During a career that has spanned decades, Williamsville hairstylist Gino Martelli has acquired a reputation for a number of things.
One of them is his cooking.
Martelli, the News Cook of the Month, has spent decades honing his style, Italian specialties served with flair. Guests at his table have enjoyed memorable dishes like giant lobsters roasted over wood embers in the fireplace, and rustic pizzas of local tomatoes and fragrant backyard basil.
He’ll butterfly pork loin, pound it thin, and roll it around spinach, gorgonzola, garlic, lemon and roasted pine nuts before roasting it with fresh apples and raisins.
He aims to please. When Martelli heard a prospective guest mention a disappointing risotto, he made satisfyingly earthy mushroom risotto cooked right, the rice tender but not mushy. He got the best scallops he could find, seared them and put them on a salad dressed with fresh orange vinaigrette, marinated home-roasted peppers and olives, punctuated with supremes of orange.
To make supremes, you peel a citrus fruit with a sharp knife, taking off the outer layers entirely. Then you carefully cut along the membranes to free juicy skinless citrus segments.Could you use canned mandarin oranges? he was asked. “No. It wouldn’t have that burst of freshness,” Martelli said. “If you want to impress people, you’ve got to get it fresh.”
Does he cook to impress people?
“Always,” he said. “It’s really showing off. Isn’t that what it’s all about? I don’t like to just cook and serve, say ‘Here.’ I want them to go, ‘Aha.’ I want the awe factor.”
It certainly helps when he’s trying to impress a woman, said Martelli. He’s been married a couple of times and has a son and stepdaughter, but didn’t want to detail his personal life.
He owns Gino Martelli Salon on Rock Street, where he still works one or two days a week, still cutting hair nearly a half-century after he went to barber school.
“Still working, still loving it,” he said. “I still have the passion.”
Martelli spent the first 10 years of his life in Italy, in a village called Canta Lupo, in Abruzzo. “We were peasants,” he said. “We lived off of our land.”
He grew up with a reverence for food that was reinforced by its scarcity. “You could not make a mistake, because if you did, there was no replacing it,” he said. “We had one meal a day, polenta.” At least the family had olive trees that provided fruit they had milled into oil, and some livestock, including goats and sheep.The family arrived in the U.S., landing on Buffalo’s West Side, in 1953. His father Antonio had already arrived but was in Niagara Falls, Ont. Eventually the senior Martelli got his papers and joined his family in Buffalo, where he worked at Bethlehem Steel.
The plate that fired Gino Martelli’s passion for mastering Italian dishes was, of all things, snails. Babaluci, the Sicilians call them.
“We had a place in Italy where the snails grow wild, grow crazy, and that’s where I was introduced to snails,” he said. “When I got here, I went to a place called Scotty’s that had clams, and they had babalooch, the snails, that was to die for. ”
His father showed him how to cook them, he said. Later, after he dropped out from Grover Cleveland High and went to barber school, he traveled to London to the Vidal Sassoon hairdressing school. There, he found an Italian restaurant called Alvaro’s, which he adored and whose dishes he tried to copy.
Some of them he still makes, like a pasta with prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and onions. But Alvaro’s emphasis – getting the best ingredients and treating them carefully to produce deceptively simple-looking dishes – shaped his cooking style.
The tomato pizza sitting on the marble countertop – in the kitchen he redesigned to serve as the center of parties – is a good example.
Martelli doesn’t make his own pizza dough, because he likes the stuff Wegmans uses in its pizzeria. But he doesn’t buy the frozen stuff; he goes to the pizzeria and asks for some of the fresh stuff out of the back.
The toppings are deceptively simple: tomato, basil and mushroom, no cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Martelli cooks the crust first. He’s carefully seasoned and roasted the mushrooms ahead of time. The basil’s from his patio. The tomatoes, from his sister’s garden, have been slightly blistered in a high-heat oven as the pizza was finished.
Even humble ingredients can become elegant if you treat them with care. That’s enough to impress anyone, he said.
“For me, when I entertain, I want it to be like going to the finest restaurant money can buy.”
6 large sea scallops, preferably dry packed
Gently clean the sea scallops with a paper towel, to remove grit and absorb moisture. Make sure to remove the muscle that attached it to its shell. Place in bowl and drizzle with olive oil.
Put a nonstick sauté pan on high heat.
Once hot, drop scallops one by one gently in pan. (I usually put them in the order of a clock so I remember which is on first.) Cook 1 to 1½ minutes. You can see them turning white inside.
Flip and cook the other side the same way. Once golden brown on both sides, remove from pan to plate. Season with salt and ground pepper. Mixed Greens with Citrus Vinaigrette
2 or 3 tangerines or sweet oranges
½ teaspoon yellow mustard
1 teaspoon shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Squeeze of a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bag salad greens
Roasted peppers and olives (optional)
Juice orange or tangerine to get ¼ cup juice. Then turn one into supremes: With a sharp knife, cut off the peel, exposing inner citrus flesh. Carefully cut along the membranes to free one wedge-shaped segment at a time.
Whisk together citrus juice, oil, shallots and mustard until blended. Season with salt and pepper. Add fresh lemon to wake up flavor.
Toss greens with dressing sparingly, just enough to coat. Arrange in bowl. Top with peppers and olives, if using, and citrus supremes.
Arrange warm seared scallops over salad. Serve immediately.
1 cup arborio rice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 whole shallot, finely chopped
½ cup white wine
1 quart mushroom broth, boiling hot
¼ to a cup grated Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, or your favorite cheese
Sautéed mushrooms (if desired)
In pot, cook shallot in butter and oil for 4 to 6 minutes. Add rice.
Stir until rice absorbs all the oil.
Add wine and stir until it’s absorbed.
Add about ½ cup of boiling mushroom broth, and stir until absorbed. Add another ¼ cup, and keep stirring. Repeat until out of stock, about 30 minutes, continuing to stir throughout. Add cheese and sautéed mushrooms, if using, and stir one last time to combine.