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.
Emilia-Romagna: Parmigiano and Prosciutto
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.