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.
Ligurian waters are stingy, but the sea here is saltier, and the seafood more flavorful. Paolo seeks out the smallest, most tender calamaretti(baby squid), sears them, and then rhymes their sweetness with a purée of zucchini and leeks. Pristine raw shrimp garnish his tartare of tuna just off the boat. The restaurant even has a separate menu of raw frutti di mare, a visionary document in a country still suspicious of sushi.
Paolo's vivid Mediterranean flavors somehow clash with his rococo snuffbox of a restaurant—five tables downstairs, four on the second floor. He himself, with his Gen-X goatee, looks like a crew member for one of the Franco-Italian yacht owners cushioned in Marie Antoinette chairs among pastoral murals. Is his stoccafisso too cool for this blue-blazered crowd?
Emilia-Romagna Goes Iconoclastic
Massimo Batturo refuses to join high-profile restaurant groups, chase ratings in guides like L'Espresso or Gambero Rosso, or pine for a Michelin star. And you won't find any flowers or crystal at his dark, atmospheric old osteria in the center of Modena, just a scattering of contemporary art (Batturo is a renowned collector) and mismatched plates that he bought in America. All this probably explains why Batturo's inventive, articulate, technically brilliant cooking has escaped the attention of the conservative Italian food press. In New York or London, he'd be the toast of the town.
More than a decade ago, Alain Ducasse happened upon Batturo's first restaurant, just outside Modena. The celebrity chef was so taken by Batturo's balsamic vinegar menu that he whisked him awayto hisLouis XV in Monte Carlo. For months the young Batturo sautéed and reduced, soaking up the rigor and reverence of a grand Gallic kitchen. ("In France chefs are gods; in Italy, niente," he laments.) Ducasse released him into the wild with a piece of advice: Never copy my style—develop your own.
Batturo has obliged by creating focused minimalist plates at Osteria Francescana that draw on the cream-rich traditions of Emilia-Romagna while trading excess for innovation. His "deconstruction of Parmesan" is an ensemble of three textures, all derived from the king of Italian cheeses: a smoky, satiny mousse; a thin crisp; and a cream sauce that is edible gold. (It doesn't hurt that the parmigiano is a rare specimen from a tiny producer.) Two startlingly different vinegars—syrupy, aged balsamico and light raspberry—are juxtaposed in a dish of pancetta-wrapped pork. One is a sauce for the meat; the other flavors the onion chutney.
Why is the simple-looking langoustine risotto so wildly, improbably intense?Hours of alchemy—reducing, straining, puréeing the crustacean into the rice—raise it to another dimension. Boned baby chicken is cooked in copper over a high flame, then flash-grilled, for meltingly tender meat and shattering skin. Even a standard poached pear is transformed, with a dusting of fresh peppercorns, a ruby glaze of Lambrusco, and lemongrass ice cream.
And yes, Batturo makes divine ur-Modenese tortellini, his grandmother's recipe. Sorry, Alain, she was the one who really taught him to cook.
Industrial Chic in Rural Umbria
Italians design smart shoes, slick furniture, pretty cool cars. But none of these adjectives apply to the look of contemporary Italian restaurants. Unbelievably, the people who created the Ferrari eat in places that evoke a 1982 Buick LeSabre.
That's why Il Postale, in the handsome Umbrian town of Città di Castello, feels like such a discovery. An old gas pump used as a menu stand and a huge poster of the country's first Pullman bus hint at the restaurant's past incarnations—first as a coach station, then as a post-office garage. The industrial space stretches out under a beamed pitched roofwith a trelliswork of overhead wires and lamps; diners sit on racy chrome-and-leather chairs. For a provincial Italian town, this is a restaurant out of the 22nd century.
