At the time, Harris already knew quite a bit about the cuisine. He had been the chef at Mezzaluna, a popular, now-closed Italian spot in downtown Austin. That led him to eventually connect with local restaurateur Stan Adams, who wanted to open a restaurant that looked like it was picked up in Tuscany and dropped into Texas.
To prepare for the opening of Siena Ristorante Toscana, Harris took part in a six-month program through the International School of Italian Cuisine for Foreigners.
“I was fortunate to go over there when I wasn’t still arrogant and thought I knew everything,” Harris said. “Basically, what it did, it filled in the gaps in my education and polished everything else.”
The program began with two months of classes followed by a four-month stint working in the kitchen of Il Pino, a restaurant in the small town of San Gimignano within the province of Siena. When Harris walked into that kitchen, the Sweetwater, Texas, native said the smells of “cantaloupes, leather, wood furniture, gun oil and cured meats” reminded him of his grandmother’s house.
Harris brought the techniques and lessons he learned in Tuscany back to Austin, and in March 2000, Siena Ristorante Toscana opened near the intersection of Loop 360 and RM 2222. Now, the kitchen is still baking fresh bread and cooking scratch-made pasta as the restaurant prepares to enter its 20th year in business.
Harris said the biggest lesson he has taken away from Italian food is that simplicity is key. While many Americans assume gourmet Italian dishes are all complex and heavily seasoned, some are lightly garnished with just salt or a little olive oil to let the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. In that way, Harris said, Italian food reminded him of some of the best meals he ate in Texas.
“You really want to use the minimum amount of ingredients to bring out the maximum amount of natural flavor that’s there. Anything else is a mask,” Harris said.