New chef in town

Some ambitious young chefs show off their culinary chops by aiming for the top, or over-the-top: more foams, more sauces, more obscure ingredients with unpronounceable and vaguely unappetizing names (agnolotti infused with squid ink, anyone?). But not Orange, Conn., native John DePuma.

DePuma, who is the executive chef at the newly opened State Street dessert bar Dolci, would probably shy away from being called ambitious, too.

John DePuma, the executive chef at dessert bar Dolci, will be competing on “Iron Chef America.”
Jared Shenson
John DePuma, the executive chef at dessert bar Dolci, will be competing on “Iron Chef America.”

Yet the modest, soft-spoken DePuma is already making a name for himself as the owner of a gluten-free pasta business and, most recently, a contestant on the Food Network’s popular “Iron Chef America” series. A longtime fan of the televised culinary competition, DePuma was asked to appear as a sous chef for challenger Chef Francois Kwaku-Dongo, whom he worked for at L’Escale in Greenwich until last year.

“How many people get to go on the Food Network?” DePuma asked with his customary reserved smile. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Leaning against Dolci’s dimly lit bar early Tuesday night, DePuma described a long, tiring day of filming at the show’s Kitchen Stadium in New York City this past fall, where he and Kwaku-Dongo had to prepare a five-course meal in just one hour, using a secret ingredient — artichoke. Although he would not say whether he and Kwaku-Dongo or the Iron Chef Michael Symon, a Cleveland native known for his Mediterranean cuisine, won the challenge, DePuma said he found the experience both exciting and nerve-racking.

“The biggest worry was having eight different cameras follow you around,” he said about his debut as a TV chef. “It was kind of hard to keep focused.”

Even if DePuma himself is not ambitious, his culinary agenda certainly is, though not in the way one might expect. DePuma’s menu at Dolci, while not entirely free of the fussy trappings requisite at classy eateries (read: poached apples, truffle essence and something called “soy foam”), is full of oldies but goodies, such as crème brûlée with white chocolate and raspberries, chocolate molten cake and cavatelli pasta.

The surprise lies not on the plate but in the kitchen. About half of the dishes at Dolci are prepared gluten-free, or without a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

DePuma said his restaurant is an anomaly because gluten shows up almost everywhere, not just in foods made from dough but also in imitation meats, ice cream, ketchup and more. And as a result of celiac disease, a genetic disorder, more than two million Americans cannot stomach the ingredient, according to the National Institutes of Health.

DePuma’s wife, Gina, who has the disease, cannot eat pasta — at least not without enduring cramps and an upset stomach. The couple met at Amity High School in Orange and started dating in college, a few years before Gina was diagnosed. So DePuma, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, began experimenting to spare his wife a pasta-free existence.

“She’s Italian,” DePuma said of Gina, “and she couldn’t eat any pasta! She’s the whole inspiration behind it.”

After a year, DePuma found a blend of corn starch, tapioca flour, potato flour and xanthan gum that could replace gluten without causing a difference in flavor or texture. Most gluten-free pastas, he explained, rely on rice flour, making for dishes that “aren’t really appealing,” he said with characteristic tact.

Within two years, despite being reluctant at first, DePuma had parlayed the handmade gluten-free pasta he made for Gina into a full-fledged business, DePuma’s Gluten Free Pasta.

He now sells three-cheese tortellini, wild-mushroom ravioli, spinach-and-ricotta ravioli and hand-rolled cavatelli on his Web site, spending up to seven hours a day in his North Haven pasta-making facility, which he moved into last year. Fifteen local grocers and Whole Foods locations throughout Connecticut carry his products.

At Dolci, the gluten-free cavatelli with mushroom ragout and truffle essence, along with the sesame-seared rock shrimp, are DePuma’s most popular creations, he said. As a self-professed veteran patron of restaurants such as Tribeca Grill and Union League Café, DePuma said his own restaurant is unique.

“There’s not many restaurants that offer gluten-free options,” the executive chef said, gesturing to Dolci’s dark nooks and leather barstools. “Here, I can make whatever menu I like and also direct it towards people with tolerance issues.”

As he spoke, manager Michael Doherty — who also doubles as the bartender — came over to chat with DePuma, just as they have done since elementary school. Along with their childhood friend Anthony Urbano, Dolci’s owner, the two opened the restaurant just over a month ago.

“I always knew John was a great chef, even in high school,” Doherty volunteered. “I just didn’t picture working with him as manager and chef.”

Nor did they anticipate opening an upscale dessert bar on State Street, far from what Urbano calls the “tourist trap” of downtown New Haven. Dolci certainly stands out from its eclectic neighbors; a tattoo parlor is two doors down and a small Chinese grocery occupies the corner. But the three friends defend their choice.

“I like State Street a little better than downtown,” Urbano said. “It has more potential, a different crowd.”

Urbano said he plans to introduce a weekly piano-and-saxophone night and patio dining, but he has one other event to organize first: a viewing party for DePuma’s “Iron Chef America” episode, which is set to air sometime this winter. Allez cuisine!

Comments

  • TDC

    Living in New Haven County and working the heart of the city, I’m extremely exposed to the viral buzz about town when there is a hot new spot opening. When I heard about Dolci, a sexy, loungesque chocolate bar, I couldn’t wait to indulge!

