Blowin' in the Wind
words Kathryn Williams
photography Benjamin Clay
Tattoos, among a certain generation of chefs, are de rigueur. Carving knives forming crossbones beneath a toque-clad skull. A butcher’s diagram of a pig. Mise en place. Cook or die.
However, the tattoo on the inner right forearm of Chef Sid Rumma bears mentioning. First of all, it’s beautiful, the kind of tattoo that tempts even the most ink-shy. At first glance geometric, the design is in fact a stylized dandelion, tufts radiating like sparks from a firework, some having escaped to ride the imaginary wind.
Rumma, who lives in Portland and now works in Rockland, originally chose the image as the logo for Soul Research, a music label he founded in 2012. As a kid growing up in and around Rome, Italy, the dandelion was his favorite flower. “I would throw [them] in the wind and run after the little fluff,” he recalls. Given that Rumma has become a professional chef, it’s fitting that sautéed dandelion greens are a classic Italian dish.
These days, Rumma has become like a dandelion, riding the wind to new lands, bearing seeds of something different, something delicious, across the world. The Roman has found himself in Maine, though to say he has “settled” here would be inaccurate. Since moving to the United States in 2015, Rumma has worked in four restaurants in three different towns. “I’m a kid flying from one country to another, one city to another, so [the dandelion] represents my life well,” he says.
It’s a fate it seems he was assigned at birth. Siddhartha Rumma was born in northern India to “hippie” parents (a father from Salerno and a French mother raised in Algeria), though several months later the young family drove their Ford wagon back across the continent to Italy. After his parents divorced, Rumma split his time between the urban piazzas of Rome and the surrounding countryside, where the dandelions grew.
Like many Italian children, Rumma was raised at the table. Both parents were accomplished cooks and his father briefly owned a restaurant, Casa di Margherita, as well as an art gallery. Says Rumma, in charmingly accented English that cements his Italian authenticity, “I spent all my child-life as a food lover.”
His first love, however, was music. As a teen, he hit the rave scene, discovering techno and house music. Soon he was deejaying, eventually founding two independent record labels, Soul Research and 7 Oz. Records, and producing music of his own. (He still deejays occasionally at private events and venues such as Flask Lounge in Portland.) “It started as a passion, and that became a job,” says Rumma. “Same thing with the kitchen.”
For 15 years, Rumma wrote about food as a journalist and blogger, working on nightlife and restaurant guides, hanging out in restaurants and music clubs and meeting local chefs. But something was missing.
“When you write about food, you try to discover something that you don’t really know,” he explains. “It’s like when you write about music if you’re not a musician.” Which was why, in his late 30s, the writer made his way to the back of the house, starting by interning in friends’ restaurants—as he puts it, “growing up [his] passions.”
The wind gusted again. On a 2014 visit to Maine, Rumma and his wife, Chiara, from Philadelphia by way of Florida, were impressed. While Rome, Rumma asserts, is still the most beautiful city in the world, it’s also a difficult place to raise kids. Soon, the entire family drifted westward, and Rumma made the jump to full-time chef, working the line at Harding Lee Smith’s Corner Room in Portland. The gig taught the Italian the rhythm of the American restaurant.
Fifteen months later, Rumma found himself again in a new city, this time Boston, managing fresh pasta production at Mario Batali’s recently opened Eataly. But dandelions are made to take wing, and four and a half months of churning out hundreds of pounds of pasta a day soon had the restless soul craving something simpler.
Back in Portland, David Levi, of Vinland fame, was looking for someone to help him reopen and reimagine his short-lived casual, authentic Italian concept on Deering Avenue and Congress Street. As executive chef of Trattoria Fanny—for the six months the second iteration was open (the closure was a business decision unrelated to Rumma’s tenure, and Levi and Rumma remain on good terms)—Rumma had a “mission” to show Portlanders true Italian homestyle cooking. “I can do strange things and fancy dishes,” he says, “but that’s not what I’m feeling now.” Instead, the focus was on a few “good ingredients combined well.”
For Rumma, this meant carbonara made with rich duck egg and salty, crispy guanciale (cured pork jowl), or handmade tagliatelle al ragu—two exceptional dishes from Trattoria Fanny that will make an appearance on Rumma’s next menu.
That’s right, the dandelion has flown again, this time Downeast, to Ada’s Kitchen in Rockland. Opened in September, the restaurant is a partnership with Richard Rockwell, owner of the newly rechristened EAST building on Main Street, which also features a market, coffee shop and apartments for artists and other creatives. The two-story restaurant will feature pizza, pasta, salads, a raw bar, salumi e formaggi, a lounge area—and potentially live music.
Lucky for us, the wind blows toward Maine.