Varanese

News & Reviews

Cheers to 10 years! Varanese has more than just staying power

Five hundred thousand is a big number any way you look at it. To John Varanese, looking at it means he’s ready to break out the Champagne.

Varanese, his namesake restaurant, has served more than 500,000 guests since the first one was seated 10 years ago.

“It took about 18 months after we opened before I felt comfortable saying, ‘I really did it,'” he said. “Now, reaching the 10-year milestone, we’re over the hump and are here to stay as long as we keep evolving with the times and our clientele.”

His first foray into the business of cooking wasn’t at a stove or prep table. At age 13, he signed on as a dishwasher at a little mom-and-pop spot. A couple weeks later, he was in the kitchen cooking.

“When I was 16, I knew I wanted to be financially independent. I don’t think back then (that) I really thought I’d be a chef. I was thinking more about creating a concept and being an owner,” he said. “Getting a start so young let me keep my eyes and ears open to what makes a restaurant successful.”

Try these Varanese recipes at home:

Marshmallow and toffee bread pudding

Half roasted chicken recipe

Thai curry mussels

But the life of a chef intrigued him enough that he earned a culinary arts and food service management degree from Johnson & Wales University in South Carolina.

He worked in other people’s restaurants until he was ready to make the break to go out on his own.

“The most difficult challenge was to find someone who believed in me enough to provide financing,” he said. “There were multiple ups and downs during the five years it took before I was able to open Varanese.”

During the last 10 years, he has shifted his menu away from contemporary Mediterranean toward contemporary American with regional flair and Southern influence, and a few dishes with definite Italian character.

Caramelized orange bourbon salmon has culinary staying power, being on the first Varanese menu and remaining a best seller a decade later. A Mediterranean style pork chop had its fans but was replaced by a pork chop that’s smoked with bourbon barrel staves and is topped with apple-bacon chutney. Served with potato gratin, it is a menu staple but is sometimes offered at a special price.

“One regular customer told me he had been sitting at another restaurant when he received our email about the pork chop special that evening. He got up from the other table and came to have dinner with us because of the pork chop,” Varanese said.

He and Chef de Cuisine Erik Abraham, who has been at the restaurant since its inception, are adding six new items to the menu in the next few weeks. Guests can expect dishes such as Thai curry mussels, chicken with cavatappi mac and cheese, short rib taquito, and fried apple turnover.

If you can’t wait until the mussels and the chicken are rolled out, you’re in luck. Chef Varanese gave the recipes to Cook’s Corner so that you can make the dishes at home.

Varanese is celebrating the restaurant’s 10th anniversary at two events. The first, on Sunday, Aug. 20, will feature half-price appetizer and wine specials, birthday cake, and live music. Be there at 9 p.m. and you can toast the occasion with a glass of champagne.

On Tuesday, Aug. 22, Varanese will keep on celebrating at the 10th Anniversary Retrospective Dinner that will feature favorite items from past menus, including shrimp ceviche, stuffed grape leaves, prosciutto-wrapped stuffed chicken, grilled prime rib, and peaches and cream crêpes. Rounding out the party menu will be 10-year old port, bourbon, and wine.

Marshmallow and toffee bread pudding

Serves 6

  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1 cup toffee, crumbled, divided (see below)
  • 1 cup marshmallows, cut into small pieces, divided (see below)
  • 1 baguette, cubed
  • 16 ounces sea salt caramel ice cream
  • 4 ounces caramel sauce

In a mixing bowl, combine eggs, sugar, heavy cream and half-and-half. Add one-half cup marshmallows, one-half cup toffee and the cubed baguette, mixing until bread soaks up most of the liquid and becomes sticky.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place mixture in 9-inch glass baking coated with non-stick spray. Bake until golden brown. Top bread pudding with remaining half-cup marshmallows. Lightly toast with a blow torch or place back in the oven and heat until marshmallows are golden. Once toasted, lightly sprinkle with remaining half-cup toffee. Drizzle with caramel sauce. Serve with the caramel ice cream.

Marshmallows

  • 3 packs gelatin
  • 1 cup ice water, divided
  • 12 ounces sugar
  • 1 cup corn syrup
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup powdered sugar
  • ¼ cup cornstarch

In a mixing bowl, let the gelatin bloom in half the water. In a sauce pot over high heat, add sugar, corn syrup, salt and remaining water. Cook, covered, four minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking until the mixture reaches 240 degrees. Using a whisk attachment of a stand mixer on low speed, slowly pour in gelatin. Gradually increase speed to high. Mix until cool and peaks begin to form.

