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Eat Like a Local in Italy

Group dining at Al Convento, in the Amalfi Coast village 
of Cetara

Photo: Simon Watson

At the rental-car return in Milan’s Malpensa airport, I take a last pensive sniff of our Fiat Panda. Someone should bottle the scent and call it Aroma Artigianale. The top notes are of roasted hazelnuts—the vaunted Piedmontese nocciole delle Langhe in the crumbly cookies eaten just an hour ago. The base notes: Amalfi lemons we’d picked off trees in Campania. In between is a faded porcine bouquet, mingling the expensive muskiness of three-year-old culatello ham from Emilia-Romagna with the garlicky ping of a porchetta sandwich from a weekend market in Umbria.

Ah, Umbria! Where we drizzled truffled honey on slices of young pecorino at Tartufi Bianconi, a wonderful truffle shop near Città di Castello. “Quit hallucinating!” says Barry, my fidanzato. “Figure out how to get the Robiola cheese through customs!”

We had embarked on a glutton’s grand tour of the boot—armed with a list, amassed with the diligent aid of top Italian chefs and critics, of the country’s best food (and booze) artisans. Our itinerary would take us from Rome to Campania, through a brief porchetta detour to Umbria, farther north through pig-happy Emilia-Romagna, and on to wine-soaked Piedmont. Trattorias and fine-dining temples would figure in. But the main idea was to break bread with pizzaioli, salumai, and pasticcieri, with cheesemakers, oil producers, vintners, and chocolatiers.

A fetish for ingredients in the bel paese has, of course, long been celebrated, but now a new spirit is thriving all over the country. For every mom-and-pop farm there’s a young pomodoro grower with a Ph.D. in botany. Along with village bakers, we met chocolate makers obsessed with rare cacao beans and next-generation pizzaioli schooled in yeast biochemistry. Virtually every producer was a passionate preservationist on a mission to resurrect an heirloom pig—or a grape, or a goat cheese. The Piedmontese raw-milk Robiola di Roccaverano now swaddled deep in my suitcase was one such goat cheese. The road to it led from Rome.

Pizza, Beer, and Gelato in Rome

Off the plane from New York City, we fight jet lag with a gelato-thon at Gelateria dei Gracchi, in Prati. We have 24 hours in the Eternal City to taste our short list, dictated to me by the editors of the popular Gambero Rosso guide to wine and food. Gracchi looks spare—clinical even. But a just-delivered crate of wild strawberries fragrantly reassures us. So does Gracchi’s pistachio gelato, considered Rome’s best. It’s alive with the flavor of fresh-roasted Bronte nuts from the slopes of Mount Etna. The gelatiere, Alberto Manassei, is a Neoclassicist whose fruit flavors follow the seasons and whose chocolate-and-rum frozen sensation draws on pure fondant (not just the usual cocoa powder).

Farther on into Prati, away from the Vatican, celebrity pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci reinvents pizza al taglio—rectangular Roman pizza sold by weight—at the tiny Pizzarium. To dough fanatics, this cramped shop is the Sistine Chapel of yeast. Yeast, as in the wild stuff from 200-year-old sourdough starters that the eccentric Bonci collects from old ladies in Calabrian villages. Subversively fluffy by Roman standards, with an intimation of sourness, his dough is kneaded from a “cuvée” of flours stone-ground by Piedmontese miller Mulino Marino.

We wait for new pizza trays. Out comes spicy coppa sausage with blood orange, then hyper-Roman old-fashioned tomatoey tripe, cleaned over three days. Bonci’s signature pizza con le patate—hand-crushed, dense-fleshed Abruzzo spuds with a hint of vanilla—is a canny trompe l’oeil. Where does the dough end and the topping begin?

Bonci has found a soul mate in Leonardo Di Vincenzo, with whom he co-owns the yeast- centric Bir & Fud, in Trastevere. With a doctorate in biochemistry, the 33-year-old Di Vincenzo could be a poster boy for the new Italian artisan—discoursing on lactobacilli as easily as he rates obscure monastic Belgian brews. Four years ago his small-batch Birra del Borgo ignited Rome’s craft-beer craze. At Bir & Fud, Di Vincenzo’s brews are matched with Bonci’s dough-centric dishes—crostini, bruschetta, round Neapolitan pies.

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