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.
Following Bonci, young Italian bakers have gone crazy for sourdough leavening. Lievito naturale—passed down from the owner’s family—is what raises the buttery cream-filled cornetti at Cristalli di Zucchero to stratospheres above all other breakfast pastries in town. For years sweet-toothed Romans trekked to the owners’ original pasticceria in the outlying Monteverde district. The new branch is barely a truffle toss from the Campidoglio, and inside, jewellike pastries marry French techniques with local ingredients.
Our time’s almost up in Rome. But how can we leave without paying respects to the monumentally chewy pizza bianca at Antico Forno Roscioli, by the Campo de Fiori? “Una droga” is how one customer praises this pizza, its distinctive crust formed when the six-foot oblongs of dough rest under a glazing of olive oil. We chew it on the two-hour train ride to Naples the next day.
Pasta, Tomatoes, and Anchovies in Campania
“Enzo Coccia!” roared Bonci when I asked who’s the greatest pizzaiolo in Naples. And so here we are in the tony Posillipo quarter at Pizzeria La Notizia, where il grande Coccia bakes his featherlight pies. Perfection, so he explains to us, relies on the complicated calibration of a mere trace of yeast, a 10- to 14-hour fermentation at room temperature (no refrigerators in the 1730’s, when pizza was born), and extra-loose dough. Ninety seconds in an 815-degree oak-and beech-fueled inferno, and the pies practically levitate onto the table, attractively blistered and honeycombed with tiny air bubbles—as essential to pizza greatness as marbling is to Kobe beef. The toppings are scant and expressive: bitter greens, smoked buffalo provala, a burst of Vesuvian pomodorini. A pizza bianca with a schmear of lard, basil, and pecorino is Coccia’s tribute to the pre-tomato age.
The next day we hit the road, pressing south past Vesuvius, emerging an hour later at Vico Equense, a picturesque town on the Sorrentine Peninsula that travelers normally bypass for Positano. In so doing they miss the region’s most remarkable food shop. At La Tradizione, product curators Annamaria Cuomo and Salvatore Da Gennaro have assembled a wonderland of Campanian foodstuffs: San Marzano tomatoes handpicked in the Vesuvian soil; ricotta smoked over juniper; and the sack-shaped local raw cow’s-milk cheese provolone del Monaco, which Salvatore ages in caves and grottoes.
The Da Gennaros take us in hand. First, spongy limoncello-soaked baby babas at Gelateria Latteria Gabriele, which Cuomo’s family owns. Then lunch at ’E Curti, an osteria in the shadow of Vesuvius, where super-mamma Angela Ceriello cooks regional soul food and her son Enzo D’Alessandro produces nucillo, a potent walnut digestivo. His is so terroir-driven, the slender bottles specify the exact sites where the nuts were picked. I mention Gragnano (epicenter for centuries of Italy’s dried durum-wheat pasta production). Presto: Salvatore whisks us off to the sunblasted town where pastas were once hung to dry along the main street.
For dinner, the Da Gennaros drive us along a bit of hairpin Amalfi Coast road to Cetara. This is probably the last of the Amalfi villages to fully retain its salty traditional air and livelihood from anchovies—particularly their amber liquid by-product, colatura. Pasquale Torrente, owner of Al Convento restaurant, describes colatura-making with a semi-pagan glee: the fishing under a spring moon, the curing in barrels with chestnuts or lemons. The essence that seeps out of the salted fish is pure distillate of sea—added by expensive dropfuls to pastas such as Al Convento’s al dente Gragnano spaghetti.
Campania’s product and restaurant boom owes thanks to Livia and Alfonso Iaccarino, of the Michelin two-starred Don Alfonso 1890 restaurant, in Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, overlooking the Gulf of Naples. The Iaccarinos—who also consult at the excellent restaurant at Le Sirenuse, in Positano—pioneered the organic kitchen garden in Europe almost three decades ago. They’re producers, too—of ethereal olive oils and limoncello with three times the average of infused citrus. Tumbling into the Mediterranean at the steep far tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula, their farm, Le Peracciole, was scrappy bare land when they bought it in 1990; turning it fertile has been an ongoing obsession. Livia drives us over, negotiating switchbacks with the sea down below. Then we wander on foot past olive trees and artichoke thistles, into a world of Amalfi lemons dangling from trellises. We gape at chalky-gray Capri, rising across from us in the twilight. “Gee, I’d buy here, too,” gulps Barry as Livia picks greens for a salad.
