Paolo Laboa’s father — who ran an automotive garage in Genoa, Italy — couldn’t figure out why his son was always in the kitchen.
On numerous occasions, the senior Laboa would shoo his progeny away from the stoves and pantry with just a couple of words: “Go play.”
It didn’t work — and those who’ve had the pleasure today of tasting the food those early childhood days inspired are thankful.
“Growing up I always stayed close to the kitchen,” the new executive chef at Napa’s Bistro Don Giovanni explains. “I love food … and I just love to cook.”
Laboa gives both his mother and grandmother high marks for their culinary talents. He credits them with teaching him how to prepare what would eventually be judged the best pesto in his native land.
He started working in commercial kitchens at the age of 13, and over the years has cooked in Liguria, Monte Carlo, for a family in Rome and made his mark on both coasts of the United States. Early on, others recognized his talents as he earned a Young Italian Chef award in both Genoa and Milan, besting participants from the Dolomites to the Mezzogiorno.
Laboa helped put San Francisco’s Farina restaurant on the Bay Area culinary map. In fact, it was at Farina in 2008 that he mentored a 25-year-old Korean-American chef on his Genovese mother’s pesto recipe. The pair went on to win the Pesto World Championship in Genoa from a field of more than 100 chefs. Seven essential ingredients — basil, Italian pine nuts, Ligurian olive oil, sea salt, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino and garlic — were perfectly balanced with mortar and pestle (no food processor) to win over the judges.
While working in San Francisco, he became acquainted with Giovanni Scala and his late wife, Donna, who ran the acclaimed kitchen at Bistro Don Giovanni on Highway 29 in north Napa. Laboa said he and his wife and the Scalas traded visits at their respective restaurants.
Four years ago, the Laboas decided to relocate to Massachusetts, as Paolo’s wife is from Boston. “We lived in Gloucester,” he said, “and I opened three new restaurants. But the winters were awful … each succeeding one worse than the one before.” They longed for California sun and cool fog rather than snowplows and ice.
Because he had befriended Giovanni Scala, Laboa kept in touch. “Giovanni told me that if he ever opened another restaurant, he would like me to help.
“For me, I felt like I had left something to do on the West Coast … I just felt something was not complete.”
When Giovanni told him the restaurant’s executive chef was leaving, there was a discussion about Laboa assuming that position.
“My wife and I came for a visit and it didn’t take me long to accept Giovanni’s offer,” Laboa added. He said living in Napa Valley is ideal, not only for him and his wife but his two young daughters. Laboa has passed on his talents to an older son from his first marriage as the 18-year-old is now enrolled in cooking school in Italy.
The pesto king
Genovese are raised on pesto, chef Laboa said. And, over the centuries, they’ve perfected it.
First of all, when making your own try to locate sweet Genovese basil. To make the proper pesto, one should have basil labeled Italian Classic, Sweet or Genovese-style. The teardrop-shaped leaves droop a bit, and the taste is sweeter and brighter, he says. Look for young bunches.
Or you could grow your own in raised beds on a window box. You can order seeds from the U.S.-based company Seeds From Italy, at GrowItalian.com. Here, it’s called Basil Italiano Classico.
Laboa also recommends soaking basil leaves for 15 minutes in cold water before making pesto to soften them, removing unwanted bitterness or any licorice note. Avoid large leaves — 3 inches or more in size — from older plants as they are more fibrous and bitter. If you do have some older leaves, blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water, then plunge them in ice water.
Traditionally, pesto is made by hand by grinding the basil and other ingredients in a mortar and pestle, Laboa points out. But it’s OK to make use of a blender, which Laboa said not only saves on time and effort but creates a sumptuous creamy sauce for the pasta. He chills the blender jar in the freezer before making the pesto. The cold blade reduces the oxidation of the basil leaves, which can cause bitterness.
When it comes to cheese, Laboa prefers a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged 24 or 36 months, plus Pecorino Fiore Sardo, a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese with a hint of salty smoke. Aged Pecorino Toscano can be used in place of Fiore Sardo, but avoid Pecorino Romano as it is too salty, the chef said.
Laboa suggests using a Microplane to finely grate the cheeses as it will create light, fluffy strands that dissolve seamlessly into the sauce.