Food & Drink

Charlotte couple makes restaurant their Passion

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

It’s fitting that Luca and Jessica Annunziata met in a restaurant, because owning one together continues to represent the melding of their lives.

The couple, both 38, own Passion8 in Elizabeth. Luca is the chef and runs the kitchen, while Jessica oversees the front of the house.

They met in the summer of 2001. Luca had just moved to New York and was working as a chef at Good Housekeeping magazine. On weekends he cooked at a restaurant on Fire Island because he wanted to be on the beach. Jessica, a college student majoring in history and marketing at Hofstra University, was working there as a server.

“We fell in love immediately,” Jessica says. For starters, they both had a passion for Italy. Her grandparents were from Italy, and Jessica’s post-graduation plan was to move there and speak the language.

Luca, who grew up in the Campania region in southern Italy, spent summers on his aunt’s farm in San Marzano. “It’s like Eden,” he says. “Everything grows there.” He learned rustic cooking from his mother and grandmother, who grew everything they needed or bought it from someone they knew. The cheese, the wine, the olive oil – all were handcrafted nearby. He comes from a family of butchers and his godfather was a fisherman.

He now builds on his roots, taking the recipes of his childhood and adding his own touch. “Let me take this to the next level,” Luca says of his approach to cooking, “without losing the flavor and what makes it delicious.”

“He has a respect for traditional cuisine,” Jessica says of her husband’s culinary style. “But he always has to do his own take on it and twist it somehow.”

A good example is the calamari, a signature dish for Passion8. “Everyone does it fried with lemon juice in Italy,” Luca says. “I decided to incorporate a sauce with it and make it spicier and sweeter.” His fresh calamari is fried with flour, then tossed in a sauté pan with citrus, lemon and lime, jalapeno reduction butter and honey.

Coming to America

Luca attended culinary school in Italy, earning a hospitality and hotel degree in 1995. He did internships with restaurants throughout Italy in the summers, then worked in England for three years and took jobs in Switzerland, Germany and France before heading to America in 2001. “It was the land of opportunity,” he says.

After Luca and Jessica’s 2004 Long Island wedding, following Jessica’s 2003 graduation from Hofstra, the couple moved to Italy. Luca worked as a chef in charge of the protein station at Don Alfonso, a 2-star restaurant in Sant AGata Bel di Gulfi for a year and a half, until he blew out his knee from a fall by the ice machine.

They returned to the U.S. in spring 2005 to open their own restaurant. They wanted to be someplace “cosmopolitan that was emergent and full of world travelers who understood our interest in sourcing beautiful local food,” Jessica says. After visiting Charlotte on a spring weekend, the Queen City was the clear choice.

Luca worked as the sous chef at the Hilton on University Place and the chef de cuisine at the Westin for two years.

Jessica was pursuing a real estate license at the time, and often drove by a building in Fort Mill, S.C., that “needed a lot of work.” She’d eat her lunch in an adjacent lot and began to think of it as the perfect location for their restaurant.

Luca was not convinced. “I thought she was crazy,” he says.

They named it Passion8 Bistro (dropping Bistro when they moved uptown) to reflect their passion for food and pleasing people and because the number eight has significance to them, most notably because it symbolizes infinity. Passion8 Bistro proved successful and moved to uptown in October 2014.

Jessica continues to serve as the front of the house manager, but comes in mostly in the evenings so she can be with their 18-month-old son, Julian, in their Indian Land home during the day.

Getting ‘fiery’

Working together has its challenges.

“We are both very passionate,” says Jessica. “We get very fiery. We each have big personalities and strong opinions.”

Luca adds: “But we have the same goal – to please people.”

They each appreciate what the other brings to the table. Luca got to see how difficult it was to run the restaurant without Jessica when she underwent brain surgery in 2013. A pain in her eye ultimately led to a diagnosis of Brain AVM (a malformation of the veins).

“It was so scary,” says Luca of the 8-hour surgery that held the possibility of impacting Jessica’s speech. She fully recovered and now joins Luca in, as he puts it, “bringing customers joy.”

Luca has a relationship with 40 to 50 farmers and changes his menu at least monthly.

He is currently featuring zucchini blossoms, an Italian delicacy that reminds him of his childhood. But Luca puts a twist on them by stuffing them with whatever he finds in the market (such as housemade ricotta, herbs and tomatoes) and frying them in a light batter made with San Pellegrino.

“Luca was the first chef who asked for zucchini blossoms,” says Mindy Robinson, the co-owner of Tega Hills Farms, where Annunziata gets much of his produce. “Now many chefs are using them and they all do them in different ways, but Luca does them differently every time.”

Robinson said that restaurants form the backbone of her farm business, seeing them through the lean winter months, and she values Annunziata’s hands-on approach to his produce requests. “He comes out to the farm and tells us exactly what he wants,” she says.

“It gives us joy when we plate it,” he says of the satisfaction he and his seven chefs get when sending out each dish. “So many touches go onto a plate. I just want to create memories.”

Want to go?

Passion8, 1523 Elizabeth Ave. For hours, reservations, menu and catering, visit www.thepassion8.com.

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

Vegetable oil

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

12 ounce chilled pilsner, lager-style beer, club soda or Pellegrino water

About 16 zucchini blossoms, stamens removed (see note)

Sea salt for finishing

Filling:

1 cup soft cheese (Luca Annunziata uses fresh goat cheese from Bosky Acres in Waxhaw)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or basil

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Salt and pepper to taste

Make the filling: Combine cheese, mint or basil and lemon zest in a bowl. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Using a spoon, fill each blossom with about 1 tablespoon of the mixture. Pinch and close the blossom when they are stuffed.

In a large pot, heat about 2 inches of oil over medium heat until a deep-fry thermometer reads 350 degrees.

Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl, then whisk in beer, Pellegrino water or club soda until almost smooth (some small lumps are OK; don’t over-whisk the batter or you'll deflate the mix.)

One by one, dredge the stuffed blossoms in batter, shaking off the excess; gently lay them in the oil, without crowding the pan.

Cook, flipping once with a slotted spoon, until golden brown, 2-3 minutes total.

Transfer to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with sea salt.

Note: Passion8 uses zucchini blossoms from Tega Hill Farm in Tega Cay, S.C., sold at the Matthew’s Community Farmers’ Market. For an even lighter, crispier crust, fold 3 stiffly beaten egg whites into the batter.

Yield: 8 servings.

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