Michelina DiSibio runs one of the tastiest Italian restaurants in the Valley, her namesake Michelina’s Ristorante Costa Campagnia. The Italian-born chef, 63, has been cooking since she was a little girl, and now her gorgeous, intimate, fresh flower-filled restaurant is set to celebrate its 30th anniversary this upcoming November.
Learn more about her restaurant by watching KAET 8‘s Check, Please! Arizona this Thursday, February 26 at 7 p.m. Get to know the Phoenix resident, who is in the kitchen every night the restaurant is open, better here. You can watch a video of DiSibio naming her five favorite reasons for loving living here in the Valley, too.
What brought you to Arizona?
I arrived in the United States in1970 and lived in New Jersey for nine years. I was married and had two children. We came to Arizona in 1979 because we had visited and loved it and wanted to get away from the cold and snow. It’s been great.
I was born in Gesualdo, Italy and came to America when I was 18. My sister was married and living in New Jersey at the time. My dad convinced me to come here because he thought I’d have better opportunities here and didn’t want me to go to school in Italy. I worked in a factory in Newark and learned English within a year.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in cooking?
I was 10 years old. In Italy, whatever grew is what we cooked. Every day, we made many different types of pasta. My mom and grandmother taught me how to make fettucine and cavatelli, and it didn’t take long for me to learn.
When I was 12 years old, my mom left me in charge of the kitchen. I did everything at home: I took care of my baby brother and sister, I took care of the animals, I made cheese, and I went to town to sell it. The fishermen from Napoli used to bring fish into my town twice a week. I wanted to learn to cook fish, but I didn’t know how. So, I started asking questions and started buying fish. My family never cooked fish before, and my mom said, “Do whatever you want for dinner.” I began to prepare various fresh fish dishes. I loved to experiment with new recipes.
How did you become a professional chef?
We moved here in 1979, and a friend of mine had an Italian restaurant.. My boys were young, one in kindergarten and one 3 years old. My friend, whom I knew from back East, said, “Why don’t you come and help me for lunch?” I went over there a few hours a day and started learning everything. Before I knew it, I was working from 9 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, and I loved it.
In the summer, I used to stay home because the kids were off of school. There was an Italian gentleman who was going to open up a restaurant called Pronto, and he approached me about running the restaurant for him. I said yes, and we created the menu together. Then we had to buy everything, including kitchen equipment, produce and supplies, and dining room furnishings. I started working at Pronto and was there for about five years.
After that, I said, “You know what, I want to do this for myself.” I had always cooked at home for many large gatherings – birthdays, holidays, whatever. I was always the chef.
What do you love about Italian cuisine?
I was born and raised in it. I think Italian food is the best. People think Italian food is just pasta and lasagna, but there is such a variety of other items. There’s veal, fish, chicken – you can do so many different things.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
I really like to cook seafood best. Everybody seems to be health-conscious these days, so they order lighter items, such as fresh fish on the grill served with sauteed spinach with garlic. I sell a lot of fresh fish like sea bass, swordfish and salmon.
What’s the key to cooking fish well?
Fish is really very simple to cook. The thing is, you can’t overcook it. If you overcook it, it gets tough and dry and doesn’t taste the same. We strive to cook our fish to perfection, and will only serve the highest quality product.
What is the most popular dish at Michelina’s?
For appetizers, the Oysters Michelina. They taste amazing, and people love them. I never liked oysters, and people used to ask me, “Why don’t you have oysters on the menu?” Finally, I got tired and ordered these oysters and said, “Now what am I going to do with them?”
One night, I had this dream where these oysters tasted so delicious. I woke up and wrote down as much as I could remember. I came to work and prepared them, and it didn’t taste like my dream. I made them many times and had everyone taste them until they were made right. Since then, they’re a hit. Everybody wants them, and they’ve become one of our signature dishes.
I stuff the oysters with spinach, three kinds of cheese and garlic. Then, I prepare them with a cream sauce and baby shrimp with parmesan on top. I cook them on the stove, then finish them off in the oven so they’re nice and a little crispy on top. They’re delicious.
What’s your favorite food to eat?
Pasta. I like it very simple, just a little olive oil, garlic, pepperoncini and a lot of fresh basil. That’s it. That’s the best.
What ingredients do you grow?
I have a garden in my backyard where I grow fresh herbs and a lot of vegetables. Every day, I pick fresh lettuce and parsley for the restaurant. I also grow carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes and escarole. Pretty soon, I’m going to plant basil and peppers. I just pick it and use it for all my recipes.
