Osteria Chiara: Culinary Theater

Karin Rothwell and Steve Ferraris are artists. He is a percussionist. She is a potter. Once a month, they work together with friends to produce an entirely different sort of art -- the culinary extravaganza of Osteria Chiara.

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Over the past 6 years, Upper Valley foodies, mostly through word of mouth, have found their way to the Ferraris-Rothwell home on Route 5 in Norwich.  The event begins in the backyard around a stone pizza oven and a bonfire. Steve's fellow musician Kiflu Kidane of the New Nile Orchestra mans the pizza peel--thin crust only. A gaggle of young folks pass the pizza bites among the guests, who sip something cold and dodge the occasional chicken wandering through. 

Inside, Karin's pottery studio has been cleared. Tables are set with her plates and serving pieces, as eclectic as the crowd, who are half veterans, half virgins, of the Chiara experience. Guests are drawn by the chance to partake of a 10-course Italian meal, and are willing--maybe eager--to risk a 4-hour dinner experience with unknown companions. During the evening I was there, I chanced upon old friends, some Dartmouth profs and grad students, a retired couple back from volunteering in Guatemala, and two high schoolers on a date. One year, Governor Lynch of New Hampshire arrived for dinner.

People are seated elbow-to-elbow at 4 or 5 tables.  The feast begins, served by well-trained young people (including Steve and Karin's daughter, Chiara, after whom the restaurant is named) who announce each course. The menu is new each time. This evening began with homemade crackers, a plate of 5 artfully-plated tiny antipasti, fresh pea soup, green salad. A citrus sorbet palate cleanser. Fresh pasta, made with the eggs of the aforementioned chickens, with lamb ragu. Pork ribs. A thoughtfully-arranged cheese course, followed by something chocolate and decadent. Coffee, including, of course, espresso.

While guests are dining, Karin is stage-managing, keeping both the Pellegrino and the conversation flowing. Steve is in constant motion in the tiny front kitchen. A small army of prep cooks and others reside in the back kitchen, about 14 in all.  Steve estimates that the Osteria has one staff person for every two diners. When the guests depart at about 11 p.m., the kitchen flies into action all over again to produce a house meal for everyone working there.

Neither Karin nor Steve are professionally trained chefs. Steve's odyssey began in 1996, with a trip to Umbria to play in an international jazz festival.  While there, he fell in love with not just the food, but with the sense of community in small restaurants who catered to the musicians and their odd hours. Friends would take him for rides into the country to sample small places with homestyle cooking. He witnessed the Sagra de Porcini--a town-wide celebration of the  mushroom that was the region's speciality. Finding that porcini grow in the Upper Valley, he adopted the custom at home. A few more meals with friends who said "you should open a restaurant," and Osteria Chiara was born. 

Are you hungry?  The next Osteria is scheduled for May 21.  For further information, contact Karin and Steve at 4osteriachiara@gmail.com

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