Brandon Gillis had been living and working in New York for over 10 years when he made the ultimate change: hanging up his winter coat and embracing life in Outer Richmond.
“What’s easy to love about San Francisco is that it’s so beautiful,” he says.
It was a big change for the East Coast native – but one, he says, was way overdue. “The year I left New York, we had a heat wave, and then my last day there was like a six-foot snowstorm,” he says. “And I was like, I’m kind of done with this extreme weather. I’m going to suck it in for the fog and a little gray here and there.
After spending time at Danny Meyer’s Tabla, Brooklyn Pizzeria and Franny’s of Brooklyn, Gillis was more than ready for a new challenge – and he got one at Fiorella, well known for their made in Oakland wallpaper designed in collaboration with the Andy Samberg’s comedy troupe about his wood-fired pizza.
After his time with Franny, Gillis is no stranger to the latter. Indeed, when asked which of his experiences contributed the most to his current role, he laughs.
“Oh yeah, it’s super easy,” he says, noting that not only has he gleaned invaluable insight into the inner workings of running a business, putting together a menu based on the seasons, and “a true dedication to executing simplicity” from his five years at the pizzeria in Brooklyn, but twenty years later, founders Franny Stephens and Andrew Feinberg remain “two of my dearest and closest friends.” And that’s something really special coming out of a working relationship.
Moving forward at the San Francisco pizzeria, however, required a slightly different twist.
“I think Italian food is more like… Cal-Italian,” he says. Fiorella’s thin-crust pies, he notes, are a style in their own right.
“Our style of pizza is not necessarily Neapolitan; it’s not New York; it’s not New Haven,” says the former native of the two East Coast pizza meccas. “It’s really just kind of a blend of a few different qualities of living in New York, of cooking at Franny’s, of living in New Haven, that we wanted to bring to San Francisco.”
Example: pizzas can contain anything from “NYC Slice” style sauce to pepperoni, to local produce such as roast potatoes, broccoli rabe, lacinato kale, or clams. And in addition to his unique pies, Gillis and his team are also free to prepare other dishes with a “cal-Italian” twist. Case in point? His spicy Calabrian wings.
Like many of the best culinary inventions of potato chips for Champagne, this particular dish came about a bit by accident. With Fiorella — like all restaurants in San Francisco — relegated to takeout last February, Gillis and his team whipped up this dish as a Super Bowl deal that people could easily make and enjoy at home.
“It’s sort of an Italian take on traditional American buffalo wings,” he says. “Everything we do is definitely Italian-inspired, and we just wanted to do something that matches what we do at Fiorella.”
The wings begin with a long herb and garlic flavored brine, after which they are precooked, fried and tossed in a tangy hot sauce made from deeply caramelized garlic mixed with chili flakes, pickled peppers, chilli Calabrian. paste, and a touch of Frank for good measure. It’s a spicy yet ultra-balanced combo that Gillis says lives up to Fiorella’s journey, where homemade pickled peppers are a major player in everything from chopped salad to homemade sausage pizza.
“We tend to use a lot of pickles to add a lot of acidity and shine to our dishes,” he says. “You kind of get that tartness the same way you would get it from a simple squeeze of fresh lemon just before a plate of salad.”
Peppers and marinade juice go into this recipe, which is paired with a refreshing dip made from local Point Reyes blue cheese.
“We tried it with a gorgonzola dolce, and found it was a little too sweet, too creamy,” he says. “I think the Point Reyes, it has good sharpness. It’s not too dry, and it’s just creamy enough to hold up well in the dressing.
While the recipe was originally meant to be a seasonal offering only, he notes, “we’ve had such a great response from them that I think we’ll probably put them on the menu for a little while and see how they manage.”
Or you can always make them at home and see for yourself.
Spicy Calabrian Chilli Wings
Gives 24 wings
For the chicken
- 24 chicken wings
- 1 liter of water
- 240 grams of salt
- 3 lemons, halved
- 1 bunch parsley, torn in half
- 1 bunch of thyme
- ½ cup of honey
- 6 to 8 medium garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- ½ cup mixed oil (for frying)
For the Calabrian hot sauce
150 grams (about ⅔ cup) mixed oil
150 grams (¾ cup) minced garlic
250 grams (about 2½ cups) dried crushed chili flakes
150 grams (about half of a 12-ounce jar) Cento brand mixed cherry peppers
130 grams (about ¾ of a 10-ounce jar) Tutto Calabria brand “wet” chili paste
130 grams (about ⅓ of a 12-ounce jar) sliced pepperoncini peppers
500 grams (1/4 cup + 3 tbsp) pepperoncini liquid (from the jar)
500 grams (about 2⅛ cups) Frank’s Red Hot Hot Sauce
100 grams (¼ cup + 3 tbsp) fresh squeezed lemon juice
For the blue cheese dressing “dip”
500 grams (17 ⅔ ounces) Point Reyes blue cheese
70 grams (4½ tablespoons) red wine vinegar
10 grams (2 teaspoons) Frank’s Red Hot Sauce
300 grams (10½ ounces) sour cream
200 grams (¾ cup + 1 tbsp) buttermilk
400 grams (1¾ cups) mayonnaise
40 grams (2½ tablespoons) freshly squeezed lemon juice
About 5 grams (2 teaspoons) freshly cracked black pepper
Twelve hours before serving, brine the wings. First, bring 1 cup of water to a boil and dissolve the honey and salt in it. Combine it with the remaining water and other brine ingredients and mix in a large container. Add the wings, cover and place in the fridge. Brine for 12 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the hot sauce. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the garlic and caramelize slowly for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently and taking care not to burn it. (The lower the heat, the better, but the cooking time will be longer.) Once the garlic is completely cooked, mix it with the other ingredients in a blender. Starting on the low setting, blend, gradually increasing the speed until fully blended and smooth. Once well mixed, set aside.
When the wings are fully brined, remove them from the liquid and pat them dry. Preheat the oven to 325ºF and place the wings on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. This step will render some of their fat and pre-cook them. Remove from oven and let cool 30 minutes, or until cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile, prepare the blue cheese dip. In a food processor, combine half the crumbled blue cheese with the buttermilk and lemon juice. Blend until very smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients except for the remaining blue cheese, and once more, mix until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a small mixing bowl and stir in the remaining blue cheese. Season with salt if necessary.
Just before serving, preheat ½ cup blended oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and brown over medium heat for about 5 minutes on each side. (Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to work in batches; if so, place the fried wings on a baking sheet and keep in the oven on the “warm” setting, about 250ºF.)
Once all the wings are cooked, place them in a large bowl and add enough Calabrian sauce to coat, about 1 cup. Serve with blue cheese sauce and more hot sauce for dipping!
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