Chef Laura Pensiero: Beyond Skizzas in Dutchess County, NY

One of the Hudson Valley’s four best veteran chefs in 2012: Laura Pensiero in Red Hook, NY

Nobody makes pizza better than Laura Pensiero. The princess of Valley pies, Pensiero’s trademarked Skizzas — aka skinny pizzas — are churned out by the thousands each week at her two restaurants, Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, and Gigi Market and Cafe in Red Hook. Topped with creative combinations of ingredients and homemade sauces, Pensiero admits that Skizzas helped put her two Valley eateries on the map, noting that Bill Clinton may have ordered “something gluten-free and delicious” when he and brother Roger dined at her Rhinebeck restaurant before daughter Chelsea’s nuptials two years ago. (A confidentiality agreement prevents Pensiero from sharing more.)

But the former dietician credits her other Mediterranean-inspired dishes — sweet potato gnocchi, risotto del giorno, rughetta (arugula salad) — as the main reason why her customers keep coming back. And it helps that the never-sit-still Pensiero is always trying something new, from writing cookbooks (her latest, Hudson Valley Mediterranean, was published in 2009) and food articles for Oprah’s Web site to her latest venture — Just Salads, which serves quick fresh salads, salad wraps, and soups in nine locations in New York City and two in Hong Kong. “Maybe we’ll have one some time in the Valley,” she says, “but they require a lot of foot traffic.”

Age 45 Hometown Cold Spring Current home Red Hook

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On switching careers “I started out working with people who were sick and needed help with their diets. But often I was seeing them 10 to 20 years too late. I wanted to do more to prevent illness by making them aware that what they put on their plates mattered.”

Culinary training The French Culinary Institute

Kitchen idols Jacques Pepin and Alain Sailhac, dean emeritus at FCI

Favorite cooking show Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations

Biggest kitchen fear “When I took over Gigi Trattoria in February 2003 after my divorce; I made a tremendous number of mistakes, but my heart and soul always were in it.”

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Why you’ve been successful “My staff and I work hard. It’s our collective passion for food and our linking of sourcing local ingredients with a health message. But we’re not a health restaurant.”

Define your cuisine “Mostly Mediterranean and Italian trattoria-style cuisine, but it courses along the Mediterranean, from Spain to Italy and Greece.”

Sustainability bandwagon “We believe in it greatly, but we leave it to the pros. I have a big garden in my yard, but we have so many wonderful farmers and suppliers nearby who can do it better.”

On giving back “This month, I’m starting an after-school pilot program in Red Hook called SEED — Smart Eating Every Day — to help kids connect food and media messages.”

What’s next “Expand our catering, and work on signature product items. In the restaurant, expose diners, especially regulars, to new eating trends. I get frustrated that so many just come in and order a Skizza. They love them, and I want to give them what they love, but I also like to keep adding — whether it’s our new burger, which is made from 100-percent local beef; our bigoli pasta, which is thick, irregular spaghetti made with a heartier whole grain; or our new tapas bar menu, which includes chicken wings that aren’t just about the sauce. They’re from local Northwind Farms and taste like chicken.”

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When did you know you were successful? “I don’t know if I know that yet. I think part of being successful is being restless and always surrounding yourself with people who want to keep experimenting.”

How competitive is the Valley’s restaurant climate? “It’s competitive, but on the whole a friendly scene. What’s tougher is that I’m one of the few women in the industry. I could make the same decision that a male competitor does, but I get criticized.”

Any cuisine the Valley needs? “More international, ethnic food and perhaps a great steak house, or a place for fabulous fish.”

Anything the area has too much of? “Perhaps places that serve overly complicated dishes with too many ingredients.”

On the stove at home “It depends on the season. In summer, a quick pasta with anything from my garden and a mixed grill; in fall, something with poblano peppers stuffed with meat, vegetables, or grains; in winter, a stew, perhaps, boeuf bourguignon or osso buco, which I love to smell cooking all day.”

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