What tips do you have for maintaining a garden?
You have to work very hard at gardening here in Arizona, because the soil has an abundance of rocks in it. You have to dig deep and remove all these rocks before planting, then add new dirt every year until it becomes manageable. Finally, I don’t have to do anything in my backyard, because it has so much new dirt, it doesn’t need anymore.
The key is to make sure all rock is removed and use lots of water daily, especially in the summer months.
What would you say is the best thing to grow in Arizona?
You can grow anything here — you name it, I have it. I have all the spices: parsley, basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary. When I want some fresh herbs, I just go out back and pick them, and then cook with them.
What’s your favorite ingredient to use?
Garlic. If I cook seafood with tomatoes, or anything with tomatoes, I use garlic.
You can get a head of garlic and wrap it up in aluminum foil, then put it in the oven, or on the grill, or deep-fry it. You can do so many things. When I have a sandwich I put a little oil in a pan and peel the garlic, then put some salt on it, and saute it a little bit. It tastes wonderful!
What kind of experience do you want people to have when they come to Michelina’s?
I want them to sit down and enjoy it like it’s my home, because it is. When the customers leave, and I ask them how dinner was, they say it was wonderful, and they’re so happy. That’s all I need at the end of the night. They’re all satisfied and content. Once you have good food, good wine and good friends, you don’t need anything else.
How would you describe yourself as a leader in the kitchen?
My kitchen has to be clean. Every night, I never leave until everything is cleaned, mopped and put away. I don’t like to come to work to a dirty kitchen.
Then again, I’m very picky about the way things are done. I don’t like putting food on the plate all sloppily. It has to be nicely arranged, because that’s important. The visual aspect and taste go together. I’m very lucky that I have good employees working for me, and they know how I am.
How would you describe your bar?
I have more than 100 wines, many wines from Italy, and a lot from California. We serve an after-dinner drink called Michelina’s Kiss, another house specialty. It’s made with amaretto, crème de menthe and crème de cacao. We have everything – you name it. You want a martini or something on the rocks? We have it.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
They have to love to cook, because if they don’t, they’re not going to be good at it. They have to practice a lot, and as long as they love it, they’ll be fine.
Would you recommend people attend culinary school?
I think it’s a much better experience to learn in the kitchen and start from scratch. Begin as a dishwasher, then a bus boy, then kitchen help. Do everything, but start from the bottom, because you have to know how everything is done. I think it’s much better if you work and practice in a kitchen. Experience in all areas is a must.
What advice do you have for people who want to open their own restaurant?
Don’t do it. People think it’s easy, but it’s a lot of work. You have to know how to do everything. I’m OK because I’m the chef and the owner. I’m here every day, and I know what needs to be done. But, what if the chef doesn’t show up? Then, what do you do? You’re stuck. You need to know everything. You need to know how to cook, how to run the bar, how to interact with the people, how to manage the help. It’s not easy.
Besides your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in the Valley?
Elements at the Sanctuary. I like it because I know the sous chef there. When I dine there, I ask him to prepare me fried oysters. It’s not on the menu, but he makes it for me. That’s what makes customers feel special. If there is an item people want that’s not on my menu, if I have it, I’ll always prepare it for them.
Also, I like Elements because the view is beautiful, and it’s always a great experience every time I go there.
What are your goals?
I’d like to stay in the restaurant business because I’m a people person. I love people, and I love my job. I could cook 24 hours a day and never get tired of it.
Why would you encourage people to come eat here?
I have excellent food, excellent service and excellent wine. It’s a family-owned business. I do the the cooking; Brad, our server, has been here 30 years; my son works here; and my granddaughter works here. It’s all a family, and people appreciate that.
Phoenix has a lot of opportunity. This restaurant is a lot of hard work, but I enjoy it because people leave happy and return year after year. I have customers who have been coming here since day one, and now I’m seeing future generations of those families dining with us. It’s very rewarding, and at the end of the day, I get to do something I truly love.
Learn about other Valley chefs:
Learn more about Green New American Vegetarian and Nami chef and owner Damon Brasch here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Sapporo executive chef Stephen Stromberg here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about J&G Steakhouse Chef de Cuisine Jacques Qualin here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Cafe Monarch executive chef Branden Levine here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about J&G Steakhouse Chef de Cuisine Jacques Qualin here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Il Tocco Food and Culinary Mischief founderGabe Bertaccini here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about iCook uEat founder and private chef Joey Sienicki here on Phoenix People.