Tastes of Italy

Tastes of Italy

Ericka McConnell
Ericka McConnell
Few people in the world revere—and debate—classic cuisine like the Italians. Anya von Bremzen heads to five regions across the Boot in search of the best, most authentic examples of four beloved dishes: pizza, risotto, pasta, and pesto.

Good food is good food, but savoring iconic dishes at their source—that's an Existential Eating Experience. Which is why I recently set out for five regions of Italy to rediscover the true tastes of pizza, risotto, egg pasta, and pesto. I had been worried. With cibo veloce the latest flavor in Italian dining, and cynical restaurateurs plying tourists with counter-feits, could the classic traditions be vanishing along with the nonne in black?

Well, your nonna might be sporting Max Mara beige these days, but pesto is still greener in Liguria, pasta all'uovo yellower in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, risotto more stirringly memorable in the Po flatlands. And you don't know pizza unless you've fought for a table at a weathered Neapolitan pizzeria. Disputes over perfection, I was thrilled to discover, remain fierce enough to spark sectarian wars; an extra garlic clove in the pan might bring in the carabinieri.

Will this regional rigor survive the next enoteca trend?It's anyone's guess. But for now, get ready for some existential chowing, Italian-style.

PIZZA Naples
Antonio Pace couldn't stop playing with his doily. He folded it in four. "In the old days," he said, "this is how Neapolitans ate their pizza, starting at the point. Because pizza was street food scarfed down on a bench." Then he blew on the doily, to illustrate the convection heat of the pizza oven, an inferno fueled with beechwood or oak and cranked up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pace and I were having dinner at his Naples restaurant, Ciro a Santa Brigida, a bastion of Neapolitan cooking lost in a time warp off the frenetic Via Toledo. He is president of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, founded in 1984 to defend pizza as a Neapolitan icon and to preach respect for the tradition. "Anybody can slop dough in the oven and call it pizza," Pace said gravely. The yeasty focaccia that Italian immigrants in America weigh down with shameful amounts of tomato and cheese?The pies of trendy Roman pizzerias, with their sottile (thin), croccante (crispy) crusts?Not pizza! Not even close!

Pace's Margherita, on the other hand, offered a textbook example of the Neapolitan pizza. Before me was a jagged disk the size of a dinner plate. The light-gold crust, dotted with a few blisters, had just a suggestion of chewiness and crispness. In compliance with the Associazione's scriptures, topping the crust were a discreet smear of hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, three pieces of buffalo mozzarella, rivulets of extra-virgin olive oil, and two basil leaves. Basta. In this most histrionic of cities, Pace's pie seemed the ultimate minimalist statement. Yes, this was the vera pizza napoletana.

Or was it?

"Did Pace give you his spiel about extra-virgin olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes, and buffalo mozzarella?" Francesco Colonnesi inquired with a faint chuckle. Wearing a cream linen suit crinkled just so, Colonnesi introduced himself as a city judge, amateur pizza scholar, and member of the Naples division of Slow Food. "Don't listen to Pace," he implored. Buffalo mozzarella oozes too much fat, and the whole San Marzano thing is, to Colonnesi, a ploy to promote a boutique regional product.

To prove his point, Colonnesi took me to three militantly traditional pizzerias. Our first stop, Da Michele, was a neorealist den presided over by a beefy padrone wearing a chunky gold chain. Here I learned that uniting all Neapolitan pizza camps is a belief that topping should never—never—take precedence over crust. While most establishments indulge the masses with frills, Da Michele offers only the classics: marinara and Margherita. For fancy toppings, the pizza police have one word: contaminazione!

In a scrupulously inelegant upstairs parlor of the city's other venerable pizzeria, Di Matteo, I was ogling a neighbor's pie "contaminated" with arugula and prosciutto. Colonnesi frowned. Over yet another marinara, he explained that before the New World tomato was adopted by Neapolitans in the 18th century, local pizza was white (pizza bianca), garnished with pork cracklings and, later, anchovies. No one is certain exactly when the marriage of tomato and bread was consummated, but sometime in the 1760's, pizza marinara—tomatoes, garlic, oregano, oil—was conceived around the port as a breakfast for mariners returning from the sea. More than a century later, a crafty pizzaiolo named Rafaele Esposito devised a pizza with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella and named it in honor of Queen Margherita. This piece of history is proudly relayed by waiters at Pizzeria Brandi, where Esposito's alleged descendants serve forgettable pies to camera-toting crowds.

Our tour wound down at Sorbillo, in the sinister Spaccanapoli quarter. Like those at Matteo and Michele, my pie at Sorbillo wasn't topped according to Pace's rules: the cheese was fior di latte (made from cow's milk), the tomatoes obviously from a can—and delicious. Like the others, it possessed a perfect equilibrium of smokiness and acidity. Pizza devoured, I chatted with the young owner, Gino Sorbillo, who was wearing a T-shirt that announced OURS IS THE ONLY FAMILY WITH 21 PIZZAIOLI. (Apparently true.) I asked him about the mod pizzerias in ritzy seaside suburbs like Posillipo. He sucked his cheeks in with great force and let out a blistering spit.

