In Tuscany, Dawn Wilson fell in love with pici.
In 2011, the chef lived in central Tuscany for about four months, most of which were spent staging at Officina della Cucina Popolare in the small town of Colle di Val d'Elsa and learning the art of handmade pasta. Here, she had her first taste of pici, the thick, hand-rolled, rope-shaped pasta that originated in the town of Siena, about 30 minutes away. Wilson then spent the next month traveling around Italy, tasting her way through Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Veneto, Piedmont, Lazio and the Amalfi Coast.
That first bite of pici inspired a lifetime love affair with handmade pastas that Wilson carries on today through Vicini Pastaria, a handmade pasta company she launched in Chicago in 2016 while working as a personal chef and caterer. Last year, after 20 years in Chicago, she returned to her hometown of St. Louis with the goal of expanding the Vicini brand.
In addition to Wilson's signature pici, Vicini offers seasonal pastas including mushroom-mascarpone ravioli with black truffles, chive blossom fettuccine, pear-Brie ravioli and farfalle "butterflies" made with earthy saffron and butterfly pea flowers. Wilson also sells sauces, ranging from vodka tomato-cream and pomodoro to arugla-basil almond pesto, treformaggi (three cheese bechamel), lobster cream sauce and beef brisket-mushroom ragù, and a handful of desserts.
Vicini products, including the frozen pastas, are currently available for sale in the St. Louis area at The Woman's Exchange, where Wilson works during the day. Wilson also sells her pastas at area farmers' markets, including the Kirkwood Farmers' Market, Schlafly Farmers' Market, Boulevard Farmers' Market and Tower Grove Farmers' Market.
But for a true taste of Wilson's cooking, diners in-the-know get tickets to the "Cena con Amici" dinner series. The name translates to "dinner with friends," and guests are served family-style at a long communal table set up in the heart of The Woman's Exchange. The menu highlights rustic Italian fare; the sold-out August dinner, for instance, featured pici cacio e pepe, maiale al latte (milk-braised pork) served with creamy polenta and tiramisu alla pesca served with ripe summer peaches and amaretto.
Soon, Wilson hopes to merge her retail pasta company and pop-up dinner series into one with the opening of a brick-and-mortar location for Vicini Pastaria. The chef describes the concept as an "authentic Italian pastaria, caffe and market" where diners can pick up retail goods like handmade pasta and meatballs to take home for dinner and also dine in for fresh pasta during lunch. Wilson is currently scouting spaces for Vicini Pastaria and hopes to be able to announce the location soon. Here, she shares more about the upcoming Vicini Pastaria and also chats about her love of pork and pasta, how crab rangoon trained her to make pasta and her tips for home cooks.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? Pork! If I could only eat one type of protein for the rest of my days, it would absolutely be pork, without question. The humble pig is such a magical animal because there are so many fantastic cuts of pork with different textures, flavor profiles and preparation techniques that make it an extremely versatile protein. My favorite pork dish that I made recently was porchetta, the classic Italian pork belly-loin roast stuffed with fennel pollen, lemon, chiles and herbs. The rendered porchetta fat that I saved is super flavorful and I’ve been using it for everything! It’s awesome for roasting vegetables, frying an egg or spreading on bruschetta.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? I love pickling and curing. Anytime I have any leftover vegetable scraps like stems of fennel or chard or fruit that I’m not going to finish, I’ll pickle them so I always have some pickles on hand to add to sandwiches, salads or antipasti platters. Truffle salt-cured egg yolks are my newest obsession so I’ll make a new batch every month or so and shave them on top of anything and everything to add a rich umami note.
What's your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? Whenever I’m traveling to a new town, there are so many places that I want to try that I like to do what we call a “food crawl,” which is basically like a bar crawl but with tastes of different foods at as many places as we can fit into the day (and our stomachs) so I’d basically be a food tourist in my hometown for the day. My staycation food crawl in St. Louis would start bright and early so I can be the first in line at Kitchen Kulture at Tower Grove Farmers' Market for their awesome breakfast sandwich, continue breakfast at Southwest Diner with a breakfast burrito, swing by Mac’s [Local Eats] for any of their burgers, Juniper for a fried chicken sandwich and we gotta get a side of their smoked mayo to dip the roasted potatoes, the super crispy pork snoot at Beast Butcher & Block, the piece of bread under the roast chicken that has soaked up all of the delicious chicken juices at Brasserie, torta ahogada and shrimp cocktail at Taqueria Durango, track down the Noto pizza truck for a margherita pizza plus spicy salami, egg yolk raviolo at Acero because I’ve got to have some pasta, of course, and then finish the day with a trip to Seafood City to pick up ingredients for my favorite Thai chef (my boyfriend, Chat) to make us some Som Tum green papaya salad. This food crawl is not for the faint of heart. You really have to pace yourself and have the incredible willpower required not to inhale every last bite, and bring some fellow foodies along for the crawl so you can share.
