From the moment the colonies waged their independence from Great Britain in 1776, millions of people have immigrated to the United States in pursuit of the so-called American dream.
The majority of those people would probably say they moved here in search of a better, more prosperous life.
But Marco Pellegrini, executive chef at Caci North Fork, a Southold restaurant that specializes in authentic Italian food, falls into the camp of dream-seekers who say they don’t know what drove them to relocate to the land of stars and stripes.
In Pellegrini’s case, he just did.
“I don’t know,” the 45-year-old Umbria native said earlier this year during an interview at one of the Main Road restaurant’s sunflower-adorned tables.
Throwing his hands into the air, he smiled.
“I really don’t know!”
Raised in the ancient, picturesque town of Foligno, in central Italy, Pellegrini decided around age 14 that his destiny was to become a chef.
“I get up one morning and say, ‘OK, that is my job,’ ” he recalled.
Pellegrini studied culinary arts intensively in high school, taking a job at Ristorante Coccorone in Montefalco when he was just 15. There he learned how to make homemade pasta, a skill he would later perfect.
“I really liked it,” he said. “We made a lot of pasta homemade, but creative pasta, too, like pasta mixed with wine.”
At age 18, before beginning a then-mandatory year of Italian military service, Pellegrini spent five months working in a bakery, where he was taught how to make his own yeast. At Caci North Fork, which opened in September 2014, Pellegrini and his team bake fresh bread, like rosemary focaccia, every day.
After leaving the military, Pellegrini dove in to what he called “one of the most important experiences” of his life, starting as a line cook at the acclaimed Villa Roncalli, a fine-dining restaurant situated in a 17th-century palace in Foligno.
“There is changing my life, really,” he said. “At that time, it was one of the 20 best restaurants in Italy.”
At Villa Roncalli, a fellow chef taught Pellegrini how to research and select the finest ingredients by visiting nearby farms and cultivating relationships with local purveyors.
In 1994, while still at Villa Roncalli, Pellegrini’s wife, Sabrina, opened a market in Foligno called Le Delizie. Between shifts at the restaurant, Pellegrini worked at Le Delizie as a butcher. Later, he became second chef at Montefalco’s Villa Pambuffetti, another high-end establishment, where he was given the freedom to invent dishes like cacao with tagliatelle and wild pigeon with coffee crust.
“Really, you experiment a lot,” he said. “I never use the dish of another. Maybe I start with the idea of some dishes, but always I make my version.”
After Villa Pambuffetti, Pellegrini became head chef at the upscale restaurant located inside Assissi’s Dal Moro Gallery Hotel. Around 2004, he was the executive chef at the osteria at Castello di Reschio, near Perugia. Owned by Count Antonio Bolza, Castello di Reschio is a luxurious, 2,000-acre estate on the border of Umbria and Tuscany that offers an assortment of rentable villas.
It was in 2012, while Pellegrini was working at Castello di Reschio, that he happened to meet Anthony and Daniele Cacioppo of Southold, who were there on vacation. Pellegrini still remembers the meal he cooked for Ms. Cacioppo: green basil ravioli with burrata cheese, salad with asparagus and pignoli nuts, and tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms.
“While enjoying our first bites, we immediately recognized Chef Marco’s style of cooking and our shared passion for simple, pure, inspired foods,” Ms. Cacioppo said.
During the meal, the Cacioppos shared with Pellegrini their dream of opening an authentic Italian restaurant on the North Fork. In turn, he told them about his lifelong desire to move to the United States.
A partnership quickly formed, with Mr. Cacioppo’s brother Joseph later signing on as a co-owner of what would later become Caci North Fork.
Getting Pellegrini, his wife and their two sons, Matteo, 14, and Filippo, 12, to the United States required 40 letters of recommendation. He eventually received an O-1 visa, which is issued to people the U.S. government describes as “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement,” and moved to the North Fork in 2013.
Pellegrini has always worked in high-end restaurants — “I will never serve something I don’t try to serve in the best way possible,” he said — so Caci North Fork was a natural fit. An admitted perfectionist, he prefers to hire employees with little experience because it allows him to train them “exactly” how he wants. He takes workers under his wing, teaching them not only how to cook but to always be cognizant of their posture and tone of voice.
“Chef is very involved in front-of-house service as well,” said Caci North Fork manager Nicole Nettles. “He’s trained the busers to pour water more elegantly and the servers to do traditional Italian wine service. It’s been a wonderful learning experience for everyone.”
While cooking at Caci has been a seamless transition for Pellegrini, the lack of instant access to the finest European foods has been a challenge.
“In Italy, you easily can find great ingredients. Here, it’s 10 times more complicated,” he said. There are some American ingredients he says he prefers not to use, like parmigiano-reggiano.
Happily, FedEx picks up the slack when Pellegrini’s favorite local farms, including Mar-Gene, 8 Hands, Breeze Hill and Crescent Duck, cannot. He regularly orders imported chocolate, cheese, olive oil and fresh truffles, incorporating the latter into dishes like buffalo milk ricotta ravioli with black summer truffle sauce.
Pellegrini has high standards, but he takes a simple approach to food preparation and doesn’t like recipes with page-long lists of ingredients.
“Don’t change too much the original recipe,” he said. “Respect the ingredients, respect the dish. To make a plate of spaghetti you don’t have to do too much. You can’t understand what you’re eating if there are too many ingredients.”
At Caci North Fork menus are seasonal, but certain customer favorites, like the 32-ounce grilled Fiorentina steak, calamari skewers with seasoned breadcrumbs, and homemade tiramisu with hazelnut praline are mainstays.
“The best compliment is when guests tell me, ‘We’re eating like we’re staying in Italy.’ That is the goal,” Pellegrini said.
Has he realized his version of the American dream? Well, sort of. But as a perfectionist, Pellegrini is constantly looking ahead.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the fall 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press