My last dinner in Naples was at a Posillipo flat crammed with Giacomettis. The guests laughed at my adventures. Yes, they'd heard of Da Michele and Di Matteo but had never been. No, they don't venture much to Spaccanapoli. One old-masters dealer pulled me onto the terrace, with its glittering view of the bay. He squeezed my arm, pressed his lips to my ear, and whispered: "When I want a truly great pizza I hop on a plane to New York. Aaaah...cheesy! Crispy! Molto condimento!" Ouch. Poor pizza police.

RISOTTO The Veneto
After the opera buffa polemics of pizza, risotto seemed like a laid-back proposition. Dump rice in pot. Add ladlefuls of broth. Stir. And get a creamy, unmistakably northern Italian baby food for grown-ups—with some scampi or trufþes thrown in as a bonus. Simple?Maybe not.

Unlike pizza, which is indelibly tied to Naples, risotto flourishes throughout the flat plains of the northern Po River delta. I could have headed to any of the pockets of Lombardy, the Veneto, or Piedmont where Italian rice production is concentrated. Piedmontese risotto tends to be dense, but in the Veneto they make theirs all'onda—sublimely soupy and runny. That settled it.

My research kicked off in Venice at Fiaschetteria Toscana, which despite its name is as Venetian as Sansovino's ornate façades. Here I feasted on a resolutely Venetian risotto called go e bevarase, laced with sweet morsels of clams and enriched by a broth scented with go, a flavorful lagoon fish. The risotto startled me. While perfectly soupy and loose, it was hardly creamy. The effect was aristocratic, slightly aloof—an endearing, savory rice pudding this wasn't. The secret?Aged organic Carnaroli rice, called Acquerello, from a small Piedmontese producer.

Risotto represents a singularly Italian way with rice. Broth is fed to the grain poco a poco, while stirring teases out starch, creating a sauce. This time-honored method exploits the particular proportion of starches in Italian rice. Each kernel's interior is composed of amylose, a sturdy starch that remains al dente. Meanwhile, its pearlescent shell of amylopectin "melts" into that ethereal environment. The grail of serious risotto chefs is rice with the perfect union of those two starches.

To Mara and Maurizio Martin of Venice's seafood temple Osteria da Fiore, that perfect grain is a Carnaroli from Riso Principe, a riseria near Pavia. As I ate the Martins' risotto I registered that the Principe grains—threaded with slippery bits of scampi and porcini—were springier than the Acquerello. "Venetian risotto is a precise affair. One misstep," said Maurizio, "and it's ruined. It must be cooked in a squat pot for exactly seventeen minutes, and stirred continuously with a wooden spoon."

"Stirring continuously?This will give you mashed potatoes instead of risotto!" exclaimed the city's other risotto maestro, Cesare Benelli of Al Covo. Benelli recovered enough to wax ecstatic about the glories of Venetian risottos. The autumnal version, yellow with pumpkin. The risotto di secoe, unctuous with delectable bits of beef spine. The risotto al nero di seppia con piselli, which plays the marine fragrance of cuttlefish ink against the sweetness of peas. "But don't," he admonished, "don't overstir!"

My palate educated by days of eating nothing but risotto, I drove to Riseria Ferron, a 1650 rice mill among the paddies of Isola della Scala, a rice-growing village near Verona. The Ferron family's organic, underpolished riso ai pestelli is the current "it" rice of the Veneto. Visitors can observe its bran layers being hulled away by mechanized wooden pestles pounding into enormous stone bowls. It's quite a sight.

In his dining room­-cum-­exhibition kitchen overlooking the rice fields, Gabriele Ferron swaggered before a Swedish group, a Japanese couple, and me, demonstrating his iconoclastic risotto technique. He dumped rice in a pot. He added broth all at once. He didn't stir! The rice simmered away undisturbed as Ferron cooked rice-flour pasta and rice-flour polenta. (Someone say monoculture?) Twenty minutes later, presto! A perfectly correct risotto. The Japanese couple gasped, and bowed to no one in particular.

PASTA ALL'UOVO Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna
Dodge Milan; bypass Bologna. For the best of traditional Italian cooking, you must go to the towns of central Italy. Flush, self-content, and largely untouristed, Mantua and Modena were the ideal targets for my pasta quest.