The pop up highlights several types of ramen beyond tonkotsu.
Who are St. Louis chefs you admire at the moment? I’m super impressed with what Rob Connoley is doing at Bulrush. I can’t imagine how tough that is to base their hyper-local menu around foraging locally for a ton of their ingredients and his food has been fantastic whenever I’ve been lucky enough to taste it at pop-up dinners, Squatter’s [Cafe] and now Bulrush. I’ve also been to several of Steven Pursley’s Ramen by Rui pop-up dinners and all components of his ramen are excellent, from the handmade noodles to the super flavorful broth, so I hope he opens his own ramen shop soon.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? I just recently moved back to my hometown of St. Louis last year after 20 years in Chicago, so I’ll admit that I still have a lot of exploring to do and I just may not have discovered them yet, but I’d really love to see more authentic Italian restaurants. We have a lot of St. Louis-style Italian-American places but I’ve had a harder time finding many authentic Italian. I did recently get to try Noto Pizza, which serves fantastic authentic Neapolitan-style pizza from their food truck and I loved it, so I’m super excited that they’re converting their bakery in St. Peters into a pizzeria.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? My favorite meal to eat at home actually doesn’t involve a lot of cooking. I’ll just throw together an antipasti platter with whatever meats and cheeses I have on hand; usually an aged Gouda, burrata, prosciutto di parma and whichever Salume Beddu salami I picked up at the farmers' market. I always have some veggies/fruits that I’ve pickled recently and olives that I’ve marinated so those get piled onto the platter. Slice up some local heirloom tomatoes, drizzle everything with some extra-virgin olive oil, open my favorite bottle of super Tuscan red wine, and I’m happy as can be!
The restaurant will offer Neapolitan-style pizzas, fresh pasta, wood-fired appetizers and more.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Handmade fresh pasta with a hearty pork or beef ragu; preferably Tuscan-style which has very little tomato and really lets the flavor of the meat shine through.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Have fun in the kitchen! You can use a recipe as a guide but don’t be afraid to experiment and play around with your food. That’s how most of the best dishes have been created! At the end of the day, it’s just food and 99 percent of the time, you can’t screw it up so badly that it’s not edible so don’t worry so much that it won’t look or taste exactly like the dish on the cover of the magazine.
What is your first food memory? Making crab rangoon with my siblings. We are a big family and we all love crab rangoon, so the order from our neighborhood Chinese restaurant was way too small. To keep us from fighting over them, my mom decided we would just have to make our own, so we would all sit around the kitchen table folding dozens and dozens of crab rangoon. Perhaps that’s why I love making ravioli so much since it reminds me a lot of those days...
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? I’ve been experimenting with butterfly pea flowers to make a blue pasta. I’ve seen it used in cocktails at The Bao and a few other places, so I figured why not try it in pasta? I love how you can change the shade of blue just by adjusting the pH and it has a very delicate earthy flavor that complements a variety of pasta sauces. It was fun to be able to make a red, white and blue “stars and stripes” pasta for 4th of July and blue and yellow pasta “butterflies” (farfalle).
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? I find inspiration everywhere! My world revolves around food so I’m constantly trying new foods or reading or talking about food and planning my next meal while I’m eating my current one so whenever I come across a flavor combination I love or a new ingredient I haven’t worked with before, like the butterfly pea flowers, I try to incorporate it into a pasta, sauce or new dish. I also spend a lot of time at farmers' markets as a vendor, which is great because I’ve gotten to know a lot of the local farmers and love to use their seasonal local produce as an inspiration for a lot of my dishes. Ivan’s [Fig Farm] had some beautiful fresh figs at the market this week. I often do prosciutto-wrapped figs as an hors d’oeuvre when I’m catering dinner parties, so I turned that flavor combination into a prosciutto-fig ravioli that’s going on the menu this week.
What are your future plans? In the near future, our next Cena con Amici ("Dinner with Friends") rustic authentic Italian pop-up dinner is coming up on Fri., Oct. 25 at The Woman's Exchange. I am also working on opening a brick-and-mortar location of Vicini, which will be an authentic Italian pastaria, caffe and market where customers can pick up some handmade pasta and other prepared foods such as meatballs or panzanella salad to take home for dinner, dine-in on fresh pasta for lunch and at our weekly communal dinners, or shop for imported Italian and locally-produced ingredients. We are currently searching for the right location so hopefully we’ll have more news on that soon.
Tickets for the Cena con Amici dinner on Fri., Oct. 25 are $75 per person, with wine pairings available for an additional $25, available here. A limited number of early-bird tickets are available for $65.