake recipe. And cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) is probably the most famous dish from Rome. There’s also a basic spaghetti – pasta tossed with pecorino cheese, black pepper, a little butter and olive oil. It’s an extremely simple dish and something they eat in Rome all of the time. And carbonara with pancetta and eggs, bucatini with spicy tomato sauce.
You haven’t visited Rome, so how do you brainstorm menu ideas? I go to the farmers’ market and talk to other vendors about products. I also look at menus for other restaurants, restaurants I respect, that are doing similar concepts in other cities.
Favorite item on Tre Soldi’s menu? Roasted chicken. We start with a beautiful pasture-raised chicken; it comes with peperonata – a traditional roasted pepper stew. We also make a Calabrian chili oil and brush it on the chicken so it has a nice little spice to it. A really clean, simple dish.
We heard you’re working on a bar menu…is there one? When will it be completed? Yes, we’re going to implement cured meats, cheese and some other snacks. It’s currently in process and we hope to have it by the time this is printed.
Favorite and least favorite part of what you do? Favorite: Sourcing the local ingredients. Going to the market and looking at what’s available; cooking for the seasons. Thinking about what I’m going to do for the next menu. I like the everyday, when we’re busy. I like to be active. I like to go on the line and cook with the guys. I love, especially being a new restaurant, talking to guests and getting the feedback. Least favorite: Managing the various personalities (laughs). Especially with a new restaurant, getting to know everybody. I don’t really like doing the administrative work that much, the paperwork, I’d rather be in the kitchen.
Where else do you dine? I have a 16-month-old baby so we don’t go out that much, but I love Au Cheval. I worked with Brendan [Sodikoff] at Lettuce; he was a corporate chef there and I was at Osteria Via Stato. I used to really like Avec, but I haven’t been there since they changed chefs. Bavette’s was good too.
What do you cook most at home? Usually something simple like roast chicken, braised short rib or pot roast.
Next food trend? More casual places are popping up. You don’t see that many people doing fine dining anymore.
Guilty pleasure? Gummy Bears.
Biggest kitchen disaster? Probably when I worked at La Madia. We had a booth at River North Fest and were doing pizza. So we had someone going back and forth with the pizzas from the restaurant, but we almost ran out of dough. How can you run out of pizza dough at a pizzeria? We were going through so much we just couldn’t keep up.
What’s something that’s important to you as a chef? The philosophy of sourcing local ingredients is really important to me. The chicken is from Slagel Family Farms [in Geneva]. We buy all of our pork, chicken, oxtail and eggs from them.
Now let’s get personal…are you married? I have a domestic partner that works in the biotech industry. She and I have a son who’s 1-and-a-half.
When was the last time you laughed until it hurt? Probably the other day when my son put his BlackBerry in my dog’s water bowl…again and again. We gave him an old BlackBerry to play with because he’s obsessed with cell phones.
If you were to be reincarnated, what/who would you be? I’d come back as John McEnroe. I was a tennis player growing up and always wanted to be him.
Favorite cookbook? Probably Craft of Cooking by Tom Colicchio.
What’s something even your best friend doesn’t know about you? I played saxophone in junior high and sat first chair. I’d like to be a musician but never pursued it.
Greatest fear? Right now, getting a bad a review here.
Greatest achievement? When I got a four-star review with Paul and Joy at Bacchus. We got four stars at both places we opened with them, but the achievement was better at Bacchus because it was a bigger restaurant.
Wayne Cable Photograph