Laughter emanates from the garden outside as the last hours of evening sun usher diners in to take their seats for the 5:30 p.m. reservation. Waiters in casual, bright-colored button-ups and trousers pass glasses of sparkling wine—on the house—and sometimes an unexpected hug. “So good to see you,” they say, as if they have known their diners for ages—even though the 40-seat restaurant has not been around for much more than a year.
Moments before tonight’s service is about to begin, it is evident that Ceraldi in Wellfleet has captured many of the distinct pleasures of an intimate dinner at the home of a good friend.
Diners, leaning over to talk excitedly with their neighbors, bring their conversations to a hush. Only the sound of pots and pans in the kitchen can be heard. Michael Ceraldi, a chef of close to 20 years, begins to address the room in a voice of warm welcome. Not in his chef ’s whites, but a rather a red checked shirt and an apron.
“Hello everyone, and welcome to our dinner,” he says. “I’m Michael, and I’ll be cooking for you tonight.”
At this moment, diners receive their menus, but they won’t be doing any ordering. They came here not just to eat food, but to have a conversation about it with friends new and old, which makes dining here worth much more than the $70 price tag for its prix-fixe, sevencourse menu.
Ceraldi begins talking about the first course, Wellfleet oyster with a puree of wild sea rocket, which he picked up that morning from a local forager specializing in wild edibles from the water’s edge. Chef Ceraldi has a strong relationship with the farmers and foragers he works with, and he goes out for ingredients most mornings without much thought of what he’ll make for dinner that night. He trusts that he can find something good to cook that day.
Ceraldi came to Cape Cod in 2010, where he worked as the executive chef for three years at Dalla Cucina in Provincetown, the place where he met his sous chef, Sean White, a cook from Jamaica with a knack for spicy soups and dumplings.
“Some days I’ll want to make a soup, and I’ll try to find something to make a soup,” he says. “[But] there have been times when farmers or foragers have brought us ingredients at 3 p.m., and we have changed the menu. [The menu] isn’t a secret, we [just] don’t know what we are going to prepare until that day.”
In the kitchen there are just two normal-sized refrigerators. Here, everything that comes in that morning must go out. The only ingredients that remain are olive oil, some seasonings, dried pasta, etc. But, with a full dining room, he can feed close to 80 people at the 5:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. seatings every night, except Sundays.
Most everything else comes from local farmers and foragers—from beef sourced from Seawind Meadows Farm in South Dennis to produce from Checkerberry Farm in Orleans. And he makes sure his dinners know this.
Tonight, it looks like Chef got the soup he wanted. The second course comes out; smoked tomato soup with tomatoes from Hillside Farm, basil from his garden, and bocconcini—a delicate mound of mozzarella a bit smaller than the size of an egg—melted in the center.
You can hear people repeatedly scraping their plates, trying to gather up the last bits of sauce, when course number three shows up. Malfatti, a dumpling made with fresh ricotta and Swiss chard from Nestwood Farm, dropped in a pinkish sauce of Parmigiano-Reggiano, poppy seeds, and red beets from Checkerberry Farm.
And nothing—nothing—can prepare you for the unbelievable taste. The dumplings are soft with gnocchi-like consistency, and while the color of the sauce takes a moment to adjust to, it has an unexpected creamy taste, and is well suited to the malfatti. This is the home of a friend that can cook for certain.
Before moving to Provincetown, Ceraldi worked in such well-respected restaurants as Del Posto and Felidia in New York. Several years ago, he moved to Louisville, Kentucky to work at 610 Magnolia under award-winning chef Edward Lee. But the experience that seemed to shape his cooking the most was his time in Italy, working in Bologna and Castel Guelfo, which gave him a new appreciation for food.
“When I came back [from Italy] the ‘farm-to-table’ movement was just starting up,” says Ceraldi. “[But] in Italy, this is just how it [was]. You just cook what’s available. An Italian cook in Italy would never think of importing something from another region, let alone another country.”
Ceraldi, in addition to working with local farmers and foragers, has a garden he tends to outside the restaurant that provides a few ingredients for the meal tonight. Ceraldi walks me to the front of the restaurant to the dozen or so beds, pointing to an alphabet of fresh ingredients—artichokes, basil, cucumber, dill, edible flowers, and more, waving their vibrant green stocks at us.
