Gerardo Moceri

Michigander brings a taste of Italy to Payson

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Hearing Cucina Paradiso chef Gerardo Moceri talk about his cooking philosophy brings to mind visions of the jungle not the kitchen.

Not that his kitchen looks anything like a jungle; it's spotless and methodically organized. But his ideas about the circle of life, time and balance are reminiscent of Disney's "The Lion King."

To Moceri, balancing the food production cycle is of highest importance.

"I am not a great chef if only parts of what I do are good," Moceri said. "My dough-making, pastries, butchering, creativity, they all have to be great or else there's no balance."

He learned the first steps of food production agriculture growing up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where everyone in his Italian community tended gardens.

All the while, Moceri was picking up recipes from his mother. He left her at home, however, when he packed up with his family's blessing, and went to Italy fresh out of Catholic high school to be a chef's apprentice.

One of the first skills he learned was butchering. Moceri can do it all: kill a chicken, pluck it, cut it and serve it. He's best at serving it.

"It's all important," he said. "You have to see the whole cooking process."

Part of that process involves top-notch ingredients. Moceri's longstanding involvement with Italian cooking associations allows him to get good deals on the freshest, most authentic cheeses, wines, oils, vegetables and meats.

What he can't find the best of, he makes himself. Cucina Paradiso features homemade mozzarella, dough and deserts.

When anything is made in his and partner John Posteraro's kitchen, Moceri insists it be made with love and focus.

"If you don't love the food, it's not going to be as good for the person eating it," he said.

Moceri has cooked at request for Hillary Clinton, John Travolta, Nicholas Cage and scores of other famous people at hotels around the world, but said his favorite mouths to feed are his children's.

Moceri has a 6-year-old daughter, Natalie Rose, and a 4-year-old son, Gerardo, who discovered the joy of tortelini a few nights ago.

"He loved it," Gerardo said. "I enjoy watching my kids eat good food. I want them to have the best, but not be spoiled 'restaurant kids.'

"I want all kids to come in here and have a real pizza, with fresh dough that's cooked perfectly in a wood-burning oven, and remember that later on as the best pizza they ever ate," he said.

Moceri can cook anything. He mastered the fanciest dishes long ago, but said he still has a lot of growing to do.

"The day I stop being creative as a chef is the day I shouldn't be a chef anymore," he said. "You never know it all. I still read so many cookbooks. I always want to keep learning."

Moceri does Tae Kwon Do regularly and is fascinated by the sport, but wonders how long he will be able to keep up this pace of life.

"How many years can I be really active and cook on the line?" asked the slightly concerned 37-year-old.

"Hopefully I can cook and create dishes for the next 10 years. There's no way I'll be as fast at 50 as a guy in his 20s eager to learn Italian cooking. There's nothing stopping that guy. They're not thinking about families or anything but becoming the best."

Moceri doesn't have too much to prove anymore. He has stacks of newspaper stories highlighting his personality, talents and accomplishments. He has pictures of himself as an up-and-coming apprentice next to the best chefs in Europe, and more pictures of an established Moceri next to diplomats and movie stars.

He doesn't display any of these relics, however. He said he doesn't need to. He's already chosen his favorite personal decor for Cucina Paradiso: plates his mother gave him hang on the wall, and two ceramic roses representing Natalie Rose and Gerardo Jr.

Everything he does is for them, and his wife Maria, he said.

"I put some of my mother's recipes in my first cookbook, but my next cookbook will have my kid's favorite recipes," he said.

"It's the next part of the cycle. I have to keep looking forward."

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