When a Canadian chain with an existing trademark on the name Moxie announced its intentions to enter the Florida market, Chef Tom Gray and his wife and business partner Sarah Marie Johnston took advantage of the opportunity to rebrand and re-conceptualize their popular Town Center restaurant with a modern Italian menu. It also allowed Gray to dig deep into his repertoire and unite two of his favorite flavors from a long and storied career.
In the early nineties, while still earning his stripes as a young cook in New York City, Tom often pulled double duty, coming in early to learn the ropes from the day crews responsible for prepping the restaurant’s staples, sauces, and other preparations. It was here he learned the techniques for both making both soft, pillowy potato gnocchi and braising oxtails in red wine. But it would be decades still before the two would come together on a menu of his own. “At some point we realized, the oxtail and the gnocchi can be the star of the show,” he recalls. And the rest is history.
Chef Tom’s oxtails begin long before the dish is plated, accumulating layers of flavor as he builds the simple yet flavorful braise. After the meat is seared, a traditional mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot cooks down, joined soon by tomato paste and mushroom stems. The meat simmers low and slow in red wine with bay leaf and fresh parsley for over six hours, coaxing out the rich marrow and breaking down the gelatinous cartilage. The kitchen meticulously cleans the meat from the bones as the jus reduces then brings it all back together into a naturally thick, stew-like ragu.
Making the gnocchi is a delicate process. In fact, Chef Tom forgoes the electric mixer entirely, opting instead to make the dough completely by hand. It starts with a giant mountain of baked and riced potatoes, flour, parmesan cheese and a pinch of nutmeg. Whole eggs are folded in ever so gently to avoid toughening the dough. The mountain is broken down into loaves, then blocks which are rolled into nickel-sized logs, cut to size, and finished with a simple pinch. The pasta is immediately simmered until cooked through then left to rest until the ticket is fired and the plated dish comes together at last.
The cold gnocchi is first seared to a golden brown then plumped with chicken stock, adding additional flavor to the simple pasta before it meets the braised meat ragu for the first time. The dish is finished with truffle butter, herbs, and a light dusting of parmesan cheese.
It’s a great addition to any meal at Prati Italia, an experience best undertaken family style to allow for maximum share-ability. Prati Italia’s menu is built for communal eating including such table favorites as Roman taglio-style pizza. With its thicker, chewy crust resembling an airy focaccia, it offers a nice alternative to the cracker-thin crust of the now-ubiquitous Napolitano wood fired pizzas. Throw in an assortment of handmade pastas including the soon-to-be-famous 13-layer crispy lasagna, some extremely flavorful veggie sides and salads, and you’re all set for a modern Italian feast.
This Bold Bites entry originally appeared in Void Magazine’s March 2020 issue.