“I grew up in a family where food was the center of the day,” says La Balena Chef Emanuele Bartolini about his upbringing in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Florence, Italy. “My grandmother was the chef.”
In the morning, he’d go with her to the market for fresh ingredients, then come home to make meals entirely by hand. “And the next day,” he says, “Basically repeat.”
In 1998, Bartolini came to New York City when his wife, Anna, attended NYU. He was nervous about whether he would appreciate American culture and customs, but he began to love the lifestyle. Bartolini worked in restaurants, which included a three-year stint as manager of Del Posto. For vacation, they often visited Anna’s relatives in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
“I always enjoyed the feeling of Carmel,” he says. “The charming village is quiet, extremely clean and close to the ocean.”
They moved west and opened the restaurant in 2012. Tucked into a cramped kitchen and small dining room that spills onto a brick patio lined by fountains and herbs, the eatery sources the freshest ingredients possible.
“That is the main thing for us,” said Bartolini, who strictly follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines. The menu—initially developed by Brad Briske and now handled by Adelfo Barragan—showcases true Tuscan cuisine.
“Sometimes we need to have a little twist, but we try to be extremely close to the authenticity of the recipes from back home,” says Bartolini, who works with the kitchen staff each morning to develop recipes. In 2015, the couple opened il Grillo, which serves more rustic dishes and is also open for lunch.
La Balena is a preferred restaurant for many vintners, and Bartolini greets them with open arms, especially the younger generation. “I try to support this new wave of winemaking in Monterey,” he says.
His suggested dish is the roasted pork belly. “I made this with my grandma in Florence. It is a very simple and easy recipe.”
Recipe courtesy Emanuele Bartolini, chef, La Balena, Carmel-by-the-sea, CA.
- 4 tablespoons sea salt
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- Black pepper, to taste
- 2–3 pounds pork belly
Mix salt, sugar and add touch of pepper. Massage mixture onto pork belly. Refrigerate 6-8 hours.
Heat oven to 375˚F. Place pork belly on broiling rack atop a sheet tray. Cook 25 minutes. Reduce heat to 175˚F and cook 3–4 hours, until top of pork browns and starts to caramelize. Remove pork, reserving pan juices, and let cool. Refrigerate 6–7 hours.
Cut pork into 1-inch slices. Reheat in skillet with pan juices. Serve alongside arugula and red-onion salad, with homemade aioli on the side. Serves 4–6.