Tuscany: Cheese, Chocolate, Chickens, and Pigs
After five hours battling trucks north from Campania, we rendezvous with Paolo Parisi, prince of eggs and pigs, at a traffic circle off the autostrada near Florence. Revered by Italy’s snobbiest foodies for his prodotti, Parisi was one of the early crusaders to save Tuscany’s now-celebrated black Cinta Senese pigs. A formidable gastro-snob himself—burly and dapper in sunglasses designed by his photographer pal Oliviero Toscani—he proclaims that Fattoria Corzano e Paterno, where we’re headed, makes Tuscany’s most exclusive, sought-after cheeses.
Ten miles south of Florence we chug up a dirt road through the Renaissance cypresses of green Tuscan hills. The Fattoria was developed in 1969 by the late Swiss architect Wendel Gelpke. His estate (which also produces excellent Chiantis and olive oils) is a vision from an Italy-besotted expat’s fantasy; its herd of Sardinian sheep graze on property once in the Machiavelli family. Cheesemaker Antonia Ballarin (Ceres lookalike; half-English half-Italian) and her apprentice Sibilla Gelpke (Oxford grad; middle name Rapunzel) introduce us to their remarkable cheeses. Barry’s wild for the Erbolino, a young Pecorino shot through with green peperoncini and saffron. I’m nuts about the dairy’s signature crinkly-skinned bucio di rospo, decadently oozy but somehow not rich. Parisi votes for the subtle, soft Marzolino. “It’s Tuscany’s mozzarella,” he says. “But only these ladies know how to make it.”
Fantasy over. More autostrada. Another dirt road, finally, near Pisa. We jounce past someone’s palazzo onto farmland surrounding Parisi’s own farm, Azienda Le Macchie. Down a steep hillside, his pedigreed black oinkers munch pine nuts and chestnuts. Each animal gets three blissful years of roaming wild—then is reincarnated as blissful prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto, coppa, salami, lardo, guanciale. As Parisi slices these up in his rusticated high-ceilinged kitchen, my allegiance to Spain’s jamon ibérico wavers with each glistening pinkish curl. “I’m poaching some eggs,” he announces next, recounting how a few years ago, bored just being Signor Cinta Senese, he began a search for the egg equivalent of a great Burgundy wine. The quest led him to feed goat’s milk to Livornese hens. The grateful birds rewarded him with the truly aristocratic eggs we are tasting, with a lean compact yolk and a pronounced almondy taste.
Dessert? A trek into Pisa, to de Bondt chocolate shop by the Arno. Paul de Bondt, congenial, long-haired, and Dutch, was one of the original leaders of Tuscany’s cioccolate artigianale movement, blending exotic fine cacao beans long before the Pisa-Pistoia-Florence triangle became branded as “Tuscan Chocolate Valley.” De Bondt’s perfectly calibrated confections are as sleek and restrained as the geometric packaging by his artist wife, Cecilia Iacobelli. “I wanted to make chocolate attractive to men,” he explains. “Women too,” adds Barry, watching me polish off pralines and truffles flavored with citrus and herbs, with arbutus honey from Alto Adige’s Mieli Thun, and with piquant peperoncini produced by the good brothers of Monasterio Siloe in Grosetto.
Before crashing for the night at the rustic agriturismo on Parisi’s estate, we conclude the day’s endless road trip within a road trip with a piatto di carbonara a crudo under one of his fig trees. Parisi whips the sauce up from his eggs and raw nuggets of Cinta Senese guanciale cured (iconoclastically) on a conveyor belt orbiting a burning brazier. That whiskey-like inflection? “Brava!” Parisi nods. “We extinguish the brazier with peat.”
