Although Jason Severs was born and raised in Tennessee (Johnson City, Knoxville, Memphis), he grew up around four Italian women -- his mother, her two sisters, and his grandmother -- for whom meals were as important as breathing and sleeping. It was only natural that Jason learned how to cook, and how to eat, the Italian way. The Italian way, as it turns out, is very different from the Southern way: The emphasis is on fresh produce and simple preparation, seasonal ingredients as few steps as possible from the ground or ocean or pasture to plate.
Rebecca, Jason's wife and a native Memphian, has been converted to Jason's philosophy of food. They like to tell the story about one of their first dates, when Rebecca took Jason to an Italian restaurant for barbecue pizza. At the end of the meal, Jason turned to Becky and said, "I love you, but this is not authentic Italian food."
A few years ago, the Severses set out to open an authentic Italian restaurant featuring a combination of local produce and imported Italian staples such as proscuitto and bronzino, a type of sea bass found in the Mediterranean. It's been an uphill battle for the Severses, trying to get Memphians to accept their version of Italian food. But working together -- Jason runs the back of the house, in charge of everything from making the espresso to baking the bread, while Rebecca helps out in the front and manages the restaurant's wine list -- they've gotten traction: After four years, they're still in business -- and growing. In September 2005, the couple launched the Enoteca, or wine bar, which has one of the best wine lists in town and a devoted following.
When I arrived at the couple's Midtown house -- which they describe as "distressed," the upshot of having two young boys, Lucian (4) and Julian (10 weeks), a mastiff named Nina, and a burgeoning restaurant to manage -- I was ushered into the kitchen, the only place they said they'd had time to clean. It was straight out of the 1950s, complete with diner-style table, aqua chairs, and an electric stove made by General Motors. There was a baby walker in the corner, abstract artwork a la Lucian on the refrigerator, and a KitchenAid mixer featured prominently on the counter.
With two kids, the Severses are usually up early -- and with the restaurant, they're usually out late -- so their primary meal of the day as a family is breakfast. Their breakfast staple is espresso, imported from Italy, and sometimes they'll just drink their coffee with a few biscotti or amaretti, Italian cookies that Jason makes from scratch. But the morning I visited, Jason made another core breakfast dish, frittata, an open-faced Italian omelet made from leftover herbs, vegetables, and meats. The beauty of the frittata is that almost anything can be thrown into the dish -- and it tastes good hot or cold.
On nights when Jason does get a chance to cook at home, he makes food that is very similar to the food he prepares at the restaurant. In the summer, this means loads of salads -- sometimes just fresh lettuce with a bit of olive oil, perhaps some nuts and cheese -- or a plate of dried meats and grilled vegetables. Jason likes to make Mexican food as well, but if he's craving the real deal, he'll usually go to Taqueria La Guadalupaña.
Jason Severs' Fresh Herb Frittata
Before the kids and the restaurant, Jason used to cook all the time. Now, his focus is on quick dishes that are healthy and tasty.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic
Fresh herbs (parsley, basil, chives, mint), chopped
1 tomato, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
Shaved Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400º. Heat a large frying pan over medium-high. Add olive oil and garlic and let heat for a minute or two, then remove garlic from the pan and add eggs and herbs. Let cook for a few minutes and then add the tomato, salt, and pepper. Let cook until firm around the edges. Place pan in the oven and cook until slightly browned. Top with shaved Parmesan cheese and drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper.