BRANDON — Cinzia Cripe likens Giorgio Ruggeri's culinary capabilities to those of a fine artist who's been given a blank canvas.
"He starts with the colors — the ingredients — and creatively makes it what he wants," said Cripe, an Italian native who is a co-proprietor and culinarian of Tasty Venues Café and Gift Shop in Brandon.
She recently invited Ruggeri — the executive chef of the Ristorante Don Eusebia at the five-star Eremo della Giubiliana Resort in Raguso, Sicily — to host a two-day series of cooking classes as well as two separate opportunities for community foodies to dine alongside Ruggeri while enjoying a five-course Italian dinner he skillfully prepared and presented on site.
"He is a rising star and the reputation of the restaurant he comes from is one of the best in Sicily," said Cripe, while expressing her delight in having the chef grace Tasty Venues' kitchen and dining area.
Ruggeri, 35, was a runner-up in an Italian master chef competition in 2012, a competition that included close to 9,000 contenders. In 2011 he took top honors in a regional challenge presented by the Barilla Academy in Parma, Italy, an international center dedicated to the development and promotion of Italian gastronomic culture.
In addition to his role at the restaurant, Ruggeri teaches at a public culinary school and is currently in collaboration with a local radio station in Sicily to do a cooking show.
When he teaches he explains the distinct difference between being a cook and chef, saying the latter requires the person to have a sound knowledge of chemistry and how well various food ingredients mesh.
"I like mixing the flavors of white chocolate, caviar and a little chili because the combination of the sweetness and roundness of the chocolate and the savory taste of the caviar along with a pinch of chili will leave your mouth feeling completely satisfied," Ruggeri said.
Ruggeri, who was in the company of his soon-to-be wife Barbara Firrincieli, owner of a Japanese restaurant close to his home, also enjoys explaining the origin of the food he prepares.
"I especially like it when the first bite of the food you put in your mouth produces memories of the kitchen where they were cooked when you were a child," he said. "Nowadays we're losing that historical connection we have as a society with food."
During one of his afternoon cooking sessions at Tasty Venues, in which partakers signed up for in advance on the website, Ruggeri prepared vegan ragu, a popular Sicilian street food.
He combined fresh blanched spinach with olives, sautéed eggplant and a béchamel white sauce on a thin bed of saffron rice that he formed into a ball, dipped in flour and breadcrumbs and fried in canola oil to a temperature of 375 degrees.
His three guests — Zana Turner, Marilyn Cose and Kathi Sweeney — followed suit and ultimately indulged in the fruits of their labor.
They also enjoyed Ruggeri's treats of freshly cut pears combined with white cheddar cheese cubes inside a similar mixture of saffron rice; and Pane e Panelle, commonly referred to in English as fried chickpea fritters, to which a dash of black pepper, lemon zest and salt were added.
"It's been a lovely learning experience," said Turner, who, since the café's opening in early June has enjoyed Italian specialties concocted by Cripe.
Sweeney, who also was present at one of the dinners prepared by Ruggeri and has stayed at the hotel in Sicily and eaten inside the restaurant where he works, was thrilled to be in his company at Tasty Venues on both occasions.
"It's amazing to have someone of his quality come here," she said.
In turn, Ruggeri expressed his pleasure in being there.
"This is really a wonderful restaurant. My compliments to Cinzia. She's done a really good job," he said.
Cripe, who plans to invite other highly regarded chefs to display their skills in the kitchen at Tasty Venues, hopes her strong relationship with Ruggeri will continue.
"He's wonderful in that he draws in people from many different cultures and he uses the most modern technologies," she said.
Contact Joyce McKenzie at email@example.com.