SO IND Monthly hits the road for a taste of Italy. Story and photo by Elizabeth Rose

Friday, March 1, 2013

RuffinosRuffino’s owner Ruffin Rodrigue and Executive Chef Peter Sclafani have crossed the great basin to bring us cuisine that is both new and familiar, daring and soothing, and can be easily summed up in one word: Woah.

Sclafani’s menu is a blend of Italian- and Southern-inspired dishes that range from crabmeat cheesecake to his unparalleled version of a caprese salad, a mixture determined by the “gumbo of customers” and their tastes, says Rodrigue. Though Ruffino’s on the River, located in the former Cochon in Lafayette, will have a menu nearly identical to the Baton Rouge location to begin, Rodrigue and Sclafani want Lafayette’s discerning diners to determine the final dishes.

Sclafani, a member of the Louisiana Seafood board, the Louisiana Restaurant Association board and the Red Stick Farmers Market board, has crafted his menu to highlight Louisiana-sourced ingredients in reinventions of our favorite dishes. His plates have earned him a number of awards, including gold medals at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience and an upcoming visit to the James Beard House in April where he will cook.

“I’m intrigued with modern cuisine,” says Sclafani, whose creative methods are an apparent labor of love. “We’re always trying to evolve.”

Ruffino’s on the River won’t open until late April or early May, but IND Monthly decided to take a little road trip to the Capital City to give our readers a taste of what’s to come.

What we found is that Sclafani has taken classic dishes and revamped them for the modern meal. The quintessential example of his experimentation is the gold medal-winning La Caprese: an heirloom tomato topped with burrata cheese (made from mozzarella and cream) and “balsamic caviar” — 25-year aged balsamic vinegar that has been blended with agar, which resembles gelatin but sets at a higher temperature. It’s dropped through vegetable oil and then strained, so all that remains are small spheres sitting atop the classic Italian combination alongside micro basil leaves and Ruffino’s own extra virgin olive oil. If you want to attempt to make your own balsamic caviar, you can watch Sclafani’s demonstration and a dozen others on the RuffinosTV YouTube channel. When Sclafani prepares the salad at the James Beard House, he plans to add a Hudson Valley foie gras mousse, just in case it wasn’t decadent enough before.

Also on the James Beard menu is a repeat appetizer special at Ruffino’s of braised pork cheek, which Sclafani cooks sous vide in a vacuum for 48 hours and serves with a butternut squash purée and Benton’s bacon jam. It’s incredibly tender and packed with a rich, savory flavor that is completely unlike anything offered in Lafayette. If life ended after eating this dish, there could be no regrets.
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But life goes on, and there is more to consume. Rodrigue gushes about “my memory dish,” the Veal Michael. “I couldn’t believe what I was eating,” says Rodrigue after telling a story where Sclafani was experimenting with dishes before the restaurant opened and brought them into the office for taste testing. The veal, no thicker than a quarter, is pan-sautéed and topped with crabmeat and imperial sauce. “There couldn’t be a better combination of flavors,” says Rodrigue.

Seafood steals the spotlight, though, equipped with its own stage: a redfish filet, topped with crawfish, pesto and balsamic syrup, sprawls across a cedar plank and is baked in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven, a feature Rodrigue calls an “energy center.” Children can also create their own pies at the pizza bar, which are then tossed in the wood-burning oven where they are easily visible for the young and curious. The same little ones can enjoy the complimentary cotton candy that punctuates the end of every meal at Ruffino’s.

If choosing only one item is daunting, opt for the Taste of Ruffino’s appetizer, a quartet of small seafood-stuffed servings that includes a crabmeat cheesecake made without any sweet components; instead, it’s packed with fontina, Romano and Parmesan cheeses and covered in a Creole meuniere with Hollandaise. The plate of New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp is served in a saucy puddle of spices and emulsified butter, which creates a creamy taste without using actual cream. The arincine, Italian for “little orange,” is a sphere of deep-fried risotto, shrimp, crabmeat and fontina, served with both an alfredo sauce and a vodka tomato cream sauce. Finally, the crawfish cake is topped with a corn and crawfish sauce.

Sclafani will lead the charge in the Lafayette kitchen to start the transition, along with three new chefs and a sommelier unique to Ruffino’s on the River. Wine is an ingredient central to the Ruffino’s atmosphere, and Rodrigue has plans to build a temperature-controlled wine cellar at the new location. The restaurant’s signature wine, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon named Ruffino’s “Passion,” is a fool-proof accompaniment to the 45-day dry aged prime ribeye or any of the classic Italian meals.

Rodrigue promises the restaurant will not be a “cookie-cutter” version of the Baton Rouge location but will instead have its own identity. “It’s a place of celebration,” he says. “We want to tell our story and the restaurant’s own story.”

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