At just 25, Heather Bertinetti is turning out incredible dessert menus for all three of Michael White’s award-winning restaurants, Alto, Marea, and Convivio. Before joining Michael two years ago, she worked at Gramercy Tavern and Per Se. Her passion for sweets makes juggling three restaurants with varying regional styles a real treat!
What led you to the pastry side of the culinary arts?
I grew up in a family that cooked all the time, but nobody ever baked. One day, when I was little, I decided to bake cupcakes, and I loved it—mixing colors for the icing—and that was it. At the age of 15, I was already working in a pastry shop, a little place in New Jersey called La Petite Patisserie. I fell in love with the craft and decided to further my education in it.
Do you have an Italian background?
Yes, on my father’s side.
What’s your approach to desserts for the Italian palate?
I consider myself lucky to be in New York City, surrounded by fantastic and competitive pastry chefs that I can feed off. I might note a really cool technique and work on how to Italianize it. As far as I’m concerned, I think Italy has the best flavors to work with—they’re awesome. So I’ll take more refined techniques, like French, or more modern ones, and adapt them. I make it my own.
The torrone semifreddo that we do here at Alto. Basically, it’s a hazelnut cake baked similar to a French dacquoise, over which we pour “magic crack,” or a layer of torrone (nougat) semifreddo (semi-cold).
How do you create three distinctive dessert menus?
Convivio is southern Italian, Alto is northern, and Marea is coastal, so I base each menu on regional flavors. For example, the most important consideration at Marea is to not compete with the fish. The desserts have to be really light because most seafood dishes are light to begin with. At Convivio, I can go a little heartier, with bigger portions, because the dishes are heavier with a lot of red sauces. At Alto, I can delve into several styles.
Describe a dessert from each restaurant and what inspired it?
On my opening menu at Convivio, I had ricotta fritters, which I personally love!
There are a lot of carnivals and festivals in southern Italy, and this dish was a fun nod to that tradition. It sort of reminds you of being there. The torrone semifreddo has very northern flavors in it, so that’s Alto. Marea is probably the most difficult. I created a dish using zucchini, a very traditional flavor that I knew would pair well with lemon, which is light. So I did a zucchini cake with a lemon crema, and a yogurt gelato. It’s topped with a zucchini strip fried in a tempura batter, so it’s super light. Guests have said that it’s the perfect sweet, tangy end to a seafood meal.
What are your thoughts on dessert pairings?
I like to pair something to pull out the flavors. For example, I would do calvados with the ricotta fritters, grappa with the zucchini, and cognac with the torrone, to give it a little heat because it’s a frozen dessert. Personally, I love rieslings. I love dessert wines, but I usually go the coffee route with dessert, like a demitasse. If you want to go Italian, have a coffee with sambuca.
What’s the process of working with Chef Michael White?
We talk about all our collective ideas and the direction we want to go with them. I create test desserts and he tastes them all so we can refine recipes from there—more sugar, more acidity, etc. We bounce ideas off each other; sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. At my age, I consider myself extremely lucky to work with someone like Chef White. He’s great about giving me room to grow as a chef. It’s a fun journey and an adventure every day.
“The biggest mistake people make when it comes to fish is overcooking it,” says Chef Michael White, who notes that in general we tend to overcook food in the United States. “Having a perfectly cooked piece of sea bass or a trout is very special.”
The same goes for shellfish: White sings the praises of having steamed clams just opened, taken out of the pot one by one. “Less is more,” he explains. “Having less ingredients and letting them stand on their own is very important.”
But starting with great fish is paramount to a great-tasting end product. “Know where you’re buying from–which is a little easier in New York than in a lot of other cities given the access we have to great places like Fairway and Citarella, not to mention the fish markets.” Besides good quality, White recommends buying in season: “Scallops, for example, thrive in cold waters, so don’t buy them in the summer.” If you’re looking for a really exceptional piece of fish, he suggests getting a shipment from specialty companies, like Taylor Seafood, to ensure quality and freshness.
Just Grill It
Grilling season is coming up, and Chef White is a big advocate of grilled fish. While he readily admits its more work to eat, grilling fish on the bone definitely yields better results. “The fish stays moister and juicier,” he says, “and is quite delicious.”
Easy Serving Suggestions
Mozzarella apetizer: Fish and dairy together are extraordinary. Simply add bottarga shavings to a little mozzarella, and eat!
Shrimp salad: A perfect picnic pleaser. Poach shrimp in salted water, toss with olive oil and a little lemon juice, add beans and tomatoes, and serve.
Tuna panini: Grill a piece of tuna, slice it, and marinate with lemon and oil and herbs. Serve between ciabatta bread.
Tonno sott’olio: Poach a piece of tuna in oil and serve with roasted peppers and tomatoes.
Fava-bean mash: Poach the fava beans, and mash them up with minced basil. Add grilled fish on the side.
Pasta and bluefin-tuna bottarga: Combine your favorite pasta with garlic, olive oil, and parsley, and top with a slight grating of the bottarga at the table. Enjoy the strong, aggressive flavors.
Risotto with bottarga: Add smoked provolone cheese to a risotto, and top with a little bottarga. While not traditionally Italian, this dish uses highly Italian ingredients.