Inspired Healthy Eating
A visit to the Brookline cafe of a favorite former Nantucket chef yields plenty of recipes for food that’s tasty and good for you too!
by: Amanda C. Lydon
photography by: Beatrice PeLtré
It’s hard not to notice the banquette. Shocking pink leather, with a theatrically-curved back and high sides, it anchors the side wall of Rifrullo, Colleen Marnell-Suhanosky’s bright, airy cafe on Cypress Street in Brookline. Stylistically, it’s an echo of the charmingly mismatched second-hand tables and chairs that graced the dining room at Sfoglia, the Nantucket bistro Colleen owned with her former husband Ron Suhanosky for 10 years. But here in a new space, that provocative jolt of pink reads like the signpost of a woman refashioning her own spring forward.
I came to Rifrullo for inspiration, in this tantalizing moment before the end of winter cascades into spring. My own kitchen perfectly expresses the conundrum of this contradictory, transitional season: a replacement roof-rake sits next to our first delivery of seed packets. Warmer temperatures trick us into craving seasonal markers like ramps, pea shoots, morels and soft-shell crabs long before they’re actually available. But winter’s last gasp can actually be an exciting moment to cook and eat.
Full disclosure: I spent a summer prep-cooking and hostessing at Sfoglia in 2005, during a transitional summer of my own. As rollickingly busy as the restaurant was, it had a very maternal sensibility, a non-dogmatic, homey healthiness that anticipated “farm to table,” or Bon Appetit’s 2016 cover word, “Healthyish.” There were always Nantucket vegetables and Moors End Farm lettuces for the generous green salad that never left Sfoglia’s menu. Whole-wheat flour was everywhere and used in unexpected ways, dredging fish fillets before pan-frying, in the shards of saltysweet red wine and fennel crackers that accompanied the cheese plate or in the delicate Italian cookies that ended the meal. Russet potato gnocchi and the yolkladen dough for fresh pappardelle were made by instinct and feel, without a recipe: an eyebrow-raising discovery for this prep cook.
But Sfoglia fell victim to the recession of 2009, and the breakup of the couple’s marriage followed shortly after.
“In a moment, everything secure in my life was gone,” MarnellSuhanosky recalled. “The feeling was like being a child, when your brother comes up behind you and pushes you off a high swing. In the end, I had to find my own strength as Colleen, not Colleen and Ron.”
In the months that followed, a private chef position for longtime Nantucket regulars Amos and Barbara Hostetter provided a welcome change of pace from restaurant life and some valuable time to reassess. “(It was) a dream job,” Colleen said. “it cushioned me.”
She settled with her three children in Brookline, then began in earnest to write an initial business plan and find investors for her solo venture.
Italian for “hangout,” Rifrullo opened its doors in September 2013, on a tree-lined street in a family neighborhood. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and takeout dinners until 8 p.m. The cold case is stocked with Mason jars of Bolognese sauce and caldo verde soup. With its focus on organic, local ingredients and its breadth of gluten-free options, the menu feels entirely modern, though Colleen describes herself as a classicist in the kitchen.
“I’m a little old-fashioned,” she said. “I like the purest form of a thing – I’d always choose an avocado over guacamole. Our customers can taste the simple integrity of this food.”
Indeed, on my first stealth visit to Rifrullo, I ordered the chicken soup with carrots and herb dumplings. It looked and tasted like something my own mother would have made. When I asked about it, Colleen said that soups were the work of her longtime employee Bobby Mendoza, who “cooks like a mama!”
With inspired collaboration in the kitchen, Rifrullo’s spare, thoughtful menu deftly spans the seasons.
Its spelt salad is designed to highlight the chewy whole grains from Four Star Farm in Northfield, Mass., but the garnishes can change weekly to reflect the micro-seasons so challenging to New England cooks, when the end-of-winter larder is down to the hardiest of root vegetables.
A revelatory recent incarnation tossed nutty spelt with batons of roasted Macomber turnip and carrot, warm curry spices, plumped raisins and leaves of baby spinach. The spinach, kale, romaine and mixed lettuces at Rifrullo are the work of another fledgling company, Green Line Growers, which uses shipping containers to raise their crops in nearby Coolidge Corner. Their exquisite young leaves – even their varieties of that winter stronghold kale – are tender and shockingly dark, chlorophyll-rich green, a distillation of winter transitioning to spring.
Salads are a mainstay at Rifrullo, and they use proteins other than meat to satisfy. Marnell-Suhanosky enriches a duck egg and Swiss-chard frittata with a handful of leftover spaghetti before plating a wedge with some lightly-dressed greens and olive-oil-toasted breadcrumbs. It’s the perfect light lunch, good warm or cold, easily transportable for a picnic or even tucked into bread for a sandwich on the patio. Rifrullo’s quinoa taco salad tosses the protein-rich seed with black beans, shredded carrot, lettuces and avocado in a cumin jalapeño vinaigrette, with crumbled cheddar to provide a little richness. It’s a gateway quinoa preparation that even wary kids will enjoy for a picnic or lunch packed for school.
After a season of rich braises and brown stews, early-spring cooking calls out for bursts of acidity and color. A quick giardiniera pickle with the last of winter’s cruciferous vegetables is a flexible, craveable condiment to have in the refrigerator, either to eat out of hand or to brighten a sandwich. Marnell-Suhanosky tucks slivers of crunchy pickled radish and carrot into an olive-oil-rich Italian tuna salad, layered with escarole hearts and hard-cooked egg on her famous, pillowy bread.
Even the sweets offered at Rifrullo hew to the seasonal and cultural moment. A cookie labeled “Omega” looks like a typical oatmeal cookie but turns out to be anything but ordinary. Studded with three kinds of nuts, goji berries and ground oats, it also has a few surprising ingredients: chickpea flour, coconut oil and a hint of turmeric, which gives off a warm, complex aroma as it bakes. It’s minimally sweet, a gluten-free indulgence for adults that’s delicious enough for kids.
QUINOA TACO SALAD
A variation on an Italian wedding cookie replaces some flour with ground flax, and cuts some of the traditional cookie’s sweetness with finely-ground espresso powder. The chocolate quinoa cake is also a revelation. Made entirely in a blender, albeit a professional one, the cake has a tender, almost custardy texture. The chocolate buttercream between the cake’s layers at Rifrullo is delightful but optional. The quinoa cake is delicious entirely as-is.
The shocking pink banquette actually turns out to be an heirloom of sorts, inherited from Colleen’s restaurateur grandparents in Minneapolis. That dual notion of family and rebirth is everywhere at Rifrullo. MarnellSuhanosky is building new traditions, like the monthly community dinners organized around an idea or a conversation. This month, the menu was conceived around “Zero Food Waste.” She’s reveling in contact and conversation with customers, like the 13-year-old boy who comes after school and has sampled the entire menu, or the mothers who feed their toddlers crisp kale chips in between sips of beef barley soup.
Winter isn’t an end, Colleen reminds me, only dormancy, and always behind it comes a rich, often thrilling new season. ///
Amanda Lydon spent summers growing up on the island. She has been a chef for over 15 years, and is the former chef/owner of Provisions on Straight Wharf.