La nonna forever stirring polenta. Lamb slowly roasting in a wood-burning hearth. Startling simplicity and direct, honest flavors. Sure, we can spend another millennium savoring these age-old clichés. But where's the contemporary Italian food scene?In the land of Versace and Prada, what answers to Californian fusion or Catalan fizz?
Loaded with clues from the top Italian restaurant critics, I went in search of 10 emerging chefs whose pots offer a glimpse into the future of Italy's alta cucina. Did I expect culinary cross-dressing and other postmodern bravado?Not exactly, but the results were, well, unexpected.
Surprise No. 1: Call it the umbilical factor. Ties to land and family are so entrenched, the new restaurant scene remains unapologetically anti-urban. Don't look for innovation in Rome or Turin, or even Milan.
Surprise No. 2: Italy is light-years away from the concept of haute-casual dining. Few kitchens blur the boundaries between high and low. The shiny universe of silver and crystal is still undimmed.
Surprise No. 3: Culinary time is languid here—anything avant-garde has to fight for a generation to be born.
And yet, I felt a fresh breeze wafting through Italian kitchens. And it wasn't scented with curry or Kaffir lime. Having recovered from the nouvelle cuisine disastro, the next generation is creating small revolutions by nurturing and redefining regional tastes. Here, then, are the chefs who are shaping the future by celebrating the past. Luckily in Italy, the silver-haired specter of la nonnastill haunts every stove.
The Insider's Tuscany
From the first bite of the chichi zucchini flower in a designer swirl of pepper purée, you know that Arnolfo is a pampered, gentrified version of Italy. The food is served by a trio of belle with bronzed sculpted limbs, while the Panizzi '98—a Vernaccia from San Gimignano—is as crisp as the maître d's suit. Those in search of a rustic hideaway might object to the overbright room hung with insipid abstractions (it's redeemed by a terrace with a view of the Sienese hills). But Arnolfo is a modern Tuscan restaurant for Italians. Interested?Then book a table, and plan to stay the night (there are four well-groomed rooms).
The olive-eyed chef, Gaetano Trovato, likes to describe his perfectly color-coordinated cuisine as cucina del territorio rivisitata (Italian for "new regionalism"). And he's terribly pleased that young Italians are eating out less but spending more on serious cuisine. He also says "passione" a lot.
Indeed, it takes mega-passione to bake such amazing pizzette and olive rolls, flakier than any mille-feuille. (Trovato baked with Gaston Lenôtre in Paris.) And his fanatical dedication to freshness shows in the fantasia di pesci, a sparkling assortment of seafood in an aromatic fumet.
The three belle reappear like a Greek chorus, bearing word of the kitchen's triumphs: ricotta-stuffed pasta rolls framed by a pesto of tarragon—"an herb beloved by Catherine de Médicis." A veal medallion in a vin santo reduction. A warm wild-berry cake,cooled by a gorgeous white-peach gelato.
All this, and the thrill of discovering a new Tuscan hill town. Colle di Val d'Elsa is an olive's throw from Siena, Volterra, and San Gimignano, yet completely untouristy (and flush from producing some of Europe's best crystal). As I ambled past pristine medieval façades, beauties in Miu Miu mules rushed by—to church, of all places. Italy. Still true to itself.
Liguria's Freshest Catch
"You soak it for several days, shred it by hand, beat in the olive oil, gently... poco a poco." This isn't a Ligurian matriarch expounding on the monumentally laborious treatment of stoccafisso, or air-dried cod. It's Barbara Masieri, soul of the restaurant and wife of the chef. Young and chicly dressed, she knows how to handle her capricious Riviera clients, say red mullet in seven languages, and talk you through every Vermentino and Pigato on her boutique wine list. But she can't stop raving about stoccafisso.
It arrives at the table in a modest mound of San Remo cod and potato purée called brandacujun. The texture (chewy yet fluffy) and taste (earthy, intense) would flutter the heart of any traditionalist. But it's the minuscule strands of candied lemon peel that cunningly renovate this cucina povera staple. The 34-year-old chef, Paolo Masieri, can be that subtle. He can be exuberant, too, intoxicated by the endless fragrances and the frugal poetry of the Ligurian table.
Ringed by tiny fried ravioli with potatoes and anchovies, a blazing red timbale of uncooked tomato tastes so vibrant it virtually throbs in the mouth. Small wormlike gnocchi called troffie—"made with chestnut flour from the Levant," Barbara informs—are veiled in an aromatic layer of pesto. They share the plate with a dreamy emulsion of olive oil and goat's-milk ricotta, and a bouquet of vegetables from the owners' farm. These pastas couldn't be more authentic. Or less predictable.