Setting up shop two years ago in such nonconformist quarters was a gamble for Marco and Barbara Bistarelli—he's in the kitchen, she does the rest. They knew the food had to be better than good. It's better still. ¾uiet intelligence shines through the menu, from the haute-homey truffled ricotta mold with a lentil sauce to the lavender mousse. The pastas are so irresistible you have to restrain yourself from ordering more. Potato gnocchi—the lightest I've ever had—are dabbed with clams and chanterelles, a lovely play of water and woods. A tangle of stringozzi is shot through with the musky taste of Umbrian truffles.
Main courses uphold this standard of carefully orchestrated simplicity: roast squab comes marinated in coriander and cloves and accompanied by raviolo svestito—"undressed raviolo"—an ethereal custard of eggs, ricotta, and greens. Stylish, inviting, molto moderno.Italian restaurant décor should borrow a few adjectives from Bistarelli's cooking.
Alpine Grass and Other Delicacies
In the Piedmont, where cuisine is cult, Flipot is the high temple of cheese and wine. Chef Walter Eynard, who looks as if he stepped out of a medieval Lombard painting, belongs to the Waldenses, an ancient Protestant sect headquartered here at the foot of the Alps in the eerily provincial town of Torre Pellice.
Flipot's subdued dining room—imagine a stone cellar crossed with an orangery—attracts well-born Turinesewho nibble on dainties like terrine of eggplant and basil, or zucchini flowers stuffed with a salmon mousse. Me?Irecommend the vernacular stuff: mountain lamb roasted in hay, a casserole of snails presented in a tiny cast-iron pot. Nothing, however, can top the list of 80 Barolos, or the astonishing ethnographic display of rare mountain cheeses: peppered tomino with the texture of marshmallows and the flavor of goat; sairas bundled in Alpine grasses; sweet ricotta-like giunca. End with a lavender mousse in a divine puddle of warm chocolate sauce, plus some almond biscotti to dip into a flowery-nosed Forteto della Luja. Flipot's guest rooms are unselfconsciously familial and woody, though you can hear the rumble from the road that charges up to the mountains—leading exactly nowhere.
Tuscany as It Was Meant to Be
Reached by a road that snakes through the Maremma's most lyrical hillside, Caino is the restaurant you've always dreamed of finding in Italy. From the intimate rustic-elegant setting to the pedigreed foodstuffs edited into a small, flawless menu—everything here is preciously Tuscan, without the whiff of commercialism that sends the rest of Italy jealously screaming, "Tuscany is ruined!"
Caino is a labor of love for Maurizio and Valeria Menichetti—she's the kind of woman who was probably born with a maternal look. In 1984 the couple took over his family's osteria in the walled village of Montemerano, and slowly confected it into a shrine to regional flavors. Along the way they procured remarkable cheeses and stocked the cellar with vintages from up-and-coming producers. Recently they were overwhelmed by the news of their second Michelin star (a rare bit of insight for the Italian version of the blindly Francophile guide).
Waiting for dinner you can dote on the amuse-gueule, an adorable heart-shaped tomato gelée in a fragrant pool of olive oil; watch Maurizio twirl and decant his Montepulcianos; and devour a crusty ricotta-stuffed bread loaf, all the while trading spa tips with other tables—Saturnia is nearby.
The food comes, and the conversation stops dead. Mind you, it's only trippa e fagioli, but what tripe, what beans. The same instinctive finesse has you gasping with pleasure at the acquacotta,a peasant potage of yesterday's bread, tomatoes, onions, and olive oil, topped with a bright-yolked fried egg. This is osteria fare as imagined by Perugino.
True to its inland location, Caino doesn't bother with fish (except, of course, baccalà). You won't miss it as you listen to Maurizio extol the virtues of their squab, from a small supplier called Greppi—so amazing he and Valeria serve it raw, as a carpaccio—or the aristocratic buttery richness of Chianina beef with flourishes of pricey porcini. If it's on the menu, be sure to try the boar (from Parco di Uccellino, Maremma's vast nature reserve), larded with olives and served with a side of perfect roasted potatoes.