Peaty pork jowl, almondy eggs, English dairy dames, monastic chile-spiked chocolate—was this the most extraordinary food day of our lives? Or was it the next day, when we talked beef with Dario Cecchini, the learned celebrity-butcher in the town of Panzano, and sniffed out a whole world—licorice, citrus, tobacco—in slow twirlings of fabled Avignonesi vin santo on the winery’s property overlooking the Sienese hills. The meats for our lunch are cooked in a rotisserie of special design. The designer? One Leonardo de Vinci.
Prosciutto and Parmigiano in Emilia-Romagna
After passing through Tuscany’s classic hills we head north into the rich flat plains of Emilia-Romagna, land of rosy prosciuttos and vast circumferences of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Of aged aceto balsamico and pastas crafted from eggy sfoglie (sheets) thin enough to read through (ideally). All this awaits us in Modena, the affluent ducal town revered by Italian gastronauts. Our guide is Massimo Bottura, a chef who marries sensuous Slow Food preservationism with futuristic invention at the Michelin two-starred Osteria Francescana. I can’t wait to visit his favorite food artisans. One of them, Giancarlo Rubaldi, presides over Bar Schiavoni, in Modena’s exquisite covered market. Oblivious to the huge lines, Rubaldi meticulously assembles our lunch. To start, an artwork of bread, smoked swordfish, and baby tomatoes, with pistachio for crunch. Then, an inspired panino of duck breast with pistachio, raisins, and syrupy balsamic vinegar.
An hour later we’re in the Apennine mountains south of Modena, watching Parmesan wheels bob in brine baths at Caseificio Rosola di Zocca, Bottura’s favorite dairy. “Belle, no? ” he says, beaming at the Bianca Modenese cows in the shed. When the cheesemaker ceremonially splits open an 80-pound, 2 1/2-year-old wheel, we all eat rolling our eyes like Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Expert tasters say that a great Parmesan should have a “brothy,” nutmeg-tinged scent. I say—pure umami.
I say “pure elixir” back near Modena, at the museum attached to the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale consortium, in Spilamberto. Ferociously artisanal and endlessly complex, cask-aged balsamico tradizionale is to the supermarket version what a Ferrari (another Modenese export) is to a Hyundai. Except aceto production is as slow as a Testa Rossa is fast. Skill, microclimate, and pazienza…molta pazienza, intones Luca Gozzoli, the consortium’s gran maestro. Later we ponder his words over dense, chocolaty squares of torta barozzi, a singular specialty hinting surprisingly of peanuts, at Pasticceria Gollini, in the nearby town of Vignola.
At dinner that night at Francescana, we savor musky-sweet satiny petals of culatello, the king of prosciutto, aged for 36 months in the foggy lowlands near Parma by Massimo Spigaroli, a salumaio who counts the Prince of Wales among his fans. Then toothsome dime-size tortellini, bathed in the rich, velvety cream from Caseificio Rosola. We exchange eye-rolling with Bottura—he’s wolfing down the same dish near his kitchen door.
Wine, Goat Cheese, and More Gelato in Piedmont
“No more dairy or pork fat—just vino!” Barry yawps as we battle traffic on the autostrada heading northwest. It so happens our next destination is Italy’s viticultural mecca, Piedmont. To most this means Big B’s: Barolo, Barbera, and Barbaresco. Us? We come to chase the elusive grail of Timorasso. Timo-wha?
The answer lies in the vine-patched compact hills of the Colli Tortonesi area in southern Piedmont. Here, a maverick winemaker named Walter Massa has resurrected an ancient, indigenous white grape: Timorasso. Vigneti Massa, his farm, presents so humdrum a face we initially drive right past. Obscure still to many international grape geeks, Massa’s wines have earned multiple tre bicchieri, the highest distinction from Gambero Rosso. He takes us to a trattoria up in the hills and plies us with Colli Tortonesi delicacies: salame nobile made with fancy parts of the hogs elsewhere reserved for prosciutto; Montebore, an intriguing wedding cake–shaped cow- and sheep’s-milk cheese. And then we drink Timorasso. Imagine the spicy-floral-mineral charm of a Riesling trapped in a creamy powerful body of a noble white Burgundy. “Bellissimo! ” Barry exhales.
