Jim Solomon and his wife Rachel took a food tour of Rome with me many years ago. We had a lot in common and quickly became friends. When Jim and Rachel visited Sicily for a week, we created a bespoke week of food tours, cooking experiences and historical tours for them. I personally led many of the experiences including an annotated Sunday lunch that ended with a visit to a biodynamic farm, sausage making on Mt. Etna with a local butcher and baking the infamous Sicilian biscotti made with pasta di mandorle in an off the beaten path pastry shop. We ate our weight in granita and brioche for breakfast and took a deep dive into Sicilian culture. Jim and Rachel fell in love with Sicily. They felt at home, so much so that a year later, Jim invited me to be the sommelier for two sold out Sicilian dinners held at his former restaurant The Fireplace in Brookline, MA. He wanted to share his love of Sicily.
Recently, Jim launched Shack with the Chef where he shares his beloved off-the-beaten path food spots. He spent a week chasing and eating at his favorite Italian joints. We wanted to hear more. Without further ado… meet Jim Solomon.
Casa Mia: What led you to become a chef?
Jim: My passion for food grew out of visits to my grandmother’s. She was a great cook. Meals at her house always meant a table full of food and family, with stories, discussions of sports and politics, and of course, lots of laughter. So, I really wanted to make sure we would always have that. By thirteen I took an under-the-table restaurant job in Harvard Square. I was hooked. I loved it, and never looked back.
CM: Where did the idea for ‘Shack with the Chef’ come from?
Jim: Over the years I would eat at great, independent joints, often ethnic, with family or fellow cooks. Yet, they were rarely reviewed or written about. And, while my wife and I enjoy many fine restaurants, that do receive a lot of press, our favorite places are the off-the-beaten-path places. Frequently family-owned spots, many of the best share space with a convenience store, gas station, are actually in the home’s garage, or are literally shacks. So, my wife and I joke that we are “shack people”.
Therefore, I thought it would be fun to turn people onto the wonderful little places they may never otherwise know about. So, whether near home, across the US, or traveling abroad, I will unveil the hidden gems I discover.
Simultaneously, I can help these small restaurants increase business.
CM: How do you select restaurants to review?
Jim: Many restaurants are recommended by other chefs, or people I chat with. When traveling, I start early, asking friends who live in the area, or may have visited, if they know places in-line with what I like. I read food periodicals and scan social media blogs. In serious food cities, I take no chances, and opt for a food tour. My preference is always to splurge a bit and hire a real culinary travel guide.
I am very careful to communicate what type of places I enjoy. Lastly, when I arrive at a destination, I like asking the mailmen, cops and cabbies, where they eat. Often, they know the no-nonsense, holes-in-the-wall, locals prefer.
CM: How do you judge them?
Jim: My judging is purely subjective. Fortunately, having run a busy restaurant for sixteen years, and cooked for several famous chefs, many followers know I appreciate rustic, full flavored food with integrity. Generally, I like food that is grounded in a region, and am less a fan of fusion or fussy food. I don’t like architectural food over taste. I’m not big on molecular gastronomy. My tastes lean towards cooking with pots and pans, the way my grandmother cooked. Having owned the first Certified Green Restaurant in Boston, I seek-out sustainably harvested food from local farmers, fisherman, mushroom foragers, and cheese mongers. And, I definitely care way more about food than about service, or ambiance. For me, it’s always about the food.
We know that you love Sicilian and Italian food in general. If you could only eat one Italian meal what would it be (appetizer, first course, second course, side dish and dessert)?
- Appetizer: Grilled Octopus, Squid Ink Couscous, Cherry Peppers & Fennel
- First Course: Bucatini Amatriciana – Guanciale, Tomato, Fresno Chilies, Pecorino Romano cheese
- Second Course: Pan-Seared Pork Chop with Sautéed Vinegar, Pepper & Potatoes
- Side Dish: Broccolini, Calabrian chili, garlic oil
- Dessert: Any kind of Granita
CM: Please share your 3 favorite off-the-beaten-path Italian restaurants/coffee bars with us.
Sally’s Apizza – New Haven, Connecticut
Di Fara Pizza – Brooklyn, New York
Meanwhile In Belfast – Belfast, Maine
Plus, one coffee bar:
Café Fixe – Brookline, Massachusetts
CM: We love Cafe Fixe. They pull a great caffe espresso and make a mean pour-over plus the baristas are knowledgable and friendly. Thank you for sharing some of your favorite Italian food destinations with us. You can follow Jim’s adventures and check out his food tips at Shack with the Chef.