I ask what he’ll need for dinner tonight. He bends down, lightly tugs some crisp cucumbers from the vine, and hands one to me with a smile, answering my question.
“We cook what we get from the area, and that’s what our grandparents and greatgrandparents did. Serving fresh tomatoes here in February, believe it or not, is only a generation old,” he says.
His wife, Jesse Ceraldi, agrees. She is a former environmental science teacher, and places a high value on sustainable farming. With two children, ages four and six, and another one on the way, it is important to her and her husband to contribute to the future of the planet for their children.
“Sustainable farming—growing what we can from around here—is what’s best for the environment, and it’s going to be best for our families,” she says.
Jesse Ceraldi even decorates the restaurant with local goods— wildflowers from a farm in Wellfleet and a few beeswax candles from Orleans, burning with warmth beneath a number of vintage oyster traps hung from the ceiling.
She is due to deliver in ten weeks, but stays on her feet most of the night, laughing with diners as she pours them another glass of wine. Jesse has the same great sense of humor as her husband, and jokes that she plans to have the baby on a Sunday, the only day that the restaurant is closed.
Ceraldi is still an Italian restaurant, however, and the wine list does reflect the chef ’s family roots. Order the pairing, and expect to receive something from a white Roberto Anselmi Capitel Croce Bianco to a red Giacomo Grimaldi Dolcetto D’Alba with every course. The wine pairing is an excellent option, especially at the oh-so-reasonable price of $30, although there is a more expensive pairing for $80 if you have some more to spend. The $30 pairing does just fine, however.
Before every course, the waiter comes over to pour another glass, describing the wine to diners in great detail. The pairing tonight does favor more subtle wines to compliment the delicate-tasting dishes. If your preference is a more full-bodied wine, there is a wide selection available by the glass or the bottle.
The more drinks that are poured tonight, the louder the conversation grows. But the room quiets down again when the fifth course comes out: spinach ravioli with pancetta and beef from Seawind Meadow Farm topped with a chicken liver cream from Hillside Farm in Truro.
The pancetta is so delicious, meat lovers will want more on the plate. But Ceraldi has to be conservative with the pork he purchases to make the cured meat. His pig farmer, Hillside Farm, is a modest, local farm, and there is only so much they can produce. In order to support the farm, which has been run by six different generations of the same Cape Cod family since 1881, Ceraldi makes it work, taking the time to grind and cure the pork belly, and using it in the pasta.
The sixth, and second-to-last course, is a fresh cut of North Atlantic halibut with a saffron onion puree, and crisp potatoes, Napa cabbage and lovage from the garden. This is a delicate white fish, not beerbattered or masked in butter. The saffron puree provides a subtle hint of flavor, but the freshness of the catch comes through in its simple preparation.
At this point in the evening, diners are comparing notes. The great benefit of a tasting menu is that there is so much to be discussed. Other tables join in, creating a community discussion: “How incredible was the malfatti?” “Have you ever tasted anything like that before?” “Do you remember where he said the spinach was from?”
There are unexpected relationships that have developed between diners and their food tonight.
Dessert comes out to finish the meal: a wild blueberry cake with extra virgin olive oil, topped with lavender whipped cream from the garden.
The menu changes daily, but here’s a bit of what you can expect: Ceraldi says the first course always starts with a Wellfleet oyster; the fifth course is always some type of pasta, gnocchi, or risotto; followed by the final savory course and then dessert. But, courses two, three, and four can be unpredictable. And, when it comes to allergies or other food preferences, Chef Ceraldi is more than happy to make some modifications to menu items, just please make sure to alert the chef when you call to make your reservation. Ceraldi accommodates children too with a simple bowl of pasta for picky eaters.
No matter what is on the menu that day, however, you don’t want to come starved—the meal progresses at its own pace, which may, or may not, be for you.
No prior knowledge of food is necessary to dine here, and the chef welcomes questions. But, if you think you might have a lot of questions, ask to sit at the bar when you place your reservation: the chef plates the food there where you can have a good look at what he’s doing.
That being said, every seat here feels like a seat at the chef ’s table.
15 Kendrick Avenue, Wellfleet
508-237-9811 / ceraldicapecod.com
Ceraldi is open until the end of October, reopening for the 2016 season in May.
E.D (Edie) Kennedy is a news writer and photographer from Boston, MA. She received her B.A in International Affairs with a minor in Journalism from George Washington University in 2014. Her food writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the Washington City Paper.