And suddenly we’re saying sad arrivederci to our aromatic Fiat at Malpensa.
On the plane I ponder the red-wine stains in my notebook. Ah yes…from the dinner given by Roberto and Patrizia Damonte of Malvira winery, in the Langhe region, which produces delightfully earthy Roero Nebbiolos. A little starstruck by the Piedmontese wine royalty—Barbaresco baron Bruno Rocca and Barolo queen Chiara Boschis—I overtwirled some of their austere, elegantly finessed wines.
More Piedmontese memories pulse back. The creamy, pungent mysteries of that Robiola di Roccaverano goat cheese aged by master affineur Gian Domenico Negro of Arbiora. “Don’t forget Davide Palluda’s conserves,” Barry says. How could I? The talented young chef at All’Enoteca restaurant, in the small Langhe town of Canale, not far from Alba, packs duck, rabbit, and guinea fowl into olive oil and waits three long years until they achieve the plush concentration of a confit (crazy-good!).
My last memory reprises our trip’s first taste—gelato. Us among a riot of schoolchildren, spooning local-seasonal smooth frozen stuff from paper cups at Agrigelatera San Pé, near Canale. “Agri” because this countryside gelateria doubles as a dairy farm, wholesome manure smell and all.
The latte for the gelato? Pumped from cows that very morning, of course.
Eat and Drink
Antico Forno Roscioli 34 Via dei Chiavari; 39-06/686-4045.
Bir & Fud 23 Via Benedetta; 39-06/589-4016; dinner for two $64.
Cristalli di Zucchero 88 Via di San Teodoro; 39-06/6992-0945; pastries for two $9.
Gelateria dei Gracchi 272 Via dei Gracchi, 39-06/321-6668; gelato for two $6.
Pizzarium 3 Via della Meloria; 39-06/3974-5416; pizza for two $12.
Eat and Drink
Al Convento 16 Piazza San Francesco, Cetara; 39-089/261-039; dinner for two $85.
Don Alfonso 1890 11/13 Corso Sant’Agata, Sant’Agata sui due Golfi; 39-081/878-0026; dinner for two $370.
’E Curti 6 Via Padre Michele Abete, Sant’ Anastasia; 39-081/897-2821; lunch for two $90.
Gelateria Latteria Gabriele 1 Corso Umberto, Vico Equense; 39-081/879-8744; gelato for two $6.
La Tradizione 969 Via R. Bosco, Vico Equense; 39-081/802-8437.
Pizzeria La Notizia 53/55 Via Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Naples; 39-081/714-2155; pizza for two $15.
Eat and Drink
Antica Macelleria Cecchini 11 R Via XX Luglio, Panzano; 39-055/852-020.
de Bondt 5 Lungarno Pacinotti, Pisa; 39-050/316-0073.
Gelateria di Piazza 4 Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano; 39-057/794-2244; gelato for two $6.
Eat and Drink
Norcineria La Sfiziosa Porchetta at Città di Castello market. 39-075/857-4507.
Eat and Drink
Bar Schiavoni 13 Via Albinelli, Modena; 39-059/243-073; panini for two $11.
La Consorteria e Museo dell’Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena 28 Via Roncati, Spilamberto; 39-059/781-614; museodelbalsamicotradizionale.org.
Mon Café 128 Corso Canalchiaro, Modena; 39-059/ 223-257; coffee and pastries for two $6.50.
Osteria Francescana 22 Via Stella, Modena; 39-059/ 210-118; dinner for two $250.
Pasticceria Gollini 1 Piazza Garibaldi, Vignola; 39-059/771-079.
Eat and Drink
Agrigelateria San Pé 29/A Cascina San Pietro, Poirino; 39-011/945-2651; gelato for two $5.
All’Enoteca 57 Via Roma, Canale; 39-0173/95-857; dinner for two $220.
Vigneti Massa 10 Piazza G. Capsoni, Monleale; 39-013/180-302.
Bring it Back
Francescana chef Massimo Bottura’s Villa Manodori aceto balsamico, from Modena’s covered market. osteriafrancescana.it; $39.