Marco Pellegrini, executive chef at Caci in Southold, digs his hand into a mason jar filled with brightly colored yellow salt crystals. He twirls his finger to mix up the salt, then brings it to his nose and inhales.
The unmistakable scent of lemon begins wafting from the jar. It makes sense, since lemon is exactly what Mr. Pellegrini — an Italian-born chef who moved to America three years ago — used to make the seasoning.
The flavored salts were in the works for two months and made their unseen debut at Caci June 22, when the restaurant transitioned to its summer 2016 menu.
“[To] increase the quality of the dish, always, that’s what we try,” Mr. Pellegrini said in his thick Italian accent. “To make it better, better, better.”
Each salt is made differently, he explained, but they all start from the same place: Italy.
Like many ingredients the restaurant uses, Mr. Pellegrini orders the salt from his native country. Currently, Caci has a handful of flavors, including basil, blueberry, peach, grapefruit and truffle. Mr. Pellegrini said more are planned.
The most important part of the process, he explained, is having fresh ingredients. Different flavors are added to the salt, which is then cooked slowly on warm heat for at least a day. That’s how the lemon zest salt was made, Mr. Pellegrini said. This step prevents the seasoning from burning while leaving its flavors intact.
The aromatic salts are in line with Mr. Pellegrini’s focus on making fresh, homemade food with as few ingredients as possible.
The chef laments a style of cooking used by some modern chefs in which ingredients are piled into dishes to create a cacophony of flavors. Instead, he takes great pride in the simplicity of his menu items. The restaurant’s popular melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi, for instance, consist of just three ingredients: flour, eggs and red potatoes from Wesnofske Farms in Peconic.
Mr. Pellegrini’s flavored salt is simplistic, too, consisting only of the seasoning itself and whatever ingredient he chooses to infuse into it.
“If we can’t do homemade, we don’t put it on the menu,” he said.
Caci’s sous chef, Katie Hayes of Cutchogue, has learned all she knows about cooking from Mr. Pellegrini. Ms. Hayes, 24, grew up eating Puerto Rican cuisine and only knew of Italian food from Americanized recipes she’d tried in restaurants, like chicken parmigiana. Ms. Hayes said she still “had that same mindset” of Italian food when she first began working at Caci.
In the roughly two years since the restaurant opened, Ms. Hayes has moved up from hired help to Mr. Pellegrini’s second-in-command. Today, she helps him by making the restaurant’s signature homemade pastas, like squid-ink spaghetti and basil agnolotti.
Ms. Hayes said Mr. Pellegrini’s direction has been integrated into everything on Caci’s menu, from its desserts to the flavored salts.
“You see Marco’s hands in every single dish,” she said. “He creates the menu from his heart. You can tell that.”
Caci North Fork is located at 56125 Main Road in Southold.