Damian Sansonetti is one of the owners of and chef at Piccolo in Portland, Maine. He is also a Chef Partner at the Blue Rooster Food Co. He is pictured with an Old Fashioned.
Disclosure: Damian’s restaurant Piccolo is a client of mine [at Knack Factory], though his representation here has nothing to do with our scope of work with him. In fact, he is helping us out by lending his credibility to our project and we are grateful for that.
Shift Drinks is a photo series produced by Knack Factory that features some of our favorite folks in food and hospitality telling us stories about their preferred cocktails and how they got into the industry. Featured in the photos are chefs, servers, proprietors and other industry professionals as well as the construction of their drinks of choice. The beverages were prepared with love by master bartender John R. Myers.
You didn’t specify anything in particular, but you did specify something whiskey or bourbon specific. John prepared for you an Old Fashioned. Why bourbon?
I like darker liquors and I really like the flavor and depth that whiskey has. They are all a little different. For me, it is kind of like the wine of the spirit world a little bit. Especially American dark liquor. I just love the deep flavors of them. It is a little sweet but not too sweet and you can mix them with bitter things. That mix matches the kind of stuff I like.
How do you feel about the Old Fashioned?
This is awesome. It is balanced. It tastes great with the orange and bitters and it just has a great flavor. And it is not a seasonal thing for me. I love Scotch, but it is something I have to have in the Winter…
You have to really commit to Scotch.
Yeah. Malt Scotch is better to me. I am not a big fan of blended Scotches. I like single malt. But you get a good whiskey and it is just great. You can sip it but it stands up so much better, especially with old school cocktails. It’s like what we’re doing at Piccolo. When I started working on restaurants I had seen that everyone was trying this new stuff but I wanted to take a look back and see what was cool way back when. Now it is like old school stuff is cool again in a way.
How did you get into food in the first place?
Growing up in a big, Italian family you’re always around food whether you like it or not. As far back as I can remember my Great Grandparents’ house in the Little Italy part of Pittsburgh, you would go into the basement and you would smell a musty wine grape smell and this funky pork fermentation smell. And you would smell grease and dirt. He had his wine press down there and he had his dago Italian red wine and then he would have sausages hanging down which they dried and cured. My grandfather did it and my uncle still makes his own red wine. Whatever function I went to, my grandmother never let me leave without three portions of food in my belly and some to take home. She always baked a new cookie every day. Even now she’s ninety something years old. They live in a care home now and she still bakes and she bitches about the oven having uneven spots. She just has to do it. She has to make Italian Wedding soup and they have to go get the Italian bread from the Italian grocery store every day. They’re in their 90s but they’re still pretty sharp. My whole life has been somehow around food. We take vacations and plan around what we are going to go and eat.
How did you decide to turn that background into how you make your living?
My dad was a chef and most of my family was around food service. One of my uncles worked at Heinz in the test kitchens. There was always food stuff around us. I went to college to be a psychologist and to work in bio-chemistry. I was sitting in my lecture classes and wondering what I was going to go cook. There is part of Pittsburgh called the Strip District and it is open air markets and wholesaler stuff and I would go down there to pick up stuff to go home and cook for my roommate or girlfriend. I was just thinking about food all the time. I decided to go to culinary school and not really tell anybody about it. I enrolled and did it and… Unplanned stuff kind of goes better than planned stuff sometimes. It seemed like even with the restaurant here… We hadn’t planned on opening Piccolo when we did, really, but we had always wanted to do what we are now doing there. We just kind of let stuff develop instead of forcing things. We just let nature work. That has been the whole career path. I never really wanted to go and become a French Chef. I hated French food back in the day. I remember telling Daniel [Boulud of Epicerie Boulund] that when I worked for him. He was like, “What?” I had never cooled French food before and then I ended up working at the Frenchiest restaurant. I loved and embraced it because it was the old school stuff. I wanted to see what that was like. We were making it cool and fun again with all of the pâtés and terrines and brazes. I just love to cook and eat and make people happy.
That is an excellent motivator.
You don’t really feel like you are going to work. Now it’s even more rewarding because it is our place. It is a smaller place too and so we get to see our customers and so it is easier. When you see a guest and they are happy, that’s the ultimate reward. When they tell you that what you made with all of your crew took them back to their childhood, or to a food memory, and it transported them in some way big or small, that is really rewarding.
For more photos of Sansonetti and his beverage of choice, check out his Shift Drinks interview over at Knack Factory.
PHOTO CREDIT: Zack Bowen / Knack Factory