What does it take to run a high-end bistro in upscale McLean? A chef who can dominate the playing field with a serious menu that reflects his training, here and in Europe. That chef is Domenico Cornacchia, executive chef and co-owner of the swanky Assaggi Osteria.

Like many of his Italian brethren, Cornacchia grew up in a family where food held a prime place in family life. It also helped that his mother was a very good cook. In fact, most family members had good kitchen skills, but his mother was his prime inspiration. "She would start with simple ingredients," he said, "and she would create a great recipe. I used to cook with her, and tried to duplicate some of her recipes. She treated ingredients with great respect."

About age 16, Cornacchia went to work in a friend's restaurant and became passionate about food. "I went to culinary school for a course at the age of 19," he said. "The school used to send us to do stages in many different countries. I loved to come up with flavors and different styles of cuisines fascinated me."

If you go
Assaggi Osteria
Where: 6641 Old Dominion Drive, McLean
Info: 703-918-0080
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Not surprisingly, his family helped him find good restaurant jobs, a great asset to the young man's career. "It is a field where if you take the right angle," he says, "it is very satisfying, but very demanding."

With such intensive European training, Cornacchia became very involved with Northern European cooking styles and food, helping him learn about blending flavors to produce better dishes. That, of course, has helped him with setting up and running his own restaurants.

So why did Cornacchia end up cooking in the United States? As he explains, his many training periods, or stages, brought him to the States for brief kitchen stints. And his experiences really impressed him. "What struck me," he said, "was the level of the restaurant industry. It is so much more detailed than in Europe. Here it is taken to the next level."

Cornacchia has successfully opened three local restaurants, each with its own take on both Italian and French cuisine and with the inspired input of a talented chef.


What's your comfort food?

Vegetables, salads, fruits. They don't require too much thinking and they are fresh from the market.

What are you essential ingredients?

Extra-virgin olive oil. That has got to be there, and sea salt.

What is in your fridge?

I love mustards, especially fruit-based mustards. These work well in many dishes.

What is your signature dish?

What I love to work with includes anything that is fruit, vegetables, lettuce, leafy greens. These are so delicate, but if you treat them properly you get the best results.

What has been the greatest influence on your life?

Traveling. I have been exposed to different cultures and I am seeing many similarities in recipes. I have learned not to be afraid of trying out recipes that are different.


Red Tomato Gazpacho

Serves 6

6 large tomatoes, blended in a blender

1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped

4 English cucumbers, finely chopped

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

Juice from 3 lemons

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 stalk celery, trimmed and finely chopped

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil plus extra for drizzling

1 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all the ingredients in a big bowl. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Ladle the soup into bowls, and drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over each serving.