Savor Culinary Artist Chef Elena Corsini Mastro
Culinary Artist Chef Elena Corsini Mastro
by Katie Fries
Elena Corsini Mastro bustles about, a queen in control of her empire. Though pulled in several different directions, she manages to direct her attention wherever she’s needed at a moment’s notice: She converses with a server, disappears into the kitchen and warmly hugs satisfied and grateful diners as they depart her restaurant, promising to return soon.
Since its opening in 1999, Parma has been cited by Fresnans as one of the most authentic Italian restaurants in the Valley. Originally trained as a physical therapist and teacher, the owner and chef is proud to share the flavors and culture of her native Parma, Italy with local diners.
Corsini Mastro says she grew up in a family where “everybody was cooking.” She learned to cook under the tutelage of her mother and other relatives and remained passionate about food despite initially pursuing a different career.
“You’re out of your mind,” Corsini Mastro’s husband told her when she announced her intention to open a restaurant. He pointed out statistics that most restaurants fail within their first year of operation.
But her gamble paid off; Parma is now known as one of the finest restaurants in the Valley. Originally located off of Marks and Herndon, Corsini Mastro moved the restaurant in 2011 to its current location in the North Pointe Shopping Center at Palm and Herndon.
The restaurant pays tribute to the food and culinary traditions of both the Parma region of Italy and the Central Valley, which are remarkably similar. In Parma, Corsini Mastro says, “Everything grows the same as in the San Joaquin Valley. Tomatoes, fruit … We have a respect for the food. Here in California everything grows, so why buy it frozen when you have plenty to use?”
She’s proud of the special touches that set Parma apart from other Valley restaurants, including handmade pasta and one menu item that may seem particularly unconventional.
“No other restaurant in Fresno has rabbit on their menu,” she reveals with a playful gleam in her eye.
Corsini Mastro’s customers appreciate her commitment to using ingredients that are fresh and in season, more so now than when she opened 15 years ago. Ingredients that may once have seemed exotic to Fresnans, like goat cheese and chard, have become en vogue as local diners have embraced foodie trends that took root in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“People have become more attentive,” she says. “I think they have more of a refined palate. They have a different approach to food right now.”
Because everything is made fresh daily, menus are planned around the seasons. “The season tells you what you need to cook. In the winter I do polenta with sausage because it’s nice and warm and makes you happy when you eat it. In the summer we do more tomatoes, cantaloupe, eggplant.”
With the current cool winter nights in mind, Corsini Mastro shares her recipe for porcini mushroom risotto.
Porcini Mushroom Risotto, serves 6
2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
6 cups meat stock/veg broth
3 T butter
3 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 shallot, finely chopped
3.5 cups Arborio rice
3/4 cup dry white wine
6 T grated Parmesan cheese
2 T parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak mushrooms in warm water. When softened, remove mushrooms and rinse with fresh water. Filter the soaking water through a cheesecloth and reserve; this will be used later.
Smash the garlic and sauté in olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter. Remove the garlic from pan. Sprinkle flour over mushrooms to prevent them from sticking and sauté in the garlic butter. Add a tiny amount of white wine, let evaporate. Deglaze with small amount of the reserved mushroom water. Remove the mushrooms from pan.
In a separate saucepan, bring the broth to a boil.
Sauté the shallot in the leftover butter and oil that was used to sauté the mushrooms. Add rice, mixing with a wooden spoon. Pour in the rest of white wine. Let evaporate. Over low heat, add boiling broth a bit at a time, each time mixing until absorbed before adding more. When the rice is slightly al dente, add the sautéed mushrooms. Remove from pan and let sit for two minutes.
Mix in 1 tablespoon of butter and grated Parmesan cheese. Cover and let rest. Sprinkle with parsley and salt and pepper to taste before serving.