At the Market with Giorgio Rapicavoli
by LIANA LOZADA
Rapicavoli carries his peaches and eyes a selection of vegetables
Chef Giorgio Rapicavoli spends most of his mornings shopping for fresh, local ingredients to flesh out the new-every-night menu at his buzzy pop-up restaurant, Eating House. The young chef’s gutsy and unorthodox approach to dining has made the Coral Gables eatery an overnight sensation. On a recent Saturday afternoon, we accompanied Rapicavoli as he plucked produce for the night’s menu from the Coral Gables Museum's weekly farmers' market.
Despite his having to open Eating House at 7 PM that night, the former Chopped winner meets us at a leisurely 1 PM to stroll the market’s perimeter. Rapicavoli is at ease with his pace; like a vagabond of culinary curiosity who somehow always finds his way.
Today, he begins with tomatoes, which are the foundation of one his most popular plates, known informally as the “frozen coconut milk and tomato" dish. As he finds a tomato that pleases him, he tosses it in his mouth and starts talking prices with vendors. Meanwhile, a collection of potted herb plants catches his eye. Walking over to them, he points out some citrus basil—a garnish for his tomato and coconut milk concoction.
Rapicavoli then scoots to the peaches, juggling a few between his hands. They receive a silent approval and are packed into a plastic bag. We ask him what he plans to use them for. “I don't know what they'll be,” he answers, “maybe a dessert.”
This type of response—and other versions of "I don't know"—is pretty much all we get from Rapicavoli on the destiny of his purchases. But the uncertainty seems to work in his favor. “Everyday is last minute," he explains, "I don't know how we do it sometimes, but we always do.”
His approach is equal parts brazen, rebellious, and sincere. And he whole-heartedly trusts his intuition and believes in his restaurant’s concept: to serve an ever-evolving array of market-driven fare in the tradition of “the motherland” (Italy), where he was when the inspiration for Eating House struck.
There is a nostalgic purity in his culinary ideology, one reminiscent of the old school Italian belief that beautiful meals can be made from whatever is around in the pantry or the garden. "I could never go back to cooking the same thing day-in and day-out. It gets redundant, and it does not reflect how people really eat," says Rapicavoli.
We wander into the Mr. Green Dean's Vegetable Farm tent, a vendor known for sustainable and exotic vegetable selections. Rapicavoli enthusiastically hands us some fresh sorrel to sample. “It's one of my favorites. I love the lemon-like flavor.” We try it and are instantly fans. The sorrel joins the day's groceries, along with a stash of Chinese long beans. "I'm thinking about frying these," he says under his breath. The notion sounds more like a half-thought that could be overturned by another idea at any minute.
After more perusing we ask Rapicavoli to detail a typical day. “I wake up by noon,” he confesses with a chuckle, “and shop for some staples. I try not to stay tied down to any one place. I'll hop into a market, Whole Foods or Publix, on any given day. I actually prefer the Latin Publix [Publix Sabor] over a regular Publix. They have the good stuff. Then we get in around five to prep and push everything out by the time we open. From five until opening is the craziest. I'm in the kitchen. I'm updating the menu online. I'm all over the place. But I love it,” he answers.
Another brave admittance follows, “Sometimes I don't even taste the food before I put it out.” He laughs at our wide-eyed shock. "I love the element of surprise. It's contagious. And the guests love it, too."
Would he consider a more conventional, permanent restaurant for his next project? "I don't ever see myself working any other way. Next time around though, I'd like to have more seating. The 40 seats we have now are just not enough for the demand. But I don't want it to get so big that we lose that intimacy. We can't cook the way we do in a huge place. I'd say next time we'll have 75 seats max."
His gaze fixes on a pile of plump red and yellow peppers. He nabs a few and continues to vacillate. We take advantage of his limbo and ask him which ingredients he doesn’t like to work with. “Yellow mustard!” he blurts out with a shudder. “I hate the look, the smell; I just hate it.” Canned tuna, canned pickles, mayonnaise, and black pepper also make his blacklist. “Black pepper makes everything look dirty and taste like, well, pepper,” he says. "I'm not a fan of cooked fish. I prefer raw fish. I'm not crazy about capers, either. And if I don't like it, you'll never see it on the menu.”
Despite his clear confidence, Rapicavoli warmly gives credit where it is due. He admires the work of chefs Thomas Keller, Sean Brock, George Mendes, Alex Stupak, and Jordan Kahn. Locally, he digs Sakaya Kitchen's duck sandwich, claiming “It is one the best sandwiches I've ever had, if not the best.” The conversation transitions from Sakaya to Miami's food truck craze, a trend he has no personal interest in. "A lot of it was done as more of a trend than actually putting good food out there. Some people have done it right and made it about the food, but I've never had interest in having a truck myself,” he says.
It’s now 2:30 PM, but Rapicavoli is in no rush to hit his next stop. The pressures of success and a looming Saturday night crowd seem hundreds of miles away. We ask him how he deals with the pressure of running a restaurant and he replies coolly, “I just try not to let it get to me.” A vendor interrupts our questioning and we lose Rapicavoli in the crowd. It was the first of several times that he drifted off into inquisition that day. Good things come to those who wander. Eating House, 804 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables, 305-448-6524.
photographs by liana lozada