Good Ingredients, Prepared Simply
By Maggie Wolff Peterson | Photos By Tony Cooper
The dining room at Violino restaurant in Winchester, Va., is lovely and intimate. Creamy ivory tablecloths are overlaid by cloths in muted green. An arbor of faux grapes drapes over the bar. Classical music plays softly. The tables, barely more than two dozen in the room, are spaced to allow diners the pleasure of privacy.
But the kitchen is just plain small. There, in a corner, is the bread mixer, its industrial-sized steel bowl leaving barely enough turn-around room for a kitchen worker to reach the pasta press. Proofing nearby is a sheet pan of house-made foccacia that will be served to patrons as they are seated, in a basket with breadsticks and perhaps another variety of bread, and a dish of fruity olive oil finished with a good grind of fresh black pepper. Across from this, a warming station keeps marinara and Bolognese sauces ready for service, and warms a tureen of fresh soup. On the other side of the room, an impossibly small ice-cream machine produces gelato in flavors including an intensely flavored strawberry and honey vanilla, that are served with a scoop of pistachio to create the green-and-pink palette of Winchester's signature event, the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.
Chef Riccardo Stocco's station is perhaps the roomiest. From a narrow space, he mans a professional cookstove that includes three ovens, ten burners, a flattop grill and a fryer that he says is used only for calamari. Above the stove, well-seasoned sauté pans are stacked like sentinels, prepared for duty.
Most of the dishes served at Violino come straight from these pans. Everything is scratch-made -- the sauces, the pasta, the breads -- and as much as possible is sourced locally. Cornish game hens and rabbits come from Skyview Acres, a Winchester farm. Vegetables come from Mayfair Farm in Bunker Hill, W.Va. Cheeses are made or brined in-house. The restaurant is like an Italian family kitchen, to which the public is invited.
Riccardo Stocco has inherited his place at the cookstove from his father, Franco, who with his wife, Marcella, established Violino on Winchester's downtown pedestrian mall in 1996. In the front of the house, Marcella manages things with the help of their daughter, Raffaella. And the next generation of Stoccos is already being readied to join the family business. Lines penciled vertically up a wall in the kitchen mark the growth of Riccardo's four children, the eldest of whom may be put to work next summer, selling gelato at Winchester's Freight Station Farmers' Market.
It was Franco Stocco's dream to have his own restaurant, an ambition he carried from the family's ancestral home near the Italian Alps, through service in restaurants in Washington, D.C., to a partnership in Warrenton, Va., at a restaurant called Fantastico. A non-compete agreement with his former partner meant that Stocco could not open his own place in Warrenton. He and Marcella did not want to return to the expense and congestion of the city. On their first trip to Winchester, they spotted what had been a Greek restaurant, that was closed and vacant. They decided that the space would work.
"We remodeled everything," Marcella Stocco said. The former restaurant had a raised island in the middle of the room, that the Stoccos removed and replaced with a trellised partition. At the time they opened the restaurant, smoking was permitted, and the partition separated the smokers from non-smokers. The Stoccos also removed a cashier's station from the front of the restaurant, and decorated the space with musical instruments that Franco Stocco says he picked up at flea markets and thrift stores. Here is a balalaika, there a mandolin. An accordian drapes at ceiling level, while a French horn and flute adorn an opposite wall. Franco Stocco says he named the restaurant Violino, which means violin, because it is "the king of the string instruments."
As much as cuisine, music is at the center of Stocco's vision. A singer himself, his heart is given to opera. Antique sheet music becomes décor in the restaurant, which also displays photos of the diva, Maria Callas, and reproduction handbills for the Metropolitan Opera at the turn of the last century. Stocco envisions creating specialty meals in which, as much as wine, opera selections are paired with every course. He is always on hand to deliver a short performance in honor of an anniversary or special event, and has written his own version of "Happy Birthday to You," to sing when called upon.
Also displayed in the restaurant is an oversized pewter spoon, mounted on a plaque that announces Violino as the People's Choice Award winner for the region's 2012 Taste of the Town competition. The Stoccos say that veal is the dish they're known for, whether it be a slowly braised osso bucco or a seared cutlet in a fresh sauce. Specials are created based on seasonal ingredients. And sometimes, dishes enter the menu based on whimsy.
Franco Stocco had a dream one night, in which the traditional pairing of cantaloupe and proscuitto was preconceived as a filling for ravioli. The next day, he came into the restaurant and created it. "They were a hit," Raffaela Stocco said. "They were good."
In addition to the lifetime of technique he has absorbed from his father, Riccardo Stocco has a formal culinary education that underlies his cooking. A two-year degree from Johnson and Wales University preceded his return to the family kitchen. Still, he adheres to his father's menu philosophy, that Italian food isn't just red sauce and meatballs, that authentic Italian cuisine honors good ingredients, prepared simply. Violino's menu staples include homemade gnocchi in several varieties; ravioli filled with swiss chard and fresh ricotta goat cheese in walnut sauce; mussels sautéed with olive oil, tomato, herbs and spices; lobster ravioli in a pan sauce of lemon and parmesan; and shrimp sautéed in olive oil, garlic, herbs and lemon sauce, with roasted bell peppers, served over black angel hair pasta and sprinkled with toasted almonds. That's all in addition to a complementary intermezzo that the kitchen sends to refresh one's palate between courses. And a meal isn't complete until the espresso machine steams a tiny cup, presented with biscotti.
Franco Stocco says the restaurant depends on its regular patrons, including travelers who make a point to stop in Winchester on annual trips on I-81. More beautiful and less congested than I-95, the interstate that bisects Winchester is a better route for travelers heading north and south, he says. And like in Italy, he says, the best restaurants are not found in the big cities, but instead in the smaller towns.
Especially in a bruised economy, tablecloth restaurants feel the pinch, Franco Stocco says. "What saves us," he says, "is tourism."
Almost every year, Franco Stocco returns to Italy to taste his native cuisine and assess cooking trends. He returns with new ideas, and new wines to pair with new dishes.
Around 3 p.m. each day, before a single patron or any kitchen staff arrives, he sits with his family to share a meal good enough to present to guests. Served from the pans in which they were prepared come a thin pork chop, smothered in a rosemary cream sauce and topped with ham and Emmenthaler cheese, finished with a spicy candied fruit preparation called mostarda. With this is fusilli and salmon. A serving of lobster ravioli appears. A quick toss of sturdy greens in olive oil and garlic finishes the plate. A bit of wine is poured. The family assembles.
Riccardo Stocca takes a moment to clasp his hands in prayer before he begins.