Chef Oscar Gnapi brings authentic Italian fine dining to Cary
Oscar Gnapi views cooking as a family-focused event, so it’s no surprise he takes the same approach as Colletta Italian Food & Wine’s executive chef. Colletta means “collection” in Italian, and refers to a compilation of lively dining experiences. Through his cooking, Gnapi hopes to bring together families and friends to enjoy an assortment of traditional Italian cuisine experiences that would make any “nonna” proud.
The first restaurant to open in Cary’s Fenton mixed-use development, Colletta Italian Food & Wine garnered instant acclaim with divine entrees and desserts, an exceptional wine and cocktail selection, posh decor and, of course, a standout executive chef.
Originally from Paris, Gnapi honed his craft in some of Europe’s finest restaurants—in cities like Paris and London. He also worked as a chef in Italy and California before landing in North Carolina’s burgeoning foodie scene. Though he attended university in Paris to become an engineer, his passion remained in the kitchen. “My earliest memories are cooking with my mother and sisters,” he says. “It has always been what I love the most.”
The third-oldest of 18 siblings (16 of which are sisters), Gnapi found himself spending much of his childhood in the kitchen. “Food is a big part of life in France,” he recalls. “Meals are a time to connect with family and talk about our day. Even school lunches are top-notch in France,” he says. “We take great pride in our food, from quality ingredients to preparation to the table setting—every step is important.”
From Paris to Cary
After finishing four years of culinary school at the Centre de Formation a Villepinte (CEFAA) in Villepinte, France, followed by an internship in Italy, Gnapi went to work in 4- and 5-star hotel kitchens throughout Europe—like The Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris, Le Méridien Etoile in Paris and Soho House in London. This prepared Gnapi for the fast pace of working at a popular eatery, while also giving him insight into what kind of space he wanted to lead one day.
Being a part of world-famous, bustling kitchens teaches chefs to aim for perfection. “Every dish must be perfect, both in presentation and taste,” Gnapi says. “I was able to learn from the very best chefs in the world, and take away lessons that I still carry with me today.”
After moving to the Triangle in 2007, Gnapi served as executive sous chef at AN: New World Cuisine; then executive chef at La Residence in Chapel Hill and Unscripted Durham.
Gnapi now lives in Fuquay-Varina with his wife and two sons—and he doesn’t leave his title behind when he heads home from Colletta. “Cooking for my family is my favorite thing to do,”
he says. “It is a way to show my love for them.”
Gnapi prioritizes teaching his sons how to cook. He involves them in every step of the cooking process, from preparing the ingredients to cleaning the dishes. “How to cook is one of the most important lessons I can teach my sons, not only to teach the art of cooking, but to spend quality time together in the kitchen,” he says.
Gnapi recently joined the Cary Living staff as a guest on its parent company’s “Talk of the Triangle” podcast. During the episode, titled “Bolognese + Bourbon,” Gnapi said some of his family’s favorite recipes to prepare together are risotto, crepes and chocolate lava cakes. “Risotto takes time, but once you learn how to make it properly, it is one of the best dishes to make at home because you can add so many different ingredients to make it unique each time,” he says.
Welcoming, Yet Refined
Diners can expect an upscale, yet laid-back atmosphere at Colletta. Tucked in the center of Cary’s visually stunning new Fenton development, the restaurant is immaculately designed, featuring a large dining room and elegant outdoor seating. The kitchen is open so diners can see the chefs preparing the food.
Gnapi’s philosophy is to focus on outstanding ingredients with nearly every menu item made from scratch. True to Italian dining traditions, Colletta Italian Food & Wine offers “for the table” options so guests can enjoy a family-style meal. Be sure to try the house-made focaccia and pasta, made-to-order wood-fired pizzas and homemade meatballs. Those entrees alone will ensure that this Cary culinary jewel will surely become one of your family’s favorite gathering spaces.
Yields 20 meatballs
3½ pounds of beef (Gnapi recommends Certified Angus Beef)
3½ pounds of pork
3½ cups of breadcrumbs
2½ cups of whole milk
2 cups of heavy cream
¾ cup of ketchup (or tomato paste)
¼ cup of Worcestershire sauce
½ bunch of parsley
5 rosemary sprigs, chopped
5 oregano sprigs, chopped
4 cups of Parmesan cheese
10 cloves of garlic, finely minced
½ cup of salt
3 tablespoons of black pepper
In a stand mixer bowl, combine the meats. In a medium bowl, mix the remaining ingredients and then add them to the meat mixture. Mix everything together on the lowest speed for no more than 2 minutes.
Make a tester ball (about 2 ounces in size) and cook through in a sauté pan over medium heat. Taste, adjust the mixture’s seasonings as necessary, then mix it for another 2 minutes if needed.
In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Once shimmering, add the meatballs, being careful not to crowd the pan. Sear the bottom of the meatballs for about 2 minutes. Flip and sear the other side until browned, for about two minutes. Lower the heat to medium to finish cooking all the way through, for about 15 minutes.Add the meatballs to your favorite pasta sauce and simmer briefly before serving.