Food Lover's Guide to Italy
Published: February 2011
By Anya von Bremzen
T+L takes a
tasting tour of five regions in a quest for
the country’s best artisanal foods.
The 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 or a chocolate maker obsessed with a rare cacao bean. Along with village bakers and next-generation pizzaioli schooled in yeast biochemistry, Italy is brimming with passionate preservationists on a mission to resurrect an heirloom pig—or a grape, or a cheese. Here, everything you need to know as you embark on a glutton’s tour of the boot.
Campania: Pasta, Tomato, and Anchovies
An hour past Vesuvius lies 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 summer 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.
Farther down the coast, Cetara is probably the last of the Amalfi villages to fully retain its maritime air, and still drawing its livelihood from the anchovy trade—particularly the 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, all grown at their farm, Le Peracciole, at the southwestern tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula.
The rich, flat plains of Emilia-Romagna are home to 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 in Modena, the affluent ducal town revered by Italian gastronauts. Chef Massimo Bottura, who runs the kitchen at the Michelin two-starred Osteria Francescana, gladly divulges the names of his favorite food artisans. One of them, Giancarlo Rubaldi, presides over Bar Schiavoni, in Modena’s exquisite covered market. The ultimate lunch, he concedes, begins with an artwork of bread, smoked swordfish, and baby tomatoes, with pistachio for crunch. It’s finished with an inspired panino of duck breast with raisins and syrupy balsamic vinegar.
An hour south, in the Apennine mountains, Parmesan wheels bob in brine baths at Caseificio Rosola di Zocca, Bottura’s favorite dairy. Bianca Modenese cows mull around the shed. A cheese maker splits open an 80-pound, 20-year-old wheel for guests, who roll their eyes like a figure in the Bernini sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Master tasters say that a great Parmesan should have a “brothy,” nutmeg-tinged scent. Pure umami.
A meal to remember: dinner at Francescana. 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. It’s not unlikely that Bottura is wolfing down the same dish near his kitchen door.
Tuscany: Salumi and Cheese
A food quest to Italy is not complete without a visit to Paolo Parisi, prince of salumi and cheese. He was one of the early crusaders to save Tuscany’s now-celebrated black Cinta Senese pigs, and is revered by Italy’s snobbiest foodies for his prodotti. A formidable gastro-snob himself, he proclaims that his Fattoria Corzano e Paterno makes Tuscany’s most sought-after cheeses.
Set on a dirt road that winds through the Renaissance cypresses of green Tuscan hills, the Fattoria was developed by the late Swiss architect Wendel Gelpke. His estate (which also produces wonderful 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. There, Antonia Ballarin (half-English, half-Italian) and Sibilla Gelpke (Oxford grad; middle name: Rapunzel) make remarkable erbolino, a young pecorino shot through with chili, parsley, and garlic, and crinkly-skinned and decadently oozy buccia di rospo.
Down a steep hillside, Parisi’s 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. Lucky guests of Azienda Le Macchie, the rustic agriturismo on Parisi’s estate, can end their days with a piatto di carbonara a crudo, its sauce of eggs and raw nuggets of Cinta Senese guanciale cured on a burning brazier.
Rome: Pizza and Pastries
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. Wait for new pizza trays and 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 34-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. Five 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. Inside the new branch, barely a truffle toss from the Campidoglio, jewel-like pastries marry French techniques with local ingredients.
Piedmont: Wine, Goat Cheese, and Gelato
Last destination: Italy’s viticultural mecca, Piedmont. To most this means the Big B’s: Barolo, Barbera, and Barbaresco, but in-the-know grape geeks come to chase the elusive grail of Timorasso. In the vine-patched compact hills of the Colli Tortonesi area, in southern Piedmont, a maverick winemaker named Walter Massa has brought back to life the age-old, indigenous white grape. Vigneti Massa, his farm, presents so humdrum a face you might initially drive right past. But Massa’s wines have earned multiple tre bicchieri, the highest distinction from Gambero Rosso, a popular guide to wine and cheese. Imagine the spicy-floral-mineral charm of a Riesling trapped in a creamy powerful body of a noble white Burgundy. Bellissimo!
Nearby at Malvirà winery, in the Langhe region, Roberto and Massimo Damonte produce delightfully earthy Roero Nebbiolos, which pair perfectly with the pungent mysteries of the Robiola di Roccaverano goat cheese aged by master affineur Gian Domenico Negro of Arbiora. There are other memories not to be missed in Piedmont: the talented young chef at All’Enoteca restaurant, in the small Langhe town of Canale d’Alba, 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!). Near Canale, you can’t skip the local-seasonal smooth gelato spooned from paper cups at Agrigelatera San Pé—“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.
Great Value Hotel Capo la Gala 8 Via Luigi Serio, Vico Equense; 39-081/801-5757; hotelcapolagala.com; doubles from $213.
Hotel Real Fini Via Emilia 441 Via Emilia, Modena; 39-059/205-1511; hotelviaemilia.it; doubles from $277.
Great Value Azienda Le Macchie 1 Via delle Macchie, Usigliano di Lari; 39-058/768-5327; paoloparisi.it; doubles from $107, three-night minimum.
Great Value Villa Vistarenni Località Vistarenni, Gaiole in Chianti; 39-057/773-8476; villavistarenni.com; doubles from $185.
Great ValueHotel Mediterraneo 15 Via Cavour; 39-06/481-4798; romehotelmediterraneo.it; doubles from $213.
Great Value Villa Tiboldi Luxury agriturismo. 127 Case Sparse Tiboldi, Canale; 39-0173/970-388; villatiboldi.it; doubles from $147.
Eat and Drink
Al Convento 16 Piazza San Francesco, Cetara; 39-089/261-039; dinner for two $93.
Don Alfonso 1890 11/13 Corso Sant’Agata, Sant’Agata sui due Golfi; 39-081/878-0026; dinner for two $370.
La Tradizione 969 Via R. Bosco, Vico Equense; 39-081/802-8437.
Bar Schiavoni 13 Via Albinelli, Modena; 39-059/243-073; panini for two $11.
Caseificio Rosola di Zocca 1083 Via Rosola, Zocca; 39-059/987-115; caseificiorosola.it.
Osteria Francescana 22 Via Stella, Modena; 39-059/210-118; dinner for two $250.
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 $5.
Pizzarium 3 Via della Meloria; 39-06/3974-5416; pizza for two $12.
Agrigelateria San Pé 29/A Cascina San Pietro, Poirino; 39-011/945-2651; gelato for two $5.
All’Enoteca 57 Via Roma, Canale d’Alba; 39-0173/95-857; dinner for two $160.
Azienda Agricola Malvirà 144 Via Case Sparse, Canale; 39-0173/978-145.
Vigneti Massa 10 Piazza G. Capsoni, Monleale; 39-013/180-302.
Fattoria Corzano e Paterno 10 Via Paterno, San Pancrazio; 39-055/824-8179; corzanoepaterno.it; tours by appointment.