Even though dark times, Chef Gabriele Bertaccini is inspiring the masses with his resilience, positivity — and amazing cuisine.
Chef Gabriele Bertaccini inspired millions and took a huge swipe at stigma when he recently disclosed his HIV-positive status on the first episode of the wedding reality series Say I Do. But before he won audiences over with his authenticity and charm on the popular Netflix series, Bertaccini was busy traveling the world, studying his craft, and eventually launching successful catering and event planning businesses.
Born in Florence, Italy, Bertaccini trained at the Buontalenti Institute of Culinary Arts and Management and worked in restaurants across Italy before relocating to the U.S. He first spent time in Arizona, where he earned degrees in journalism and public relations from Arizona State University. In 2008, he started his first catering business, iL Tocco Food. Known for its authentic, multicourse Italian-style meals, iL Tocco has enjoyed enormous success across the American Southwest.
Still, when the conversation returns to “Firenze” (Florence in Italian), it’s apparent that Bertaccini still holds his homeland close to his heart.
“It’s probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” he says, admitting he didn’t fully appreciate it as a boy. “It’s only really when I left [at 19 to study abroad]…that I really felt it in the heart. I was like, Oh, my God, I’m missing it so much. Why?”
“I realized how magical that place is, how it’s basically an open-air museum that’s inspiring everywhere you look,” Bertaccini continues. “It could be a corner of a street or…an older grandmother peeking through the window. It could be the smell, the sound of the church bells going off every 30 minutes. Every little thing that you hear, you taste, and you smell, it’s part of that magic. It’s a movie that happens every single day.… I try to go back as much as I can.”
Still, coming to the U.S. had always been his goal.
“I always had this American dream in mind,” Bertaccini says. “I grew up with a father who was very supportive of that — my family, my mom too — but my father especially. One of his earlier dreams as a teenager was to live in America, come here and immigrate, and he couldn’t do it because…his father died in the war, so he had to take care of the family.… He didn’t have the funds to come…. I think he lived his own dream in me. It felt [like] such an even greater gift to be able not only to live this for myself but also to live this for him. It was very beautiful.”
Before the pandemic, Bertaccini split his time globetrotting between Arizona, New York, California, London, and Italy, but when The Advocate caught up with him, he was sheltering in place in the Los Angeles area. The self-described “doggy daddy” and avid surfer said he had big plans to catch some waves later that day.
“I’m lucky. I’m fortunate that I live in Venice, right on the ocean, on the sand. I’m looking out as I’m speaking to you, and the waves look quite beautiful…. I’m a master in doing a little bit of everything,” Bertaccini says of his very Italian way of life. “So I’ll jump in the ocean, then come back to a little bit of work, then take a little nap. It’s the yin and the yang.”
The fact that he holds to this philosophy is no accident.
Bertaccini says he works to stay conscious of this balance and not get sucked into the Western workaholic way of life — which can be especially challenging, he says, in the entertainment industry.
“It’s actually important to take mini-retirements in your life. It’s a little bit of everything. In Italy, we do that often. You do a month and a half of vacation every year,” he says.
Say I Do is a feel-good show from the creators of Queer Eye that helps a diverse array of couples create their ideal wedding experience. Bertaccini, interior design expert Jeremiah Brent, and fashion designer Thai Nguyen oversee inspirational ceremonies that are less about showing off and more about celebrating love, friendship, community, and commitment. Bertaccini admits that before signing on to the series, he didn’t have big plans to join the ranks of celebrity TV chefs — but doing this project just felt right.
“I had the chance of doing TV before,” he says. “It was never really a fit for…my philosophy in food and wine, or what I do in life and what I think about life…. It felt very disingenuous, anyway, not authentic…. And then, Say I Do came along and it felt right…. If I can use my skills of being a crazy chef through something like that — and help other people to not only really enjoy a beautiful meal but understand a little bit more about what makes life precious, then why not? It was a beautiful project.”
As for what his future holds in this uncertain world, Bertaccini remains characteristically optimistic, despite challenging times.
“I try to live in the present as much as I can,” he says. “I think it’s very easy, especially in the Western world, always to achieve something and then be like, All right, moving on. What’s the next thing? And not be even able to savor it. It’s like if I gave you a beautiful plate of pasta that you have been craving all your life. Now you’re like, OK…what’s the main course? What’s next? I’m trying to enjoy this as much as I can and pay respect to the process and to the people that really work hard behind [Say I Do].”
After further reflection, Bertaccini concludes, “Hopefully, [the future] will hold amazing food! Hopefully, it will hold the ability to create spaces all around the world for people to come together and not only experience amazing food and wines, but just basking in the beauty of life and the understanding that there is so much more than just working, working, working all the time — that we should fall down sometimes, and we should just really connect on a deeper level.”
Pappardelle with Slow-Cooked Ragù
PAPPARDELLE WITH SLOW-COOKED RAGÚ
INGREDIENTS Passata Di Pomodoro 2 cans (28 ounces each) peeled whole tomatoes 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil 1 small clove garlic, smashed
1 sprig fresh marjoram 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Ragù 2¼ pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes ½ pound pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes 5 ounces pancetta, cut into 1-inch cubes 5 ounces prosciutto di parma, cut into cubes 5 ounces mortadella, cut into 1-inch cubes 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped 4 stalks celery, roughly chopped 1 carrot, roughly chopped 5 ounces strutto (lard), cut into pieces Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 1½ cups dry, fruity red wine 2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
Pasta Salt About 16 ounces (or 500 grams) pappardelle or tagliatelle 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
For the passata, pass the tomatoes with the juices through a food mill into a large bowl or pulse in a food processor until very smooth, about 1 minute.
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-low until it begins to shimmer. Add the garlic and marjoram and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and kosher salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced slightly, about 30 minutes. Discard the garlic and marjoram. Set aside 2 cups of the passata for the ragù. SHUTTERSTOCK Let the remaining passata cool.
For the ragù, using a meat grinder or a stand mixer and a grinder attachment fitted with a large die, grind the beef into a large bowl. Without cleaning the grinder between batches, grind the pork into the same bowl. Grind the pancetta, prosciutto, and mortadella into a separate medium bowl. Run the pancetta mixture through the grinder again. Run the onion, celery, and carrot through the grinder into another large bowl.
In a large heavy pot, melt the strutto over medium-high heat. Add the ground pancetta mixture. Cook, stirring often, until the fat renders, about 4 minutes. Add the vegetables. Cook, stirring often until the vegetables are golden brown, about 15 minutes.
Add the ground beef and pork; season with kosher salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often until the beef and pork release their juices, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the mixture begins to steam. Stir in the reserved 2 cups of passata and the stock. Reduce heat to low.
Gently simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, until the beef and pork are tender and the flavors are concentrated, 5 to 7 hours.
Set aside 6 cups of ragù for the pasta. Let the remaining sauce cool.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Salt the water and add the pasta. Cook until al dente.
In another large pot, bring the reserved 6 cups of ragù to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat. Cook until the sauce reduces slightly, about 3 minutes. Add the butter and swirl until the sauce is smooth.
Using a large slotted fork, transfer the pasta from the cooking water to the ragù. Toss the pasta until coated. Add some of the cooking water to loosen the sauce, if needed. Mix 1 cup cheese into the sauce. Serve the pasta with more cheese.