    As a grand finale to a long week, I visited Dolci with high expectations to surrender to my cravings. At first glance, I felt like I was in a sinful sanctuary. I loved the décor— it was almost like being in a chocolate grotto—I immediately wanted to nestle in a corner, enjoy a glass of wine and relax. Interior Design = 8

    I was escorted to a charming table behind the bar. The table happened to be unset, but the server quickly scurried over with a flailing tablecloth and some napkins. After settling in, I began to study the menu which was a bit of a challenge. While I understand that reading practicality may not be at the top of the priority list, a bold font really never hurt anybody. I ordered a glass of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc of Marlborough and narrowed down my food choices. Finally, I selected one of the specials--a risotto topped with duck confit, cherry tomatoes and fresh parmesan; the cavatelli and mushroom dish; and tempura battered shrimp with some sort of Asian sauce. (Note: I was not dining alone, so please don’t be misguided while trying to guess my jean size after reading all the food I ordered.)

    As I waited for my meal, I began to yearn for a better balance of music throughout the restaurant. When I had first walked in, I thought the sexy lounge music complimented the ambience. Sitting in the back room, the music was more of a distant echo, than the soothing blanket of rhythm that I experienced upon my arrival. This made my atmosphere score drop down to around a 5.

    After a very short while, the server brought over the tapas. The presentation was fine. (I use the term fine in the same connotation that a man would use it when you throw on a dress that he doesn’t really like but you’re already late, so who cares). I dabbled in the special risotto first. I was expecting a flavorful mouthful of the creamy rice dish with sharp hints of parmesan and chunks of tender duck. This, unfortunately, was not what I experienced. The risotto wasn’t the traditional thick texture; it was loose and bland, and quite honestly tasted like Rice-a-Roni. The “duck confit” made me question whether or not the meat was actually duck at all, it resembled and tasted like dark turkey meat – the kind that is left on the platter on Thanksgiving because it was too dry and mysterious looking to eat. Clearly, this dish did nothing for me, so I moved on to the cavatellis in a mushroom ragout and truffle oil. I took a bite and found myself chewing what could’ve easily been mistaken for mushroom flavored bubble gum. The pasta was simply drowning in what tasted like condensed mushroom soup from a can. This dish was the complete antithesis of al dente or anything Italian for that matter. Moving on (with dreary hope), I tasted the “tempura” shrimp which was definitely a slightly different preparation of popcorn shrimp. I am almost willing to bet that these shrimp came out of an economy size freezer bag from BJ’s Wholesale and were saturated with some sort of Asian soy glaze.

    I found the entire culinary experience to be so disheartening that I could not even bring myself to order dessert, regardless of my severe chocolate craving. I couldn’t imagine that it could make up for the meal that I had just endured. Rather than risk it, I asked for the check. Needless to say, food = 2.

    The server brought it over after a little while and when she asked our opinion, we couldn’t help but tell her a mild version of the truth. She seemed surprised, and instead of offering to talk to the owner or asking further details or requesting specific feedback that may be able to help whatever is happening in the kitchen, she simply shrugged it off and apologized without a second thought. (The service is another atrocity of the entire evening, but all in all she was a sweet girl that shouldn’t quit her day job.)

    I left Dolci that evening feeling upset, disappointed and hungry. Upset that I wasted hard-earned money on a meal that I could’ve easily made with a box of Rice-a-Roni, a turkey drumstick, a can of soup, frozen shrimp and soy sauce. Disappointed because I had such high hopes and was really excited to experience a quality meal and a decadent dessert. Hungry and craving chocolate to the point where I had to stop at the highway McDonald’s to get a hot fudge sundae from the dollar menu, and pathetically enough, it was the best treat that I indulged in all evening long.

  • knows better

    wow someone sounds jealous and ignorant

  • Gluten Free

    We MUST have been at a different Dolci. Also living and working in the heart of New Haven, I hear all about the bars that come and go, but Dolci is a keeper. I found it to be relaxing and like no other bar/lounge in New Haven. Plus, with a gluten allergy, it was WONDERFUL to eat gourmet food from an experienced chef who also cares about the needs of us gluten intolerant. In contrast to the comment above, I found the risotto to be rich and creamy and the cavetelli was like mom used to make from scratch. The flavors were bold yet not enough to make the dish overwhelming. Just thinking about it now makes my mouth water. I am a Dolci fan and I will continue going back for more!

  • state st. regular

    Im sure the person in the first comment has never had gourmet food before, espically if a McDonalds trip was the highlight of her night. My wife and i found the food at Dolci to be absoutly amazing with an atomsphere to boot. We will return time and time again.

  • Anonymous

    I've been to Dolci and probably would go back for drinks but definitely wouldn't order any food again. Maybe they're working out the kinks as a new place but it seems like the food was more of an afterthought. Perhaps because they seem to be positioning themselves as a "chocolate bar". I've seen lots of places come and go in this area and to survive as more than a bar than you need to also attract people who appreciate good, quality food. I think 116 Crown does a good job of this and you can see by the wide age range that you'll see walk in there to try their food. Unfortunately I think Dolci currently misses the mark. Hopefully they improve and can be a good addition to the area.

  • Anonymous

    The person who wrote the first comment clearly sounds spiteful, as this is the second time s/he posted it (see comments on the article "Let’s make love and eat chocolate in the dark").
    I've been to Dolci multiple times and tried at least 5 plates, and they've all been delicious. I'm obviously not the pseudo-food critic that the person above seems to be, but I've enjoyed everything I've had at Dolci, including the desserts. Maybe s/he should stick with McDonald's.

  • Anonymous

    To the grinch who left the first comment that's longer than the actual article…If you honestly had such a negative experience with the food, why wouldn't you ask to speak to the owner. I don't know about anyone else on here but if I have a bad experience with food, I just ask to speak with someone. After all Dolci is a new place and I am sure they would love to hear some feedback (good or bad) You must make mistakes in order to learn and improve. Oh and one more thing………McDonalds, really?? Gross.

  • Sandra

    All I have to say is Tarra Del Chiaro.