What happens when an Italian food and beverage director meets traditional American southern cuisine? I don’t know what you’d call it, but the result is simply delicious.
Meet Vinny D’Agostino, an Italian-New England southern transplant and the new Food & Beverage Director at the elegant King and Prince Resort in St. Simons Island, Georgia.
A bit of background
After growing up in Rhode Island and with a family background from Fornelli, Italy, Vinny chose a career in the culinary arts. He graduated from Johnson and Wales and immediately followed a path to take him on a 23-year hotel and restaurant journey. Shortly before joining the King and Prince Resort, Vinny opened the Bradstreet Crafthouse in Minneapolis in 2010. Soon after, it was rated by Bon Appetit Magazine as one of the “Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America.”
I was fortunate enough to be invited on a press trip to the King and Prince Resort for what was called a Southern Culinary Tradition experience. I’d call it an extravaganza. Under the watchful eye of Vinny, our group was treated to the most incredible array of southern cuisine with an epicurean twist. Vinny infuses many of the hotel’s dishes with his own creative touches, incorporating his Italian background into the recipes.
Grits are grits. Not exactly…
Even though I’m a Yankee, I have been in love with grits since my college days in Florida. I’ve tried “cheese-y” grits, baked grits, yellow grits and buttery grits, but never shrimp and grits. Seafood and hot cereal?
For sure every hole-in-the-wall diner in the south proclaims the title to “Best Shrimp and Grits in (enter the state/city/county of your choice). ” Yet, I’d never tried that strange combination of food, flavor and texture. When I learned that Shrimp and Grits would the the star entree for our welcome dinner, my anticipation was palpable.
To get us into the mood, Vinny and his staff set up a cooking demonstration table from which we were able to watch the creation unfold.
Here, Chef Dwayne Austell sautes the Wild Georgia Shrimp. Chef Paula Murphy also contributed to our fabulous dinner.
Vinny explained that all of the ingredients used were “Georgia Grown, Georgia Made” which followed the farm to table concept that he employs whenever possible. Even the gorgeous, sweet, white shrimp were “Wild Georgia Shrimp” not the frozen farm raised, antibiotic treated shrimp from a distant country. These were the real deal, caught that day from the coastal waters of Georgia which are fed from the flowing Spartina marshes along the coast. I digress.
So how does an Italian Food and Beverage Director in Georgia add his signature to such a traditional dish without overpowering or radically changing the flavors? By adding chopped tomato and Asiago cheese, of course. After checking several popular S&G recipes, I didn’t find a single one that brought those two ingredients into play. Since I’m half Italian, I was excited to learn how to easily add a touch of the “old country” to a basically southern staple. In addition, Vinny’s recipe uses Tasso ham, a Cajun/Creole meat, rather than bacon as is used in so many other top chef traditional S&G recipes.
Vinny was in essence, re-doing the way the kitchen had been run and turning it into what I would call a destination restaurant of itself. By utilizing his 23-years of culinary experience and innovation, Vinny is intent on using as many Georgia products in his dishes as possible. This is keeping in line with the progressively sustainable programs that the King and Prince Resort has adopted.
Without further ado, here is Vinny D’Agostino’s recipe on the traditional shrimp and grits followed by my attempt to recreate it at home.
King and Prince Shrimp and Grits in a Tasso Cream Sauce
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup Tasso ham
1/4 cup kernel corn
1/4 cup diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped green onion tops
1/2 cup wild Georgia shrimp
1 tablespoon cajun seasoning
1/4 cup Asiago cheese
salt/pepper to taste
In one saucepan, saute the shrimp with cajun seasoning using olive oil. In another pan, saute Tasso ham, corn tomatoes and green onion. Add heavy cream and Asiago cheese; let simmer for two minutes. Add shrimp and serve over stone ground grits of your choice. Serves two.
To Vinny, I say, “Bravissimo!” This had to be one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. Every flavor stood on its own yet blended beautifully with each other. Of course, the end result was due to the skillful preparation by the chef and having farm-fresh ingredients enhanced the outcome.
I decided that Christmas day would be a good time to see if I could even come close to duplicating Vinny’s recipe. Traditionally, Italians serve several varieties of fish on Christmas Eve. I was within 24 hours of it and seafood and fish come from the same place.
Tasso ham was no where to be found here in Central Florida, so I substituted a natural Andouille sausage, cut into the same little squares. Also, I wasn’t keen on consuming 1/2 cup of heavy cream so I substituted half and half instead. I eased up on the cajun seasoning, too, knowing I could add it later if needed. I didn’t use any salt.
My own mis en place.
With everything ready to go and using only one pan instead of the two as recommended, I first prepared the grits. This time instead of using water (which results in very bland grits) I used equal parts of organic chicken broth and 2% milk (1 1/2 cups each) and 3/4 cups of quick cooking grits. I checked at three grocery stores and no one carried stone ground grits. Guess I will stock up the next time I’m in Georgia.
Sauteing the shrimp in the Cajun seasoning and olive oil.
With the cooked shrimp set aside, I sautéed the remaining ingredients for a couple of minutes, starting with the sausage first as did our chef at the resort.
The only downside was that I was unable to procure Wild Georgia Shrimp here in surfer land. I was able to find “Wild” U.S. shrimp although it was not labeled from Georgia.
If you want a truly unique getaway, reserve at least a couple of days to spend at the King and Prince Resort on St. Simons Island. Once you’re there, the resort is conveniently located to everything there is to do on this historic and beautiful island.
Driving from the northeast to a cruise from Florida? Break up the drive and spend time at the resort. St. Simons Island is perfectly located for either a pre or post cruise visit.
For more information:
King and Prince Resort
201 Arnold Road
St. Simons Island, GA 31522
Photo credit: King and Prince Resort (headline photo), Leigh Cort Publicity (Vinny’s photo) and Sherry Laskin