A Chef Looks at Whidbey and Camano Island’s Food Future.

A Chef Looks at Whidbey and Camano Islands Foodie Future.

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By Jack Penland

Mark Laska reaches into the wood-fired pizza oven in his restaurant, Ciao, and pulls out, not a pizza, but a metal tray.  In the tray is chopped up Hubbard Squash from the farm down the street, Sherman Farms.  “We’re going to make some ravioli today,” he explains.  The pizza oven was the perfect place for roasting it.

I’m here for a cooking demonstration and to talk about food, in general.  “The chef that I apprenticed under (in Italy),” Laska explains, “was one of the five people who started the slow food movement.”  For fans of the show “Search for Italy”, that chef was Enzo Coccia, one of Stanley Tucci’s guests in the inaugural episode.  It was in Italy when Laska learned to appreciate quality food and the family-run farms of Italy that produce it.

While he’s certified by Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture to make authentic Neapolitan Pizza, today that knowledge will be used with pasta.

Mark Laska shows off roasted Hubbard Squash
Ciao Owner Mark Laska with roasted pieces of Hubbard Squash

"Nowhere in the United States is there a reserve like this..."

True to the theme of local foods promoted by the slow food movement, he blends the squash with ricotta cheese from the nearby Glendale Shepherd Farm,  seasons it, mashes it, grates in Feta and Brebis cheeses,  and mixes it.  He sets it aside for the ravioli’s filling.

Laska opened Ciao in 2010, heading to the Puget Sound region from Los Angeles.  “It was really because of Ebey’s Reserve,” he explains.  He likens the Coupeville area to Campania in Italy, where he apprenticed.  He explains that, “Nowhere in the United States is there a reserve like this…and in theory somebody could make a food product generation after generation.”  While that doesn’t exist in the U.S., Laska points out that, “it does in Italy.”

Ebey's Reserve's special status as a park reserve means the rural nature and agricultural "vibe" of the area will be preserved.

We head out of the kitchen and to the front of the building.  Ciao started as a restaurant, but when the pandemic throttled restaurant service, Laska converted much of the space to a specialty food store.  Shelves are stalked with goodies from Italy, mostly made by small production operations.  He explains that he’s met, or even worked with most of those makers and knows what makes their food so special.

Small- Batch Producers are Key

We head out of the kitchen and to the front of the building.  Ciao started as a restaurant, but when the pandemic throttled restaurant service, Laska converted much of the space to a specialty food store.  Shelves are stalked with goodies from Italy, mostly made by small production operations.  He explains that he’s met, or even worked with most of those makers and knows what makes their food so special.

He turns his attention back to the ravioli.  He portions the filling out onto sheets of dough made earlier, and cuts squares around them.

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Ciao Owner Mark Laska in his specialty food store.

Like Italy, farms around here are small, and family owned.  Some, like Sherman Farms, have been in the same family for generations.  Others have new owners, often young families foraging a family life away from city stress.   To view these farms is to see how places like Whidbey Island once were, broad open fields with ocean air and beautiful views of the mountains.

Laska again reflects on what it takes to produce quality food. It’s not only the people, it’s the combination of the people and the special character of the region.  He says, “The air, the water, it's so important to everything that we eat, and more importantly, for everything that we produce.”

Laska sees the potential of this region as a leader in a back-to-basics Italian-style food movement, explaining, “what we have here is the potential for multi-generational families to produce an  amazing food product. So, this place is more and more important and will be more and more relevant in the future.”

 

Also of Interest: Living on an island you have a special connection with the surrounding waters.
Read: "In the Embrace of the Salish Sea."

"It's my favorite dirt
on the planet Earth."

“Where this squash comes from,” Laska says, “It’s my favorite dirt on the planet Earth.”

He’s working to make that happen, partnering with local farmers with some food products he hopes to have out soon.  He’s not ready to tip his hand.

The cooking resumes with Laska making the sauce.  “I’m going to use an obscene amount of butter,” he says, and then also adds several cups more of the Hubbard Squash he cooked in the pizza oven.  After adding some fresh sage and several cups of whole cream, Laska whisks it together.  “This is very Neapolitan,” says Laska, adding, “You find this everywhere because, you know, it's a poor people's food.”

Visit the Ciao Website

He boils water in another pan and adds one of the raviolis.  At about 5 inches on either side and stuffed with about a cup of filling, one ravioli is a meal.  We wait.

I ask if he ever thought about being a farmer.  “My family’s business was tomatoes (but) I’ve never had the acumen to do that.  It’s so out of my wheelhouse.”

About three minutes later he transfers the ravioli to a non-stick pan and adds the squash-butter-cream sauce, letting it all warm together another two minutes.  He plates this extravagant blend of island ingredients, adds some fresh sage and grates on more cheese.

Whidbey ingredients done Campania-style.

About the Author: Jack Penland has lived on Whidbey Island for nearly two decades and is still learning new things about the islands all the time.

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