Columbia Cooks

April 8, 2010

Photography by John Wrightenberry

Rosso Trattoria Italia

Wood-fired Italian Cuisine, Columbia-style

By William Thrift

It was once supposed that when Prometheus lit his torch at the chariot of the sun and brought the fire down to Earth and gave it to man, man then was able to use the fire to dominate the animals, build tools, and create art.  In other words, fire enabled the civilization of mankind.  Using fire to cook food is nothing new – in fact, it’s an integral part of the human experience.  Perhaps that notion was in the back of Kristian Niemi’s mind when he conceived the rustic but refined recipes on the menu of his newest restaurant, Rosso Trattoria Italia.

Kristian has demonstrated a knack for correctly gauging the pulse of Columbia’s diners.  Whether it’s sensible comfort food or exotic tapas dishes, his restaurants offer reasonably priced, superior cuisine.  His patrons are assured of dining in alluring ambiance designed to complement the dishes.

But Kristian didn’t start out at the top of the food chain.  He learned to cook mainly out of necessity.  After doing a stint as a Farsi translator in the U.S. Army, Kristian enrolled at the College of Charleston.  He was content being out of uniform, but the relaxed discipline came with a price: he no longer had a strict mess hall schedule.  He soon discovered that he would have to fend for himself.  Hearkening back to his childhood experience of growing up in a family of good cooks, he bought a recipe book and proceeded to make every dish in it, teaching himself the nuances of food preparation along the way.

Armed with his new culinary knowledge, Kristian worked in various restaurants to earn a living.  He eventually returned to his home state and attended the University of Minnesota, obtaining a degree in Historic Preservation Architecture.  During his senior year, he also attended the St. Paul College’s Culinary School, earning his second degree within a few days of graduating.  Choosing his first degree as his career path, he began working to preserve historic buildings.  Although he loved the work, he became disenchanted with the bureaucracy involved in dealing with municipalities.  It frustrated him to envision a solution, only to have it delayed and altered as he maneuvered through many layers of offices and people.  Remarkably, it was the steamy kitchens, hot ovens, and servers hustling to satisfy their patrons that beckoned him back into restaurant work.

The use of sustainable fuel to cook the food is part of the philosophy of the restaurant.

Putting the harsh Minnesota winters behind him, Kristian moved to Columbia and, in the capacity of General Manager, helped to open The Blue Marlin in the hot new Vista area.  In the wake of the initial (and continued) success of The Blue Marlin, he assessed Columbia’s dining scene and identified a need for high quality, comfort-style food at affordable prices.  In his first foray as a co-owner, Kristian opened Mr. Friendly’s in Five Points.

The restaurant’s popularity gave Kristian the initiative for his next move.  He had wanted to get back to the successful Vista, and he decided that a tapas bar and restaurant would do well there.  So he opened Gervais and Vine which remains one of the Vista’s best spots for fine casual dining.  His pattern of success spread to the Northeast area with his opening of Solstice, featuring distinctive and affordable cuisine utilizing ingredients available locally.

Although it is more difficult to buy supplies and ingredients from a network of local vendors (as opposed to buying everything from one national restaurant supplier), Kristian is committed to supporting South Carolina businesses.  Area farms and growers supply fresh vegetables and meats.  Seafood is caught on South Carolina coast and trucked to his restaurants straight off the boat – he even posts images of particular fish on the restaurant’s Facebook page to inform his vast client base of daily specials.

In addition to his support of local vendors, Kristian uses his restaurants to help charities.  At Gervais and Vine, a women-only wine tasting event called Wine Goddess donates proceeds to charities for both women and children.  He recently held a benefit dinner to raise funds for Camp Burnt Gin (literally on the site of a cotton gin that succumbed to fire), which caters to severely disabled children.

Beautiful lighting and surroundings that combine modern and rustic aspects provide a perfect backdrop for the enjoyment of the food.

Knowing of Kristian’s proclivity for creating successful eateries, Lyle Darnall of Edens and Avant approached him about establishing a locally owned, affordable restaurant in Trenholm Plaza.  Kristian had had his eye on Forest Acres for some time.   He had thought that an Italian or French restaurant would work well there, but conditions were never quite right for him to go ahead with it.  However, the newly renovated space, nestled near the corner post office, was ideal.

To begin the process of designing a restaurant, Kristian followed his tried and true formula:  start with the food, and work from there.  He gravitated toward the idea of rustic Italian cuisine, so he bought a wood-fired oven and grill.  He then created appetizers and entrees that could be prepared using one of the two pieces of equipment.  The wine list was developed around the dishes on the menu, and both are priced to offer diners with options ranging from affordable to luxurious.

Next came the interior.  Kristian mirrored the menu in the décor: a modern interpretation with rustic aspects.  He adorned accent walls with reclaimed, distressed cypress.  The bar, skirted in cypress, reflects pinpoints of light in its dark granite.  A series of red acrylic and crushed glass panels add sparkling warmth while serving as a visual screen between the bar and the kitchen.  Modern lighting fixtures drip light over distressed wood tables, complementing the cypress.  Rich red walls and drapes glow like the fires in the kitchen.

Kristian is as meticulous about the people he works with as he is about every other aspect of his ventures.  When the time came to select a chef for the new restaurant, Kristian already had someone in mind:  Henry Griffin.  Henry had been working in restaurants and kitchens around Columbia for several years, eventually apprenticing for a few years with Chef Fulvio Valsecchi in the Vista’s Ristorante Divino.  He began working for Kristian at Gervais and Vine, where he proved his value.  Kristian then transferred Henry to his new Rosso Trattoria Italia, and promoted him to Executive Chef.

Henry burns hickory in Rosso’s wood-fired equipment, and appreciates the idea of using sustainable fuel to prepare food.  When he’s not busy at Rosso, he may be found smoking bacon for Pawley’s Front Porch in Five Points, or grilling with team Pappa Smoke in competitions with other members of the Kansas City Barbeque Society.

One of Henry’s many duties at Rosso is to develop nightly specials to augment the menu.  Sometimes he has only hours from the time he learns of what fresh ingredients are available on a particular day until he has to prepare the dish.  With an idea of what may be available in Columbia this Spring, Henry has developed some specials exclusively for Columbia Home and Garden readers who don the toque in their homes.  He suggests serving this meal with your favorite side items such as roasted potatoes and steamed broccolini (pictured).

Buon appetito!


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