The road out of Montemerano feels twistier at night, all the more reason to book one of Caino's three charming new guest rooms. And in case you thought dinner was a mirage, pack a jar of Valeria's pickled artichokes—though even they taste too good to be real.
Truffles and Cabbages in a Veneto Spa Town
In my hotel room I find a brochure entitled Slim Psychosomatically. "The majority of diets don't work," it announces. Oh really? Luckily, slimming isn't what has brought me to Abano Terme, northern Italy's mud-treatment center, just outside Padua. Weaving past gaggles of northern Europeans fresh from their iodine baths, I head for Casa Vecia, a restaurant that first intrigued me two years ago.
Casa Vecia is run by a quartet of brothers: Nicola and Massimo Agostini graciously attend to the dining room; Stefano and Andrea cook. On my earlier visit I'd eaten in the garden, so the restaurant's sauna-like wood paneling, cottage-cheese walls, and embossed yellow tablecloths had passed me by. (It's all actually quite sweet.) But the cuisine is instantly recognizable—full of little quirks and surprises that quietly subvert alta cucina conceits.
For instance, my main course is an egg—honestly, one perfect poached egg—topped by a julienne of subtly unctuous veal tongue fortified with a truffled Marsala sauce. It's a dinner of champions, and I still remember each bite. In an illicit marriage of flavors, the antipasto brings together barely cooked scampi, cured venison from the Valle d'Aosta, and a crisp cabbage slaw splashed with apple vinegar. This is the Veneto, so more cabbage follows as a base for a warm mousse encircled by an orange-touched onion sauce. Thousand-lira ingredients suddenly taste like a million dollars.
Light semolina gnocchi is the only conventional pasta on the small, well-priced menu. It arrives in an unusual sugo of rabbit liver and truffles, which has the dark, mellow intensity of a Verdi baritone aria. A polite breaded veal loin is shocked out of complacency with a radicchio-and-black-olive sauce that boldly layers bitter on bitter.
The wine is another discovery: La Poja Corvina, a rare Veneto red with a smoked-cherry nose, from Allegrini, known mainly as a producer of big Amarones. And to think that people come to Abano Terme just to smear themselves with mud.
Border Bravado in the Alto Adige
Take a wealthy autonomous region whose peaks and lakes draw discerning European urbanites. Add a vigorous wine culture, a charmingly fused Austro-Italian cuisine, plus an ultra-professional restaurant school. Eccolo: Alto Adige, Italy's new gastronomic mecca.
Among the area's many outstanding restaurants, none is more lauded than Zur Rose, a 10-minute drive from Bolzano, where chef Herbert Hintner heads Italy's energetic association of young restaurateurs. In a vaulted, whitewashed room that recalls a very new church, Hintner woos gourmands of every persuasion with clean, confident, bicultural cooking. Austrians swoon over the Gorgonzola-and-red-wine soup with a plump onion dumpling, and the moist fillet of zander, a type of perch, encased in a golden shred of potatoes. Italians tuck into a warm cuttlefish salad showered with olive oil, and devour every last bit of the chanterelle lasagne in a bright parsley sauce. Desserts are a sweet riff on peasant traditions: chocolate frittata with cappuccino ice cream; a tangy cheese-whey fluff in a ragoûtof raspberries. Bravo, wunderschön!
The Most Amazing Red Sauce in Naples
I wasn't expecting to find stylishly youthful flavors in a neorealist city like Naples, and certainly not amid the British civility of the Grand Hotel Parker's. But a tip from a friend leads me to the hotel's penthouse restaurant, George, with its mesmerizing view of the bay (the reason to go at lunchtime). This is where chef Vincenzo Bacioterracino is breathing new passion into obscure Neapolitan classics.
