The Taste: Interview with Café Mezzanotte’s Owner/Chef, Kosmas “Tommie” Koukoulis
Story and Photography by Rita Calvert
Owner, chef, and garden maestro, Kosmas “Tommie” Koukoulis of Cafe Mezzanotte made a commitment to sustainability when he bought out his partner and completely rebranded the café, encompassing local and sustainable, while retaining the Italian heritage. When I first called, Tommie was actually out working in his garden. Upon my arrival, the lush vegetables were the focal point for photography, conversation, and dining.
How did you come to open Cafe Mezzanotte? How did the Italian concept evolve?I purchased Café Mezzanotte in 2008—an American dream kind of scenario. I toured over 20 places, and when I found Mezzanotte I knew my search was over. Then it was a matter of securing a loan and signing my life away! Our Italian concept has evolved beyond the typical spaghetti and meatball joint. Don’t get me wrong, we have delicious homemade meatballs, but our menu showcases techniques and ingredients from broader Italian origins. Our commitment to total hospitality, locally sourced, and perfectly ripe food is the truest expression of Italian cooking.
What was your background and training to become a chef and then restaurateur?Being a restaurateur is in my blood. I grew up working every position in my father and uncle’s restaurants. Although I have no classical culinary training, I have grown in my knowledge and capabilities through years of study, hard work, tastings, and experimentation. I work in restaurants; I eat in restaurants; I live in restaurants!
Your restaurant changes menus seasonally, how do you come up with fresh menu ideas?New ideas are hugely farmer driven. My staff and I learn what kinds of ingredients are available from our local growers and we figure out ways to make those ingredients delicious. Although my menu is not 100 percent local and seasonal, that is the foundation of its design. Beyond that, I eat out a lot to learn! The period after lunch is when we compete by creating the same dish several different ways. We taste and discuss; the final preparation is truly a collaboration.
When did Mezzanotte get into the sustainable and local program? How did this change come about?I rebranded and refocused Mezzanotte in the spring of 2014. I realized that nothing was above integrity, despite the new challenges and added costs. I needed to completely align Mezzanotte with my vision of a pure restaurant. I began by meeting growers at various local farmers markets and everything has blossomed from there. In an effort to avoid GMOs and find foods grown naturally, I’ve expanded my network of growers to include organic farmer co-ops. I look for sustainable growing practices at my farms and incorporate sustainable practices into my own operation.
How would you describe the style of your restaurant?Mezzanotte is an upscale restaurant and lounge offering farm-to-table Italian cuisine. We are focused on the total experience, blending professional service with genuine hospitality, even in our more relaxed lounge for happy hour. Our culinary style unites Northern, Central, and Southern Italian cuisine, focusing on rustic flavors and ingredient integrity. We constantly explore new ingredients and creative techniques to enhance our menu offerings.
Can you tell us about your monthly charity fundraising night and “Round-Up” donation program?I find community involvement to be at the core of social responsibility for all companies. At Mezzanotte we host a monthly fund-and-awareness raising, “Community Partnership Night,” in which we donate 15 percent of all sales to our featured nonprofit organization. We also allow our guests to “Round-Up” their dining check to the next dollar and donate that additional change to the FoodBridge, an online food rescue system [www.myfoodbridge.org].
What is it about Cafe Mezzanotte you are most proud of?It’s the “soul” of the restaurant that I am most proud of. My staff is family and my clientele are friends. We serve clean food, promote good charities, and give a voice to food rights. There are many individuals and families whose lives would not be the same without this place. Our soul has cultivated an atmosphere of love and elevates our corporate consciousness above simply making money.
As a food writer, blogger, food stylist, photographer, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developed product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. She is a blogger, photographer and advisor for the food world. The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up! is her most recent book with co-author farmer, Michael Heller. After owning a successful restaurant in California, she has now been an Annapolis resident for 25 years.
Zucca Ripieno(Stuffed Zucchini)
This is a dish I often make as a chef’s addition during the summer and into early fall when the squash are in season. It’s a simple, clean dish that really showcases summer harvest in Maryland.
- 4 zucchini (small–medium size)
- 1 pound raw hot Italian sausage (casing removed and crumbled)
- 3 scallions, diced (white and light green parts only)
- 1/3 cup fresh garlic, diced (minced garlic can substituted but less is needed)
- 1/2 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1 ball fresh mozzarella (diced into tiny cubes, small as possible)
- 1 egg, lightly beaten (from pastured chicken)
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (only Greek or Italian will do!)
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
- Freshly ground rock salt and cracked peppercorns, to taste
- 2 yellow squash (Zephyr squash ok too)
- 1 cup tomato sauce (your recipe)
- 1 tomato (diced, Heirloom preferred)
- (hint: never refrigerate tomatoes)
- 1/2 cup fresh sweet basil, chopped
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese
Directions1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Cut a lengthwise slice off the top 1/4 of each zucchini. Hollow out the remaining 3/4 of the zucchini and chop the center; place in a bowl for the stuffing.
3. Place the hollowed zucchini on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil; season with salt and pepper; bake in the oven for 10–15 minutes, until soft. Remove and let cool.
4. Increase oven temperature to 450F.
5. While the zucchini is in the oven, heat a frying pan. When hot, add all of the crumbled sausage and cook until almost done. Remove (draining fat) and add to stuffing bowl. Discard the fat, and add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan. Add the scallions and sauté until caramelized adding olive oil as needed. Add the garlic about halfway through the sauté process. When soft, place the scallion/garlic in stuffing bowl; add parsley, lemon zest, mozzarella, and egg. Gently mix all ingredients. Stuff each zucchini, mounding the filling. Drizzle top with olive oil, then sprinkle with panko crumbs and place in oven at for another 10–15 minutes or until completely warm.
6. While the zucchini is in the oven for its final phase, use a mandolin to slice the yellow squash into thin fettuccine sized “ribbons.” (Or cut into long juliennes by hand.) In the same frying pan, add a film of water and steam the squash ribbons just to soften; remove to a holding bowl and “dress” the squash ribbons with olive oil then toss with grated parmesan cheese (this will help it absorb sauce). In the pan, heat the sauce and when hot, add the dressed squash ribbons, diced tomato, basil, and more grated parmesan cheese. Heat for 2–5 minutes or until diced tomato has softened and squash ribbons have absorbed some of the sauce.
7. Spoon some of the completed tomato sauce (and just the sauce) onto a serving plate. Top the sauce with squash ribbons (as if it were pasta) and toss. Lean the stuffed squash against the mound of squash ribbons (so one side is on plate and other side is atop squash ribbons). Sprinkle with more parsley.