$20 Dinner with Drew Belline

The simple pleasure of rustic Italian with the chef of No. 246

No. 246 executive chef Drew Belline parks his truck and unloads the day's provisions procured from the nearby Your DeKalb Farmers Market. His feet find the path, but his gaze lands at the edge of the front yard where a lonely brick smoker sits, bathed in summer shade. He shrugs off the temptation and heads to the front door, there's work to do — but it's obvious that visions of smoked delights and cold beers have already crossed his mind. Next time.

Inside, Belline's home kitchen is compact, but working in close quarters is nothing new. "The kitchen at 246 is extremely tight, but at least you can be here by yourself," Belline says.

The recipe he has planned — an almost-weekly staple at home — is simple and familiar. But his cooking method is instinctive and precise. Without hesitation, Belline's deft hands begin mise-ing out ingredients for the sake of efficiency. He relieves the hollowed-out bucatini pasta of its packaging, uncorks a bottle of Vinho Verde, and chops a shallot before arranging everything on a large cutting board next to the stove. On his way to retrieve a tall wooden pepper mill, Belline's hand grazes two cartoon lunchboxes hanging from a shelf studded with fancy olive oils. Over his shoulder, he nods toward the owners of the lunchboxes, his two daughters, who smile from family photos on the refrigerator.

Belline is an Atlanta native who grew up on a large piece of land in North Fulton County. "There was nothing there back then. We'd drive through Gwinnett Place Mall and pass an Ingles. We had a big vegetable garden and my mom would always cook," Belline says. "We were out in the country for a long time, so I grew up around it."

Farming is in Belline's blood; his father grew up on a 4,000-acre pig farm in Missouri. "I tried to convince my dad to let me raise a few pigs out on our property, but he wasn't havin' that. He was like, 'Do you have any idea how disgusting pig farms are?' I guess I don't."

Belline turns his attention to slicing a thick slab of bacon. A sauté pan crackles formidably as the raw pig hits the pan and the kitchen instantly smells of smoked wood and cured meat.

Long before No. 246, Belline began his culinary career as a dishwasher, working his way up the ranks to line cook. After graduating from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., Belline high-tailed it to New York City, working under Damon Wise and Marco Canora at Tom Colicchio's Craft. Belline returned to Atlanta in 2004 to work for chefs Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison as a line cook at Bacchanalia. Soon, Belline accepted the position of opening chef de cuisine at Bacchanalia's even fancier downstairs counterpart, Quinones at Bacchanalia, before taking the reins at Bacchanalia's sister restaurant Floataway Café. In 2011, Belline partnered with chef and restaurateur Ford Fry to open No. 246 in Decatur where his simple, ingredient-driven style continues to flourish.

He salts a tall copper pot once, twice, three times, finishing with one final pinch for good measure. "So we're just gonna wait for this water to come up and it should go really quick once we get it boiling," Belline says. And it does. He adds a bowl of clams to a smoking hot pan of garlic, shallot, and bacon. A quick deglaze with white wine quiets the action, but as he prods the clams about, coating each one in hot liquid, the shells ring like a rain stick turned on its head.

Belline adds to the clams: butter, chili flake, and chopped thyme just harvested from his front yard. With a pair of trusty tongs, the "cooked to the tooth" bucatini pasta is not far behind. After one final squeeze of lemon, Belline slides the pasta into a large bowl and nestles the steamed clams precariously among the starchy strands like an artist's final brushstrokes.

"For me, that's how I cook. I get excited when something really awesome comes in and my head just starts clicking with ideas for what I can do with it. And I think that's for a lot of chefs — that's what it's about for most people. It's really about the ingredients that are going into it. I mean, I hope so."

Finished with a few pieces of toasted bread, the resulting dish is nothing more than a few simple ingredients coaxed into complexity with relative ease. It's the kind of meal we'd all like to come home to. There's nothing overwrought or fussy here; just fresh flavors handled with care, the way it should be.

Watch chef Drew Belline prepare this recipe live at Taste of Atlanta 2012. Along with chef Drew Van Leuvan of the forthcoming Seven Lamps restaurant, Belline will appear on the Home Plate Main Stage from 3-3:45 p.m., Sat., Oct. 6, for Taste of Atlanta's live $20 Dinner demonstration, inspired by the popular Creative Loafing column.

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