It's hard to imagine better cucina marinara than the mussel salad punctuated by tiny croutons of brown bread,or the lively light soup of clams and zucchini flowers. The fruity vitality of the tomato purée that surrounds the eggplant and mozzarella timbale restoresone's faith in red sauce. And Bacioterracino resurrects such relics as pizzelle e foglie, thin rounds of fresh pasta in a lovely, light ragù of baby vegetables and zucchini leaves; and rigatoni alla genovese in a sweet, melting sauce of onions ever-so-slightly flavored with beef. This dish, Neapolitans' mockery of the Genovese stinginess, dates to the 17th century. Don't miss the vivacious, light-bodied Campania red called Falerno del Massico; slightly chilled, it's the world's most seductive afternoon drink.
Ravello Reaches for the Stars
I came to the Amalfi coast to check out the young chef at Taverna del Capitano in Nerano but met his co-chef, his mamma, instead. Son's food was meek, mom's traditional spaghetti con zucchini sublimely powerful—a millennial scenario this wasn't. So I searched for another rising star, figuring that young southern chefs trying to flee their parents might escape to a hotel.
Sure enough, I found my talent at Palazzo Sasso, a remodeled 12th-century gem, set on a ridge in Ravello. Most of the 43 rooms are palatial and marble-filled, with a Moorish twang. Thirty-one-year-old Antonio Genovese delivers exactly the kind of ambitious, smartly accessorized southern Italian cooking that you'd expect from a Calabrian who grew up in France and sautéed his way through Europe and Asia—all the while plotting his return to bella Italia. Smoke-tinged nuggets of swordfish are paired with a lemony mound of shaved fennel and a salad of waxy potatoes and minuscule squid. Anchovies, fried between two lemon leaves and arrayed atop a Neapolitan bread salad, never tasted this special. Dessert?A peach mousse presented in the hollowed-out fruit with thyme gelato. No wonder Michelin inspectors have been here seven times recently (not that anyone's counting).
Itinerary 1: San Remo, Turin, Torre Pellice
Day 1: Visit San Remo's Mercato Comunale (near Piazza degli Eroi Sanremesi), and stroll around La Pigna, the medieval center. Dine at Paolo e Barbara (see above). Stay at the old-world Royal Hotel (80 Corso Imperatrice; 39-0184/5391; doubles $233).
Day 2: Drive 30 minutes to the artist's hamlet of Bussana Vecchia; also, stop in the nearby medieval town of Taggia. Then set off for Turin, about two hours north. Have dinner at the Piedmontese relic Tre Galline (37 Via Bellezia; 39-011/436-6553; dinner for two $65). Overnight at the plush Grand Hotel Sitea (35 Via C. Alberto; 39-011/517-0171; doubles $232).
Day 3: Explore Turin and snack on the amazing sandwiches at Bar Zucca (296 Via Roma; 39-011/531-694). Drive an hour to Torre Pellice, in the Piedmontese Alps. Eat dinner and stay at Flipot.
Itinerary 2: Montemerano, Colle di Val d'Elsa, Città di Castello, Modena, Abano Terme, Appiano
For restaurant reservations, it's wise to call at least a week in advance.
Day 1: Spend the day hiking at Parco dell'Uccellino, just south of Grosseto. Drive an hour to Montemerano for dinner and an overnight at Caino.
Day 2: Visit the gorgeous medieval town of Pitigliano. Then follow the S2 north, allowing time for detours to the wine towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino. Have dinner and an overnight at Arnolfo in Colle di Val d'Elsa.
Day 3: Devote the morning to exploring San Gimignano. Drive 11/2 hours to Arezzo to see the Piero della Francesca frescoes at the San Francesco church. Continue on an hour to Città di Castello for dinner at Il Postale. Stay at the nearby Hotel Tiferno (13 Piazza Rafaello Sanzio; 39-075/855-0331; doubles $133).
Day 4: Drive 11/2 hours to Modena. Stroll around the town and raid Giusti (46 Vicolo del Squallore; 059/222-533), a dream food emporium (spectacular selection of balsamic vinegars). Dine at Osteria Francescana, and check into the old-fashioned Canalgrande Hotel (6 Corso Canalgrande; 39-059/217-160; doubles $160).