Spray a baking pan with cooking spray. Mix together the powdered sugar and cornstarch. Dust the pan with the mixture. Place the gelatin mixture in the pan. Top with sugar mix. Leave uncovered at least four hours or overnight.

Toffee

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons water

In a saucepan over medium heat, place all the ingredients. Heat to 304 degrees. Pour onto a greased sheet pan and let cool.

Half roasted chicken

Serves 4

  • 1 ½ cups salt, divided
  • 3 cups hot water
  • 2 whole chickens, cut in half
  • 3 teaspoons paprika
  • 3 teaspoons black pepper
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 teaspoon char crust seasoning
  • 3 teaspoons chili powder
  • 3 teaspoons granulated garlic

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a bowl, dissolve 1/2 cup of salt in the water. Pour over the chicken. Refrigerate overnight. Remove chicken and pat dry. In a mixing bowl, combine all seasonings; mix thoroughly. Rub chicken with mixture. Place rubbed chicken in a 4-inch tall baking dish. Roast until the thigh reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Remove from oven and let temperature rise to 165 degrees.

Serve with the cavatappi mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, salsa verde and creamy horseradish sauce.

Cavatappi mac and cheese

  • 2 ounces unsalted butter
  • 2 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 1 quart 2 percent milk
  • 3 cups sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 3 cups white melting cheese, shredded (We use Mexi Melt, or soft Mexican cheese, similar to white American)
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste
  • 1 pound cavatappi pasta, cooked and chilled
  • ½ cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small sauce pot, melt the butter. Once melted, add flour. Mix until thoroughly combined to make a roux. In a separate saucepot, heat milk to a simmer. Add the roux. Stir often with a whisk, breaking up roux until mixture is thick. Turn off heat. Add two cups of the shredded Cheddar and two cups of the white cheese, whisking until smooth and cheese is melted. Season with salt and pepper. Place chilled pasta in a large mixing bowl. Pour cheese sauce over the pasta. Mix until all pasta is lightly coated. Turn out into a non-stick baking dish of your choosing. Top with remaining cheeses. Sprinkle with panko. Bake until golden brown.

Jalapeño cornbread

  • 3 cups self-rising cornmeal
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 ½ cups buttermilk
  • 1 jalapeño, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 ounces vegetable oil

Coat the bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish or an 8-inch cast-iron skillet with vegetable oil. Place in an oven as it preheats to 400 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine eggs and buttermilk. Whisk lightly. Add cornmeal, jalapeño and salt. Mix thoroughly. Remove heated pan from oven. Pour in the batter. Bake for 10 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cornbread comes out clean.

Black-eyed peas

  • 1 pound dried black-eyed peas
  • 2 quarts water
  • ¼ stick unsalted butter
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste

Place peas and water in a small sauce pot. Cook until peas are tender. Strain and place peas back in sauce pot. Add butter. Stir until butter is melted. Season with salt and pepper.

Salsa verde

  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chives, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon basil, chopped
  • ½ tablespoon minced garlic
  • 4 ounces extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Place chopped herbs in a small mixing bowl. Add garlic. Cover with olive oil. Stir. Season with salt and pepper.

Creamy horseradish sauce 

  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl.

Thai curry mussels

Serves 4

  • 12 ounces pork sausage, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons minced ginger
  • 1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce
  • 1-ounce sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons red curry paste
  • 2 ounces soy sauce
  • 40 Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) mussels
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 ounce chopped cilantro
  • 12 slices toasted baguette
  • Sausage marinade
  • 1 cup Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 2 ounces fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha

In a small bowl, mix together the marinade ingredients. Submerge sliced pork sausage in marinade. Cover and place in refrigerator for two hours. Remove pork from marinade and set aside.

Sauté garlic, ginger and sausage lightly in oil until caramelized. In a mixing bowl, combine coconut milk, sweet chili, sesame oil, curry paste and soy sauce to make broth.

Deglaze pan containing sausage with broth. Add mussels. Cook, covered, until mussels open. Whisk in the butter. Remove from heat. Mount the mussels in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with toasted baguette.