A simple dish of spinach lasagna sent Daniela Useli on a journey many home cooks dream of - from preparing meals just for family and friends to planning a weekly menu that bears her name at a popular restaurant.
Thanks to a friend who raved about her delicately balanced lasagna to the owner of Sotto Sopra in Mount Vernon, Useli now headlines a weekly four-course menu there of foods from her roots on the island of Sardinia, called Dinner With Daniela.
"Italians expect a certain flavor from their lasagna," said Alberto Conti, manager of the Community Missions office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who introduced Useli to Riccardo Bosio, the owner of Sotto Sopra, after sampling her vegetable dish.
"The fact that there's no meat was a surprise, but in her lasagna, you don't miss that, you don't even miss the meat. It's the best surprise," he said.
Useli and Conti walked into Sotto Sopra one day armed with the lasagna and a few sweets that Useli had made, and asked to see Bosio. Bosio tried the dishes, and fell in love with the simplicity and freshness in Useli's food.
"It's like my mother's cooking. It's one of those foods that you can't ever stop eating," Bosio said.
Bosio brought Useli, 47, in on a weekly trial basis because she had no prior restaurant experience. She had only ever cooked at home, although she hosted frequent dinner parties, like the one Conti attended, where she occasionally invited as many as 100 people.
She had no formal training, and all of her ideas and recipes came from family traditions, passed on through generations.
"I'm a mama and a wife, and that's it," Useli said in Italian, refusing to call herself a chef. "My only teacher is my mother."
Useli emigrated from Italy eight years ago, when her husband joined the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a research scientist. Useli stayed at home to take care of their two sons.
Though she has lived in the Baltimore area for the better part of a decade, Useli still speaks mostly in Italian. She retains great esteem for her culture and her country, which she displays on her apron. She proudly points to Cagliari, her province, and explains that her Sardinian food is very simple, a cuisine of peasants.
Staples include fish, greens, Parmigiano cheese, saffron - fresh ingredients with strong aromas. Her recipes call for ingredients so traditional that they are hard to find, such as La Saporita, a spice blend including cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, star anise and cloves.
Useli often works late into the night thinking of recipes, trying new ideas and remembering old tricks. She said she likes the creativity and imagination that comes with creating weekly menus, and the freedom that she has to invent new dishes.
Her culinary philosophy consists of "molta passione," she said - a passion that is apparent when she describes the lengthy processes she takes to create her food. She makes all of her pasta by hand, and it sometimes takes her two or three days to make one dish.
Useli splits her time between cooking and planning for Dinner With Daniela nights at Sotto Sopra and creating gourmet breakfast and lunch items every day for Sotto Caffe, also owned by Bosio. Her schedule is very hectic on Tuesdays, when she finishes at the cafe around 4 p.m. and then must rush to Sotto Sopra to prepare for that night's dinner. Right before the dinner rush begins, she worries about how the restaurant's clientele will receive her food.
"You don't want to make a bad impression or lose face," she said in Italian. "It's like a performance, going on stage."
The chef repeatedly stressed the difficulty of working in a restaurant. The long hours and hard work seem daunting, Useli said, but she enjoys the opportunity to learn more about cooking. She said she has improved the presentation of her dishes since joining the Sotto Sopra kitchen, and credited executive chef Bill Crouse for helping her.
"Bill has been very generous," Useli said in Italian. "It's hard when you're in someone else's kitchen, and you don't have your own things and you don't know where everything is. But he's been very patient. That has been the biggest surprise, the best surprise."
Bosio has been extremely helpful also, she said. Because she speaks limited English and Sotto Sopra's staff speaks limited Italian, Bosio helps with translation. He also has helped smooth the transition from home cooking to restaurant cuisine, aiding Useli in her pairing of side dishes and entrees and in spreading out the menu into distinct courses.
Her husband and sons also assist her in the kitchen, especially her older son Marco, 16, who helps her at Sotto Caffe. Her husband and sons turn the crank on the pasta machine and cut vegetables, but their most important function is to taste new recipes. She makes them try everything, she said, because she does not like to eat her own food.
"I hardly eat any of the things I cook. I cook everything, but I don't like to eat it. I only like dolci (sweets)," Useli said in Italian, as she patted her stomach and laughed.
Though she does not like her food, it has been well received by Sotto Sopra's patrons, Bosio said. Her success at Sotto Sopra creates a difficult situation for Useli - she struggles with the demanding schedule of a restaurant chef, but loves to create new dishes and try new ideas in the kitchen. Her dream is to own a trattoria, a family-style, informal restaurant serving simple Italian classics. But, she says, it might be too late to fulfill this dream.
"I'm 47," she says with a laugh. "I'm not a girl anymore."
Translation provided by Sun copy editor Norine Schiller.
Occupation: : Chef at Sotto Sopra
Age: : 47
Hometown: : Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy
Now lives in: : Towson
Family:: : Husband is Gigi Tanda, 47; sons are Marco, 16, and Stefano, 11
Signature dish: : Spinach lasagna