Day 5: Drive 11/2 hours to Padua. Refuel at the ornate Caffè Pedrocchi (Piazzetta Pedrocchi; 39-049/876-4674). Visit the lovely market on the Piazza della Frutta, and then see the Giotto frescoes at Scrovegni Chapel. Abano Terme, the day's final destination, is 15 miles south. Treat yourself to a massage or mud bath at the spa hotel Grand Hotel Trieste e Victoria (1 Via Pietro d'Abano; 39-049/866-9101; doubles $114), a good place to stay. Have dinner at Casa Vecia (see above).
Day 6: Drive half an hour to Vicenza to tour Palladio's buildings. The Alto Adige, on the Austro-Italian border, is a beautiful two-hour drive north. Head to Appiano, 20 minutes southwest of Bolzano, to the very Austrian pensione Wendelstein (6 Santa Anna; 39-0471/662-122; doubles $106). Don't miss dinner at Zur Rose.
Itinerary 3: Naples, Ravello
Day 1: Check into the Grand Hotel Parker's (185 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Naples; 39-081/761-2474; doubles $220). Spend the morning taking in the Baroque paintings and other treasures at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte (2 Via Miano; 39-081/749-9111). Lunch at the hotel's George, then see the city. End the day with perfect pizza at Da Matteo (94 Via Tribunale; 39-081/455-262; $30 for two).
Day 2: Set out early for a tour of Pompeii, located 15 miles southeast. Lunch at the super-refined Principe (8 Piazza Longo; 39-081/850-5566; $60 for two). Drive an hour southeast to Ravello for an afternoon exploration. Have a late dinner at Rossellinis (see above) in the Palazzo Sasso, a 43-room hotel, then head upstairs for some rest.
Hungry For More?Consider Taking One Of These Culinary Tours Of Italy:
(Note: Rates listed below cover most expenses except airfare.)
Lidia's Italiane Esperienze (800/480-2426 or 212/758-1488) is a series of trips guided by New York's grande dame of northern Italian cooking, Lidia Bastianich. (The tours evolved when, in response to her customer's travel queries, Bastianich signed on with her daughter's touring company.) Forthcoming are Sicily, June 2-9, and Tuscany, May 13-20 and September 17-24; she will also custom-design tours. Her Piedmont itinerary, scheduled for next November, coincides with the white-truffle season. On all trips, days are devoted to visiting wine, cheese, pasta, and olive oil producers; exploring art museums; participating in cooking demonstrations, and, of course, eating in Bastianich's favorite restaurants. The fees range from $3,800 to $4,100 per person, double.
Backroads (800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555) leads six-day walking tours of the Tuscan countryside in May, September, and October. Between treks there are olive oil and vinegar tastings, a winery tour, and cooking lessons at Badia à Coltibuono and the Villa Tuscany. The fee is $3,698 per person, double.
Butterfield & Robinson (800/678-1147 or 416/864-1354) leads six-day gentle hikes through the Veneto, Italy's breadbasket, in May, June, and September. Participants stay at the best hotels and eat at the region's leading restaurants. The fee is $4,225 per person, double.
Italian Connection (800/462-7911 or 780/438-5712; www.italian-connection.com) leads the way through the olive groves and vineyards of Umbria (Orvieto, Todi, Assisi, and Spello), September 6 to 11. Along with daily walks, there are two Umbrian cooking lessons in farmhouse kitchens and the last evening is spent celebrating the town of Cannara's festa della cipolla onion festival. The cost is $2,295 per person, double.
Margaret Cowan (800/557-0370; 604/681-4074), author of Your Guide to 82 Decadent Cooking Holidays in Italy, takes her guests to Emilia Romana for visits to small producers of Parmesan, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, wine, and olive oil. There are also lessons with three different chefs, including a master pasta maker. The six-day tour starts at $2,250 per person, double, and takes place twice a month from March 19 through the end of October.