Think Thin When Making Carpaccio

The original carpaccio, wisps of raw beef with a bright crimson tone evocative of Carpaccio's paintings, has evolved into slices of fruit and fish presented in every hue. Today's menus invoke the word even when the featured ingredient — be it breasola or beets — has been cooked or cured. "Thin" is the one surviving characteristic from the 1930s, when the first plate was served at Harry's Bar in Venice for an heiress who, legend has it, prescribed to eat only raw meat.

Peter Chastain, chef-owner of Prima Ristorante in Walnut Creek, doesn't blanch at calling his boiled bi-colored beets carpaccio — as long as they're well shaved.

"When you slice something thin, you create a flat surface which is going to lie on top of the tongue and arguably go to parts of the mouth that it otherwise might not," Chastain says. "There's so much more flavor in delivering less."

Think how a sliver of mortadella has a mouthfeel wholly different from a chunk of salami. Like wine in Riedel crystal, a food's shape and size alters perception. And a small portion in a wide format provides maximum tastebud contact with a minimum of palate fatigue.

"It requires a little elegant restraint to really taste something," Chastain says. "Carpaccio has to be flat because it's a palette for this painting you are going to do."

Seafood carpaccio has grown more popular than meat because of its inherent delicacy. It's the ultimate light start to a meal.

"You're hearing 'carpaccio of salmon' every day," Chastain says.

Seafood is a specialty of Massi Boldrini, whose restaurant, Riva Cucina, opens next week in Berkeley (in Italian, Riva is the point where land and water meet). Born, raised and schooled in the culinary arts in Ferrara, Boldrini isn't yoked to the classics. At his first restaurant in Italy, he gathered nearby pine cones and needles to smoke a loin of swordfish. He sliced the fish thin, dressed it with cold-pressed olive oil, lemon and Parmigiano Reggiano — and called it carpaccio.

"You don't compromise the flavor of the beef or the fish," he says about the pure expression of a carpaccio presentation.

Boldrini, who started cooking professionally with his father at 14, says the centuries-old dish Carne All'albese deserves as much credit for carpaccio as Carpaccio does.

"Pretty much everybody thinks (Giuseppe) Cipriani invented it in Harry's Bar," Boldrini says. "But actually, the original carpaccio came from Alba in Piemonte." He says Carne All'albese started with horse meat, thinly sliced and dressed with Dijonmustard, olive oil, lemon juice and shaved white truffles from Alba.

A post-modern version of carpaccio, a "spoof," Chastain calls it, is Caravaggio (named after baroque painter Michelangelo Caravaggio) — pounded beef rolled with celery and truffle oil. It's a dish Prima will prepare for customers with advance notice.

Chastain's profound knowledge of Italian cooking is matched by a deep respect for historical precedent — just witness his take on beef carpaccio.

"The classic thing you see is the (mayonnaise) grid with the capers in between."

Chastain has spiked his mayonnaise with lime, hot chile oil and porcini. The ultimate garnish is still shaved fresh white truffles — another reason why "flat" or "thin-sliced" endures as the hallmark of carpaccio. It allows flavors to mingle.

Take that beet carpaccio. Serve the beets big and the dish is too beety, "too monochromatic." But slice them thin and watch how they cozy up to similar earthy elements from the truffle dressing, the aged pecorino, and, optimally, with a pairing of pinot noir.

Or imagine a dessert Chastain once had of thin, poached apple rings served with a mascarpone panna cotta.

"It was so delicious," he says. "You remember the apple but you didn't eat a whole lot of it."

Kevin Gin, executive chef at Bridges in Danville, served an apple carpaccio at a recent wine-pairing dinner.

"It's like an open palette," Gin says of the crisp base. "You can get away with a lot of things." Gin garnished his with a little Peeky Toe crab and apple-smoked bacon.

As for respecting the carpaccio conceived at Harry's Bar in Venice — well, you could found a philosophy on that idea.

"History is a wonderful thing because studying it tells us where we're from," Chastain says. "But that doesn't mean that is where we have to be or where we're going."

Lots to savor and easy to digest.