When Chef Anthony Strong walked into the empty space of what would become his first restaurant, he pictured the color of the walls. He had a vision on how he wanted his bar to be designed.
Most importantly he knew that he wanted to create a place for people to enjoy delicious dishes and chat, with the food at the center of each table—to be shared and eaten with the hands. Getting dirty and satisfied. Strong wanted to recreate the traditional Italian trattoria atmosphere at Prairie.
“Although a weird version,” he added, during a Sunday morning visit while the staff prepared for dinner service..
There is no stove. Prairie is designed to cook everything on the grill and inside a charcoal burning oven delivered directly from Spain. The restaurant, Italian inspired with a twist of Asian flavors, opened in the Mission in the former space of Hog and Rocks, about two months ago. He is a veteran of eleven years in this neighborhood, coming from the kitchen at Delfina.
There is no garnish, no microgreens; absolutely no flowers on a plate.
“I would rather take chunk of bread, toast it, add a tomato pulp and be done with it,” Strong said.
This is the origin of one of his most famous dishes. Pane distrutto is a noble way to reuse bread from the day before, but also an homage to Friselle from Apulia, Pan Tomate in Spain and the Bialti, the quintessential America.
“There’s something magic on it as you have to eat it fast,” Strong noted. “One moment the bread is crispy, the next moment it’s wet, and you can’t just wait too much as its deliciousness will dissolve.”
Strong wanted to keep the food experience simple, but playing with ingredients was also essential.
“Just because they don’t have mochi in Italy, doesn’t mean we can’t work with it. We are in California, yes, in an Italian restaurant, but we also like to break the rules a little bit.”
His Guanciale wrapped mochi, is one of these fun, delicious experiments. Another experiment in his menu is a classic side of simple grilled peppers that he cooks with a little agrumato and a tiny bit of soy sauce.
“I also wanted that to be red as a bunch of bullet peppers. In Italy you have them, is delicious, direct and simple. Restaurants in the States these days have to turn simple dishes into something complicated which goes very far from where that was generated,” he explained. “ It was very important to me to keep things true to form and pay homage to it. For instance, we do some simple ragout, just straight up, no mess it with it at all. Just a lamb ragout cooked with Vin Santo.”
Strong’s food is made for the joy of the palate, but not necessarily tailored for Instagram.
“You won’t find a pair of tweezers in my kitchen,” he said. “There is something weird happening in the food world. When you are cooking to take pictures instead of cooking for the guests and deliciousness, you are trying to deliver another thing. Don’t get me wrong, I dig into pictures like any other chef. But that isn’t just the way I cook. Most of my dishes don’t Instagram very well. Man, I don’t care.”
Strong has no Italian blood. “I’m a guy who grow up in Iowa, not a huge food culture out there,” he admitted. Saint Paul, however, is close enough to the Mississippi River to get some fun ingredients to cook with in the summer. “Fresh tomato and mushrooms. And Iowa has always been a place to find good quality meat. I think I always had this sort of love for cooking in me.”
At sixteen, Strong was a grade-A student. He found a job in a small restaurant by the river.
“I’m the brunch cook. I love it,” he reminisced. “I start skipping school and suddenly I have a job in three different restaurants.”
Not too shortly after he moved to New York, he would get hired at al Bernardin.
“When I moved to San Francisco there was only one place to eat Italian. It was at Delfina. That experience blew my mind.”
Strong helps Craig and Annie Stoll to open the Roman-inspired restaurant Locanda, and he also worked at the restaurant of Anna Dente, Osteria di San Cesario, a food temple outside of Rome, to study classic recipe more closely.
In 2016 he left the Delfina Group and took a sabbatical year, then started a delivery only food experiment, Young Fava, and organized popup dinner parties. He wanted to open a restaurant and he knew he wanted it to be in the Mission.
“In the recent years I saw many places that have taken the direction of delivering fancy food. I wanted to create something different, and cook my ‘beef stroganoff with pappardelle’ and have customers enjoy the richness and the flavor. When I moved here 11 years ago this was the neighborhood where people want to hang out. It is still like that.”
// 3431 19th St, Mission District, prairiesf.com; photography by Aubrie Pick