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For the Unhappy Smoker, a Special Dish

Times Staff Writer

Chef Sandro Fioriti, resplendent in a white shirt, orange and red suspenders and green flowered pants, is preparing filet mignon and potato gnocchi. In an effort to please his customers, he is flavoring the dishes with tobacco.

The menu at Serafina Sandro is more than an experiment in new cuisine. It is an attempt to lure smokers who have been barred by law from lighting up in restaurants.

“I don’t say you can substitute for a cigarette or a cigar by eating filet mignon,” said Vittorio Assaf, founder of the busy midtown Manhattan restaurant. “Hey, at least we give you the taste. This is just about whatever we can do to make smokers happy.”

There are a lot of unhappy smokers and restaurateurs in New York City these days.

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The economy, war with Iraq and fears of domestic terrorism are hurting the restaurant business. Some French bistros are suffering backlash because of France’s opposition to the Iraqi conflict.

Proprietors have complained that the latest blow is the tough anti-smoking ban that took effect last weekend. The ban, passed at the behest of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, calls for fines and even closure of restaurants that allow smoking.

“We want to thank Mayor Bloomberg for us coming up with this new idea,” said Fabio P. Granato, co-owner of Serafina Sandro. “We knew that the law was coming. We started to experiment with dishes. It took us two months to come up with the right ingredients.”

Cooking with tobacco was Fioriti’s idea. He went to a tobacco shop and asked for different kinds of blends.

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“I say, ‘Give me five leaves of tobacco. I use it for the food.’ ”

The response from the tobacconist was simple, Fioriti recalled: “You’re crazy.”

At first, the chef -- who makes his own cigars -- added tobacco to the ingredients used to make grappa, a traditional Italian liqueur. When the grappa was ready weeks later, he liked the taste.

Further experiments followed. “I try it with the gnocchi,” Fioriti said. “The first time is no good. The second time is no good. The third time is very good.”

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What happened the third time? He added a touch of cognac to the sauce seasoned with tobacco.

So far, the restaurant’s special menu lists only three tobacco dishes -- each cooked with a different blend.

The Empire English blend used in the gnocchi gives it “a distinct tail of spicy and mushy taste,” the menu promises. The filet mignon seasoned with wine and a Virginia tobacco has “a pleasant subtle aroma, gentle to the tongue,” it proclaims. And the tobacco panna cotta? “A true delicacy with a delightful velvet smooth vanilla flavor.”

Most customers still order from the regular menu. But, adventuresome eaters exist.

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At lunch, Franco De Angelis, executive director of the Italy America Chamber of Commerce, had the panna cotta, prepared with cream and tobacco.

“There is just a hint of the tobacco,” he said, pausing between mouthfuls. “It is fresh, the accent. I would recommend it.”

“When you smoke, you don’t taste the finesse of the tobacco like this,” he added.

Serafina Sandro’s owners said they consulted a physician to make sure people wouldn’t have problems eating food cooked with small amounts of tobacco. They stressed that the amount used is minimal -- less than a gram -- and only natural leaves without chemical additives are selected.

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“It is only used as a spice. It is basically like you use rosemary or sage or parsley,” said Assaf. “It is just an enhancement of the flavor.”

What’s next on the menu?

Fioriti is testing a lobster and shrimp salad with tobacco. The other day, he made and ate a tobacco chocolate souffle.


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