If ordering pasta in a pizza place conjures images of wan baked ziti and past-its-prime lasagna languishing in metal sheet pans then you don’t know Volturno – and you certainly haven’t sat down with the restaurant’s chef and sous chef, Nick Geraci and Tim Russo. In the Volturno kitchen to the right of the wood burning ovens that serve up the restaurant’s signature Pizza Napoletana, a Bucatini Bromance has been born.
Okay, yes, the menu at Volturno, which changes regularly and seasonally, often offers ziti (most recently in a traditional bolognese) and lasagna (a bianco made with a creamy bechamela) but also dishes with shapes far less familiar like cencione and malloreddus. But this is much more than Nick and Tim’s effort to broaden their customers’ vocabularies beyond Barilla. Just as a pasta shape is really a vehicle to deliver its sauce, pasta dishes at Volturno are the vehicle driving the chefs’ desire to expand expectations of what Italian cuisine means in Worcester and beyond.
This synergy in semolina started when Nick and Tim began working together in 2014. Not that Nick ever saw himself as a chef. He did go to Johnson & Wales but for computer graphics and new media. He took a job as an art director at a printing company after graduation but spent his days “staring out the window dreaming about what I would be cooking later that night.” To make some extra cash, he worked part time as a dishwasher at Farmstead in Providence where he rose quickly to the rank of sous chef. He ended up staying there for six years, leaving to travel to Italy and across the United States to learn as much as he could about Italian food, especially the pasta, he had fallen in love with. He returned home and fell into a “pasta making frenzy,” which is when he met Neil Rogers who gave him his shot at Volturno.
Nick met Tim in the Volturno kitchen and their connection was instant. “Tim is my rock. Everything I know how to do, he knows how to do if not better,” says Nick, “The only thing I have on him is obscure knowledge of pasta”
Which was fine with Tim. He was happy to explore something beyond the traditional red sauce Italian-American fare he grew up with in Worcester where he attended “The Voke” for culinary arts and cooked at Maxwell Silverman’s. Following high school, he worked in Providence got a degree from Johnson & Wales before decamping for Nantucket and eventually ending up back in Worcester at Armsby Abbey as executive sous chef where learned the importance of supporting local farms, the need for quality ingredients, and the potential for something different in Worcester.
Together with Nick, he now tries to realize that potential at Volturno, which they both admit has been a challenge. Unlike other cuisines, Italian in Worcester leans chicken parm and spaghetti and meatballs – good and comforting but not what Nick and Tim are interested in. Food in Italy is generally seasonal and market driven and the chefs strive for that at Volturno even if a lot of their clientele are used to red-sauce classics.
“They will come in looking for spaghetti and meatballs and instead find a vegetable ragu tossed with cencione [a large, oval, and flat pasta with a rough texture so sauces cling to it],” explains Nick. “You make it by dragging dough across the table by hand, and some people just don’t know what to make of it and don’t understand why it doesn’t come with meatballs. When I first came here, I made gulurjones [a Sardinian ravioli filled with fresh cheese] for people to try and those who did were blown away. When you get used to it, none of it is crazy. It is just another ravioli, just another pasta shape. But people look at the menu and say, ‘What?’ We have people who come in and look at the menu and get up and leave.”
Nick understands why: “If you come in here with a preconceived notion of what you want and have come to expect and you don’t see that, it is understandable that you might feel a little let down. The challenge for us is to get people who are let down to stay and think a little outside their comfort zones. When we did a fritto misto, we fried lemon slices with the fish and vegetables and snuck them in. People would put them in their mouths and say, ‘Wow, that’s really lemony what was that?’ When we explained it was a deep fried lemon and very Italian, we satisfied their expectations and gave them something new.”
That said, being sneaky is becoming less necessary: “We have had great success with our customers just ordering things that they don’t know,” adds Tim. “What’s most fun is when we give people an experience to remember by satisfying and exceeding their expectations. That’s the coolest thing when one person orders something really different at a table and just changes everyone else’s mind.”
With a menu that often changes, Nick and Tim constantly experiment to see what will work, and what’s worked has even surprised them at times.
A beef tongue bruschetta, for example, has been a hit. The tongue – brined for two weeks, smoked, sous vided, and sliced super thin – is served with onion jam and cruculo (an Italian Swiss-like cheese). Alas, pasta with chicken livers and caramelized onion and sage butter fell flat. “We ran it as a special. It was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had. But everyone else rejected it. Tim and I looked at each other and said, ‘Why are people not buying this? We are going to be eating chicken livers all week,’” says Nick.
Both chefs agree, that’s the hardest thing about their jobs: Dealing with their own egos. These guys want it to work for their customers: They want to tell people, “This is delicious just try it!” And disappointments aside, they will continue to play with their food whenever they can. Adding beet juice to teardrop-sized malloreddus (another Sardinian pasta) so they look like little ribbed purple jellybeans? Why not? Maybe they’ll try and turn it yellow with corn in the summer.
To produce dishes of unparalleled freshness and flavor, Nick and Tim are even planning a farm dinner for Lettuce Be Local featuring pasta made from local grain milled fresh at the restaurant. Chances are those diners will happily gobble it up. Could regular customers see this freshest pasta possible on their menus too? Who knows but one can hope as things seem to be changing: According to Tim, there was spaghetti and meatballs on the menu at one point. When they took it off, they thought an angry mob would form: “But people accepted it despite the fact that it had been really popular.”
This is good news because Volturno is planning to broaden its reach and opening a second location in Framingham near Framingham State this fall – a big stake in the ground for Worcester’s growing reach and potential as a food city.
“We want Worcester to keep coming up– to be the next Portland, Maine. It has that potential,” says Tim. “Look what we have already. It’s just getting everyone getting past what they know and want and keep trying new stuff and exploring what they didn’t even know they wanted and needed.”