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How Chef Brando de Oliveira Adapts His Italian Menus For Summer

The corporate executive chef for bustling NYC Italian restaurants Trattora dell’Arte, Bond 45, and Cafe Fiorello talks about taking advantage of summer’s best ingredients.

Brando de Oliveira

Brando de Oliveira has served as corporate executive chef of The Fireman Group Hospitality Group for nearly 20 years.

Brando de Oliveira is busy overseeing eight busy kitchens in his role as corporate executive chef for The Fireman Hospitality Group in New York City, but that doesn’t stop him from carving out time to go to the greenmarket in the summer. Or tinkering with the many menus the Bologna-born chef is tasked with managing.

As a born-and-raised Italian, it’s in his blood to cook with the seasons. Oh sure, popular and long-running Manhattan Italian restaurants such as Bond 45, Trattoria dell’Arte, and Cafe Fiorello need to maintain consistency to please the New Yorkers and many tourists who dine there. Yet when the greenmarkets offer fresh squashes, watermelons, herbs, and of course summer tomatoes, de Oliveira springs into action.

“The menus are constantly changing. We are always in season,” de Oliveira tells me by phone, not long after I had a tour de force early summer lunch at Trattoria dell’Arte, the sprawling, art-filled restaurant across from Carnegie Hall that artist and restaurateur Shelly Fireman opened 35 years ago.  

My lunch featured an antipasto plate of asparagus, broccoli rabe, mushrooms, and cauliflower, as well as a Caesar Salad speckled with freshly shaved truffles, and pinwheel lasagna stuffed with mozzarella and short rib. Every dish displayed a deft touch, whether seasonally driven or putting a twist on an Italian classic, which de Oliveira tells me is how he approaches cooking and creating menus. 

meatballs
Brando De Oliveira has a challenge for anyone who says they make better meatballs.

Take the meatballs, for example, which show up on the menus at the five Italian restaurants in the Fireman Hospitality Group, which includes a second Bond 45 in Maryland’s National Harbor development. De Oliveira flat-out challenges anyone to put forth a better-made meatball. “Our meatball is a work of art,” he says, noting that it’s made with a mix of veal and short rib, as well as bone marrow, and sautéed rather than fried to achieve perfect caramelization. 

De Oliveira developed the meatball as well as other staples from Trattoria dell’Arte, Bond 45, and Cafe Fiorello, after Fireman hired the chef more than 20 years ago to run the kitchen at Cafe Fiorello. De Oliveira had only arrived in New York a few years earlier, working with Charlie Palmer. He explains that when Palmer interviewed him for a job in the late 1990s, he insisted that the veteran chef-restaurateur let him learn the ropes of an American kitchen starting at the garde-manger, or salad-making, station. Palmer, looking at de Oliveira’s European resume—training at Le Cordon Bleu in France, and 15 years of experience in Bologna, Milan, and Belgium—pushed back, but eventually relented, and De Oliveira cooked his way up to executive chef at Palmer’s flagship Aureole.

Then came 9/11 and its aftermath, which hit New York City’s economy hard and rippled through the city’s vaunted restaurant scene. After nearly five years with Palmer, de Oliveira had to move on, and soon met Fireman, a sculptor with a studio in Italy and a growing restaurant group in NYC. After three years at the helm of Cafe Fiorello, Fireman promoted him to executive chef of the restaurant group, sparking a formidable partnership that continues today.

The result of that partnership is a handful of multi-million dollar restaurants in busy Manhattan districts such as Midtown and Times Square, known variably for Italian specialties, steak, pizza, seafood, and in summer, a can’t-miss antipasto selection.

summer salad
Brando De Oliveira uses watermelon, feta, and nuts to make cool summer salads.

Turning back to the subject of seasonality, de Oliveira excitedly describes his summer watermelon salad with creamy feta cheese, walnuts, and Balsamic vinegar; he also offers a watermelon carpaccio that “looks like steak,” he says. He swears by a lobster salad as well as lobster ravioli. He encourages trying his thin-crust pizza made with arugula and prosciutto, the thinly sliced ham that he’s probably wrapping around grilled ripe peaches right about now. And betraying his European training, he notes that he adores fresh leeks as a way to add a hint of sweetness to summer dishes. 

Seated in a booth in the history-soaked back room at Trattoria dell’Arte, I couldn’t help notice de Oliveira’s enthusiasm as he shaved truffles over that Caesar salad. Here’s a guy who’s spent a long and storied career in kitchens in Europe and New York City, still impassioned about cooking and hospitality after decades in a chef’s coat. The food I tasted was delicious — and yet that wasn’t even the most inspiring part of the meal.

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