I’ll be the first to admit that when I think of eating while traveling, I usually don’t have high hopes. Having three children, eating on the road conjures images of paper-wrapped burgers and peanut butter crackers. However, the lucky travelers with Auburn as their destination have a special place with four incredible chefs that offers a welcome respite from the usual fast food and chain restaurants.
Located at The Hotel at Auburn University, Ariccia Trattoria is a casual, but sophisticated, restaurant with a menu focused primarily on Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. They offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, 365 days a year, drawing not only hotel guests but the local community as well. I went on a Monday night, and the atmosphere was relaxed, the service was great and the food was amazing. From quail with herb gnudi, Angus filet with fingerling potatoes, to lamb over white beans, heirloom tomatoes, and duck prosciutto, each dish I sampled competed for my favorite of the evening.
The men behind the menu are what make Ariccia Trattoria truly memorable. The Executive Chef is Leonardo Maurelli, and his passion for providing the restaurant’s customers with great food is evident. When asked about his signature dish, he replied, “I don’t have a signature dish. I know that sounds weird. When I was first coming up in this business that seemed to be one of my goals—THE dish that defined me as a chef. Well, I wasn’t a chef then, contrary to my own personal beliefs and the ever-present ignorance of youth. My masterpieces then served to teach me that there was a lot, A LOT, of work to be done.” Chef Maurelli continued, “Refining and creating a style is not about a single dish. It’s about having a strong enough ‘tool box’ per se to understand and deliver that which you wish to present to your customers. So, everything I cook gets dissected in my mind a million different ways, always searching for balance and simplicity. I cook with what’s fresh, what I know, and what I learn from those around me.” Chef Maurelli also appreciates the importance of supporting and teaching his team—to share in the success of the restaurant together. He said, “I’ve come to realize that my measure as a chef is what I can provide and teach and give to my chefs, my cooks and my staff. My focus is less and less about being self serving and more and more about supporting and providing and pushing my team to do more, be more, learn more, give more to each other. When they shine, I shine. It becomes less and less about what you want. You find an amazing sense of reward from helping your people shine.”
The three chefs on Chef Maurelli’s team are Chef Paul Diaz, Chef Brandon Burleson and Chef Alex Hoefer. Chef Diaz was at the restaurant the evening I was there and treated me to a feast. His favorite dish of the many, many dishes I enjoyed is the filet. He said, “For me, it’s my favorite. It has locally foraged Chanterelle mushrooms and cipollini onions, all cooked in a cast iron skillet. It makes my mouth water!” As for Chef Burleson, his signature dish is the Frutti di Mare, or “Fruits of the Sea.” He shared, “It is not on the current fall menu, but it can be run as a special from time to time. This dish is simultaneously simplistic as well as over the top. Freshly extruded pasta bound by a lobster essence cream served with Gulf scallops, lump crabmeat, and jumbo shrimp. I add a little touch of fresh herbs along with baby mushrooms and cherry tomatoes to round it off.” For Chef Hoefer, it’s all about the house made pasta dishes. “Every day we create a new ‘off the menu’ selection along with our other pasta offerings. Utilizing traditional Italian techniques and a Southern cuisine mindset, we strive to provide our customers with new but familiar items,” he said.
The focus today in food is sustainability and locality. To the chefs at Ariccia Trattoria, this simply means serving what’s fresh and in season. Chef Maurelli explained, “Giving your customers what’s fresh and in season shouldn’t be a special thing. It should be the norm. Freshness and using product when it’s perfect is essential. Being trendy has no bearing to us. We don’t cook for fads or for the moment. We cook in hopes of connecting and giving something that is seasonal and honest and simple and ours.” Chef Hoefer said, “We do the best we can to be as locally responsible as possible. Buying local is about building relationships with farmers and the community. It is a symbiotic relationship that takes time, care and attention. We want to foster those relationships to provide a long-lasting partnership with the community, state and region.” Chef Burleson added, “Local to me is using what I feel the people in that area like to eat. Buy what is in season, from people they can relate with, and simply stay out of the way. I think food in general is pure, and the most common mistake we as chefs make is to overdo or to over complicate it.” Having their own herb garden for the restaurant is certainly a plus. Chef Diaz personally picked ten pounds of basil from the garden just before I arrived—it doesn’t get fresher or more local than that!
Whether Auburn is your destination or just an overnight stop, or if you are a local looking for a special evening out, be sure to try Ariccia Trattoria. Have a meal, a glass of wine from their extensive wine list or an incredible dessert. It’s all so delicious, you might even forget about football—at least for a moment.
The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center
241 South College Street, Auburn, AL 36830
Brunch 10:30AM-3:00PM, Sundays