By Michelle Lagana
Chef Pat Trama grew up in an Italian American family steeped in traditions that focused on faith, family and food. While he was offered a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, he gave it all up in order to work with the likes of powerhouse chefs Charlie Palmer, David Burke and Pino Luongo, before eventually going back to his roots and opening his own namesake trattoria—Trama’s Trattoria—featuring authentic Tuscan style food at the Jersey shore. Here’s his Chef Spotlight, in his own words.
My earliest food memory is watching my mother and my grandmother prepare Sunday supper. It would start at 9:00 Saturday morning with the first stop being the bakery to pick up the warm bread. Then onto the butcher to purchase salami, cold cuts and the meats for the Sunday sauce. Then onto the nursery for the flowers along with a quick stop at the grocery store for the staples. Once we arrived at home we would put away the daily gatherings and wander out into our garden to see what vegetables and fruits were ready to be picked. On Sunday morning beginning at 6:30, with mom and grandma, we began to prepare the meatball mixture, then rolled them each by hand. Then it was on to the browning of the meats—meatballs, spare ribs, sausage, bresaola—drowned in three inches of Crisco. Later, the garlic would begin to brown in the olive oil along with a handful of just picked basil from the garden and of course, last but not least, her canned Tuttorosso plum tomatoes. This would begin to simmer by 7:45 a.m., and the aroma would wake up the entire house. We [couldn’t wait] to open the lid until 10:15 a.m., to have the opportunity to score a meatball and dunk a slice of Wonder Bread into the not-yet-ready sauce/gravy. By 10:30 a.m. we were out the door to attend church with the entire family, for which I would always be sporting a tomato stained shirt for. It got me every time! And I can still hear my mother scolding me!
After church, we would go down to the general store for penny candy for that evening’s TV lineup of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, followed by the weekly Disney movie. Once we arrived back home, my brother and I would be glued to the television to catch an episode of F Troop and Abbott & Costello. At that time the dinner guests would start pouring in, [and this] lasted into the evening. Anywhere from 10 to 20 people would stop by for a bowl of pasta, glass of homemade red wine, pot of demitasse, Sambuca and a cannoli. That really taught me to appreciate family, culture, food and religion. These are still dear to my heart, and to this day I hope it shows in my food.
I was raised in a second-generation Italian family that loved to sit down and eat, drink and share stories. Most of the stories that were being told are my fondest memories with my family, around the kitchen table.
When I was born, my parents had their own small mom-and-pop Italian restaurant, which is where I grew up. My mom would put me in my car seat and I would be placed on the bar in front of the TV, to be entertained by Bozo the Clown all afternoon. Growing up in the restaurant, I was always capable of taking on another task, and would ask many questions every day, until my father sold the restaurant. My father had continuous success owning night clubs and my mother went into banking. The first bank account she opened was for a young new chef, named Charlie Palmer. He had just become the chef at a local country club, which is where it started professionally for me at the age of 14. At 17, I received a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, from the members of the country club, which they granted me for being the best employee. Later, I decided to forfeit the scholarship and travel with Charlie Palmer to take on a position at the River Café, under the Brooklyn Bridge. In a NY Times article, [working at] the River Café was once [called] the equivalent of attending Harvard Business School for a culinary professional.
After working with Charlie Palmer, David Burke, and Drew Nieporent, my greatest opportunity came working alongside Pino Luongo, who owned Sapore di Mare, Le Madri, and Coco Pazzo, which is when I realized I wanted to go back to my roots and cook authentic Italian food, taught to me by four Italian mothers straight off the boat from Italy in house coats and slippers. They were elderly Italian women who had come to this country with rolling pin in hand, ready to teach young American cooks to replicate their antipasto, risotto, pastas, bread making, soups, meats and fish. Most of the other American cooks in the kitchen would run away from them, but I took this opportunity to absorb as much as I could, and knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
A few additional fun facts about Chef Trama:
- Location of his most memorable meal: French Laundry
- Where he would have his final meal: Alain Ducasse (Monte Carlo)
- Advice for young chefs: You must be committed to making sacrifices and paying dues before becoming a chef
- Food item that he would choose to be: An heirloom tomato, old seed
- Staple in his kitchen: Banana
- Favorite beverage: Coca-Cola
- Favorite comfort food: BBQ
- Jersey restaurant of choice: Barnacle Bill’s in Rumson
- Upcoming projects: Collaborating with fellow employee on an empanada stand at the Asbury Park Farmer’s Market. This will hopefully eventually turn into a food truck or small store front
- Dinner with any three people? Paul Bocuse—father of gastronomy, iconic, knowledgeable, old school. Prince—multitalented artist, great performer, musical genius. Babe Ruth—[I’m a] huge Yankees fan, [he was] interesting on and off the field, classic slugger.
115 Brighton Avenue