An Authentic Italian Food Experience on Cherry Street
4 min read
It’s the kind of restaurant that everyone is talking about. “They make fettuccine Alfredo right at your table! In a huge hollowed-out wheel of cheese!” “You can watch them making your mozzarella! Any fresher and it would have to come straight from the cow!” “They have a shrimp as long as your forearm!” And if you’re lucky enough to score a reservation, and you walk in past the long gleaming counter backed by towering wood prosecco bar, under the chandeliers dripping with cut glass crystals, past ranks of waiters wearing starched shirts, starched aprons and (probably) starched ties, to your table draped in equally heavily starched white and spotless linen, you’ll see every food-lover in town talking in excited voices. The place has a buzz. And no one talks longer or more animatedly than Jim Bausch, one of the pizza-loving Bausch brothers who own Prossimo. “I’ll just go and get a quick quote, wait in the car, I’ll be back in 5 minutes,” I told my friend, and, as in the poem The Ancient Mariner, he had me spellbound for almost an hour and a half. Basically, the menu contains, like Proust’s madeleines (and I even mentioned that to him as he talked, stressing it’s the part of Proust everyone knows because it’s on page 15 of a 3000-page book), the story of his life.
Take the bread. (And please do!) It’s light airy focaccia and the recipe comes from a visit Jim made to his daughter one year, who went to school in Rome. Wandering around after dark, he found a pizza joint in a dimly lit side alley with a huge line outside. He went in and scored some pizza. The dough was so amazing that he scored the recipe. The bread is served with a tapenade made from olives from the seaport of Gaeta, just south of Rome because that’s where Jim lived for half a year or so back in 2013 when he was learning how to make gelato. The bread also comes with a garlic paste and with homemade butter, he makes every day from creme fraiche. Jim has visited a lot of towns in Italy at one time or another… often following his brother Mike to pizza competitions. Mike is known in Italy. When he shows up at a contest in Parma or wherever he attracts a coterie of adoring fans. And most of these voyages are reflected in the menu. Once, far off the beaten track in Milan, he found a place that served octopus grilled with sausages. He ordered it just because it sounded offbeat, but it was so good it had to be on the menu. And it is.
Prossimo came to exist, not by plan but by chance. The Bauschs’ had been hoping for a decade to acquire the property next to Andolinis. They’d knock down the wall and expand Andolini’s. So when the property came on the market, they snapped it up. And then the city inspector told them that if they tore down the wall to make one big space, they would be required to install new sprinklers throughout Andolini’s. The cost was prohibitive. So, in the tradition of being given lemons and making limoncello, they decided to make a new restaurant. It would be fine dining. It would have dishes served nowhere else. And, as Bukowski said, if you’re going to try, go all the way. Jim grew up haunting the Italian restaurants in New York’s theater district (in fact, his Italian grandparents owned one). “You go and you can’t believe that so much good food is coming out of that tiny kitchen!” Jim wanted to do that.
And so the menu evolved. Jim put in the Alfredo because he remembered seeing it as a little kid in one of those fabled New York restaurants… “you know, the kind of restaurant you’d expect to find Frank Sinatra eating,” he said. He got the idea for tableside mozzarella when he watched the cooks at Andolini’s making it for pizza, as they do every day. “All the waiters stopped work and sneaked into the kitchen to get a taste, it was so good. I’d try to get them to go back to their jobs but they just ignored me.”
Many other dishes came from Executive Chef Mike Evangelista. He’s worked with some top chefs in his lifetime, cooking alongside Ludovic Lefevbre and, according to Jim, also with fusion food guru Sam Choi. “We got a good crew of line cooks too,” says Jim, “all young up and comers.” It was Mike who dreamed up the idea of the huge shrimp, served with orzo pasta and chipotle pesto. “And one of his ideas — fish with cheese — was too crazy even for me. I wouldn’t taste it until he made me. And it was fabulous.” That’s branzino with mascarpone served atop an Italian ratatouille and it is indeed fabulous. There are also some simple pasta dishes, like spaghetti bolognese. That’s what Jim serves his own family when he cooks at home. And don’t forget to try the creme brulee. Even in a town saturated with creme brulees, this one stands out.