Melanie Diamond-Manlusoc, three years out of culinary school, has worked at Henri, Blackbird, and Japonais, and since June 1, at Spiaggia. She’s also designed a new dessert menu for Café Spiaggia, which reopens July 16 after renovations. Although that sounds like a quick trip to the top, she told us about her circuitous route there.
How did you wind up in Chicago?
I was an elementary- and middle-school band director and got my first teaching job here, through a company that contracted band directors for schools who couldn’t afford their own. Mondays, [for example,] I started in Western Springs and ended in Des Plaines. I was just driving my ass all over the place. I ran 10 separate band programs at private and parochial schools.
So you’re also a musician?
I got my music degree at Michigan State University and am a classically trained saxophonist.
How did you get into food?
One guy from Faenza, Italy—a fellow saxophonist—organized a trip to Italy. I went with my sax quartet in 2000. All I knew about Italian food was American Italian, which is really southern Italian. I had my first taste of prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano, gelato, and sorbetto. I stayed the two weeks with a host family. I would get up and the host mom and I would take the dog for a walk. We’d go to the neighbor’s house and pick some peaches. [There were] pine trees with little pine nuts, and we would go home and make pesto. Northern Italians are very proud and very particular about the way everything is. You can only roll pasta on a wooden board. It is not allowed to touch anything else. If their dough went through a metal machine, they would die.
How could you bear to leave?
The following year, I was still working on my music degree. I pushed my graduation date back a semester. I called my mom and told her, “I’m working all summer, putting everything into storage, and going to Italy in the fall.” I worked as the night janitor on campus because it paid a little better. And I also sold plasma.
How did your time in Italy influence your band-director life?
I ended up being really good at making gelato [at home in Oak Park]. I made so much that we had to have a gelato-eating party. Then people wanted to buy some. I took gelato orders from my coworkers. I would bring 40 to 50 pints of gelato and sell them all.
Then I started doing pop-up gelato dinners. I did an entire Thanksgiving feast [where] everything was made out of gelato. Turkey, green beans, Brussels sprouts, spiced cranberries. For the green bean casserole, I did different layers: green bean gelato, cremini gelato, salt and pepper gelato. I put the actual French fried onions on top.
I had a really successful career as a band director, but every day at work I was itching to come home and play in the kitchen. Finally I thought, Why don’t I just do this? Two weeks before I had to go back to school, I said to my wife, “What about my going to culinary school?” The next day I met with Cordon Bleu. I filled out the paperwork and I went. A crazy whim.
Are you riffing on tried-and-true Italian desserts at Spiaggia and Café Spiaggia?
I have created all new desserts. We are trying to separate what Spiaggia is and what Café Spiaggia is.
What’s one of your favorites?
Pizzelle panino at Cafe Spiaggia—an ice cream sandwich. It’s two vanilla pizzelle, and sandwiched in between is vanilla-bean gelato, and surrounding the whole perimeter of the sandwich, crunchy almonds, chocolate made with gianduja, toasted almonds, and feuilletine. Half is dipped in a cocoa nib–chocolate glaze. And it’s topped with Maldon sea salt. A pizzella is five inches in diameter, so it’s a significant beast.