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Monday, September 28, 2009

Erica Holland-Toll: At Ducca, an Italian Sensibility That Doesn't Always Hew to Tradition

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge A new chef is skewing Ducca more Cal-Italian. - SCHODTS/FLICKR
  • Schodts/Flickr
  • A new chef is skewing Ducca more Cal-Italian.
In June, ex-Lark Creek chef Erica Holland-Toll took over from Richard Corbo as exec chef at Ducca in the downtown Westin Hotel (50 Third St. at Market). Three months and a San Francisco Chronicle review later, the 33-year-old chef has settled in. She recently spoke with SFoodie about making the jump from New American to Italian regional.

Holland-Toll learned seasonal cooking at her mother's knee, helping with the chores at their huge garden in Arnold, California ("a beautiful, tiny, blink-and-you-missed-it mountain town in the Sierra Nevada"), and peeling peaches and prepping vegetables for canning. Culinary school in Seattle followed. She worked with Jan Birnbaum (currently cheffing at Epic Roasthouse) at Sazerac in Seattle. "He's really my mentor," she said "He introduced me to farmers' markets and how to build a menu around seasonally available foods."

After a stint in Chicago at Savarin, a French bistro, Holland-Toll returned to the Bay Area to cook with Birnbaum at Catahoula, worked with Laurent Gras at Fifth Floor, and Traci Des Jardins at Acme Chophouse. She helped to open the Americano at the Hotel Vitale. "I went to Italy for the first time, and really fell in love with Italian food," she said. She was the last executive chef at the Lark Creek Inn (which closed in April to re-open with a new name -- the Tavern at Lark Creek Inn -- and more casual menu).

"My food is what it is," Holland-Toll told SFoodie. "It's very seasonal and farm-fresh, an Italian sensibility more than traditional Italian food. But we do feature a lot of traditional pastas, risotto, scallopini. We're so lucky in the Bay Area -- the seasons last longer. We'll have good tomatoes until November!"

Right now local tomatoes and other late-summer produce are featured in some of Holland-Toll's favorite dishes: a Little Gem salad with Early Girl tomatoes, Gorgonzola, and Cowgirl Creamery rustic crackers; and a very seasonal classic caprese salad. Her signature bucatini al'amatriciana ("I'm really proud of it, I've been working on it a long time") features Hobbs guanciale, San Marzano tomatoes, and ricotta salata. Other favorites on the current menu include a half rotisserie chicken served on summer vegetable panzanella, and pork scallopini with Parmesan mashed potatoes and basil-braised summer beans. On the dessert menu: Straus yogurt panna cotta, and a roasted plum crostata with walnut gelato.

The new menu is offered at slightly lower price points than the previous regime's -- nothing over $30, and main-course pastas range from the mid-teens to low 20s. The menu is slated to change at least six times a year, although certain dishes -- like the bucatinial'amatriciana -- will remain year round.

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Meredith Brody

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