October 2017

OMBRA Cucina Rustica: with Chef Michael Cirafesi, the Lowcountry’s Master of Italian cuisine

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: kris

Wearing his standard white chef coat and apron, a slight hint of designer stubble framing his smile, Michael Cirafesi greets me at the door with a bear hug and a hearty welcome to his world at OMBRA Cucina Rustica. It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday, and he’s already prepping for tonight’s dinner. Admittedly on his third espresso of the day, he’s in high gear. After a quick run to the kitchen to turn off an oven, he returns to a corner banquette, shoving the silverware aside, to talk food, wine, and family—not necessarily in that order.

Unless you have been living under a rock or this is your first visit to Hilton Head Island, you already know about the fine Italian cuisine at OMBRA (word travels fast in a small community). You also know Cirafesi as one of the most highly respected and celebrated gastronomic geniuses in the Lowcountry. In local reader surveys over the past 16 years since he’s been here, he’s earned the title “Best of” numerous times in just about every category a chef or a restaurant can be named best: Best Italian Restaurant on Hilton Head Island, Best Chef on Hilton Head Island, plus Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, three years in a row, Open Table’s Diners’ Choice, and recently the “Oscar Award” for Best Italian Restaurant in the Savannah/Bluffton/Hilton Head Island area from Eat it and Like it, with Jesse Blanco (WSAV)…you get the idea.

Cirafesi could get all puffed up about his culinary training, his experience, his degrees and awards, but he prefers to let his restaurant speak for itself. He would much rather talk about his amazing wife Lauren and their six sons, ages 2-17.

When encouraged to brag on himself (I twisted his arm), Cirafesi speaks confidently about what sets his restaurant apart in the world of culinary delights—from his broad repertoire of Italian cooking styles and the quality of ingredients he chooses to his distinguished selection of wine and the personal passion he infuses in every plate he presents.

“We are a true classic Italian restaurant that features dishes from all the regions of Italy: Emilia-Romagna, Piemonte, Tuscany, Veneto. I have been classically trained throughout all the regions. You may come in and get the most classic Sicilian dish one night and come back the next night and get a dish that is indigenous to the Piemonte,” he said. With the onset of fall, which is “the big Italian food season,” Cirafesi’s brown eyes dance at the mere mention of pumpkin gnocchi, wild boar ragù, and fresh white truffles.

If he is pouring his heart and soul into a dish (which is the only way he knows how to cook), you can bet he’s invested in the finest ingredients available. “We only use the freshest and the best ingredients, whether they come from the United States or from Italy. I am not a fan of low food costs. I am a fan of a high fan profile,” he said. For example, today (August 31), Cirafesi received a $50 flat of beautiful, fresh black figs. “I could do something else—who cares? But I want to emulate what you would see if you were in Italy right now,” he said. “When it comes to ingredients, I don’t mess around.”

As meticulous as he is about the authenticity and freshness of the food, Cirafesi confesses it’s the wine that fuels his fire. “I believe if I claim (and I do) that I am the master of Italian cuisine on this island, I have to walk the walk, and that means having a big wine list,” he said. The current list consists of 190 wines, 95 percent of which are Italian, including an extensive selection of Brunello and Super Tuscans. Not a wine connoisseur? That’s okay. Ask your server for suggested pairings.

Panna Cotta Alla Valniglia
Eggless Vanilla Custard with fresh fruit

An extensive menu is featured nightly, along with seasonal specialties

As executive chef, Cirafesi is naturally focused on food and wine, but he also prides himself on overseeing every detail, from the whiteness of the table linens to the glimmer of the glassware. “I am the owner, operator, chef,” he said. “I cook the food, I order the food, if a picture is crooked, I straighten it. And if the parking lot weren’t so small, I’d be the valet.” That’s just how committed he is to his customers and their dining experience at OMBRA.

Originally from Norristown, Pennsylvania, Cirafesi comes from a long line of Italian ancestry. No one in his family was a chef, but he spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s house. While she did not teach him to cook, she inspired the desire, which, fortunately, came with the grit and determination to match.

“I think it’s a personal trait that I have. It’s drive and an infatuation with the food and wine of Italy. It is inner. I should be burned out by now. I should be on the floor with a beer in my hand. But if I had to stop, I would be dead,” Cirafesi said, ruffling his neatly cropped, spiky brown hair.

“I always want to be the best. It’s just who I am. It is part passion and part obsession. It is my heritage,” he continued, admitting that his fascination extends into the culture and fashion of Italy. (When he’s not wearing his official chef’s gear, turn back his collar and look for the Armani label— “more often Polo than Armani,” he joked.)

Enter Mrs. Cirafesi. Michael’s posture straightens as he draws her up close and rests his hand on her thigh. The Southern-born blonde beauty is not only Cirafesi’s life partner, but his business partner and the lifeline between work and home. Married nine years, Michael said, “I couldn’t do this without her.” Not only does she take care of the kids and keep the home fires burning, she manages all the back-of-the-house tasks at the restaurant including marketing/advertising and much more. (She also taught Michael to make meatloaf, squash casserole, and a few other Southern specialties they enjoy at home, she said.)

Running a restaurant and raising a family is clearly a labor of love for this couple. Yet for all his intensity, Cirafesi remains humble and kind, approachable and down to earth. If you want to know his real recipe for success, he boils it down to three simple ingredients: “espresso, a hot wife, and inner passion.”

OMBRA Cucina Rustica is located at 1000 William Hilton Parkway, #G2, in the Village at Wexford. For more information, visit ombrahhi.com. Call (843) 842-5505 for reservations or visit OpenTable.com.

Cru Night: Featuring Maculan Fratta
at Ombra, Oct. 25
OMBRA has been selected as one of 50 specialty restaurants across the country to pour one iconic single-vineyard wine. This prestigious wine is aged gracefully in a three-liter bottle and is referred to as “formati importanti.” Zoe Skinner of The Winebow Group will be at OMBRA pouring this rare wine on Wednesday, October 25, from 4:30-10 p.m.

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