The starch that reigns in Italy's center is fresh pasta all'uovo, incomparably rich dough made from one farm-fresh egg per 100 grams of low-gluten flour—a formula sacred to every Italian matriarch. This is dough rolled into a sfoglia (sheet) so thin you can read a newspaper through it, and then cut into tagliatelle and tagliolini or shaped into a vast array of dumplings: cappelletti and cappellacci, tortelli in Parma and Mantua, tiny tortellini in Bologna and Modena. Despite the seeming ubiquity of egg pasta, its production is becoming a rarefied skill threatened by, among other things, the changing social realities of Italian women, labor costs, and the European Union's food safety regulations. Today it is maintained by grand restaurants but has almost vanished from homes, and increasingly from cheaper trattorias and markets as well.

In search of that exalted pasta experience, I settled into Mantua, the stronghold of the ducal Gonzagas. The rare visitor who lingers here discovers food from a different century, such as the handmade maccheroni with a winey donkey stracotto, or stew, at Due Cavallini, the sweetest of the city's trattorias.

I drove to the nearby hamlet of Goito to dine at Al Bersagliere, which has the sponged-yellow walls and bright lighting of a hundred other haut bourgeois Italian restaurants. You know you're in Mantua when a man who could have stepped out of a Mantegna hands you a plate of tortelli di zucca. The city's signature dumpling (a relic from the Gonzagas' absurdly splendid banquets) consists of dough squares or half-moons with a dense filling of pumpkin, Grana Padano cheese—and crushed amaretti. Al Bersagliere's rendition had the requisite silky dough and a filling like 24-karat gold. Up next were labor-intensive agnolini, delicate pasta flowers shaped around a nubbin of meat that bobbed in crystal-clear capon broth. How could the dough be both so flimsy and so strong? I pondered, over more pasta pockets containing smoked ricotta and beets. Al Bersagliere's trick, it turned out, was mixing softer flour with coarser farina Manitoba for extra resilience. Yes, flour from Canada.

The next day I sped to Modena for lunch at Hosteria Giusti. Here's how the Giusti ritual goes. You book well in advance. When the day arrives, you hurry down a side street off the city's dignified Via Emilia to find the place shuttered. Frantically, you dial a number. The shutters are raised, and you are beckoned into a pocket-sized salumeria. This is Nano Morandi's boutique food emporium, filled with bottles of century-old balsamic vinegars and Emilia-Romagna's choicest Parmesans and prosciuttos. The store part shuts for lunch, but behind it lies the inner sanctum of Emilian gastronomy.

The walls of this hidden chamber glimmer with stemware in solid old cupboards. The four tables are crowded with dignitaries well into their second bottles of Barolo. When Nano offers you a plate of cured meats, savor them carefully: you might never eat such salumi again.

One of the main reasons I'd come here was tortellini, the legendary dumplings, fashioned, they say, after Venus' navel, and filled with veal, prosciutto, mortadella, bread crumbs, and Parmesan. Unlike Al Bersagliere's extra-thin dough (rolled by machine), Giusti's was slightly rugged, and toothsome in that unmistakably handmade way. (For the record, the Modenese despise flimsy Mantuan pasta.) Each mouthful was different from the next. Eating fettuccine strands with porcini sauce, I realized that the best Modenese cooks calibrate the al dente resilience of the pasta and the way it interacts with sauce as carefully as engineers calculate torque and rpm for that locally made conveyance, the Ferrari. Except that a Modenese meal is as slow as a Testarossa is fast.

By the time I'd finished my cotechino (fresh pork sausage) braised in Lambrusco, it was dark, and I'd exceeded my annual cholesterol limit. Still, after a brief siesta, I went to dinner to see what Massimo Bottura, my favorite avant-garde chef, was up to at Osteria Francescana. True to form, Bottura served deconstructed tortelli di zucca—with no dough. "Time to liberate Modena from the tyranny of pasta!" he announced. Was he serious?Hardly.

PESTO Liguria
Visitors flock to Liguria for poetic riviera vistas, Portofino's Tinseltown glamour, and Genoa's raffish, salty allure. I came craving the region's magical amalgam of basil, oil, and cheese.

To eat pesto in Liguria is to know it for the first time. My own baptism took place almost a decade ago, at Balzi Rossi, a rather staid Michelin-starred restaurant on the Italian-French border. From across the room, I caught a whiff of my lasagnette al pesto—its perfume so delicate, and yet completely pervasive. The lasagnette shimmered in a swathe of green, like just-sprouted grass. The dish was oceans away from the pesto most of us know: that discolored paste with enough garlic to stun an army of vampires.

This time I wanted to try pesto in local osterias and trattorias, in part to probe the romantic notion that all Ligurians dutifully make pesto by hand.

"Il mondo va avanti—the world goes forward," Pierina Bruschi told me. "We rode horses and pounded pesto in a mortaio. Now we have cars. Now we have blenders!" Bruschi keeps her blender at Osteria dell'Acquasanta, a sprawling shack high in the hills west of Genoa. My drive there took me past a series of greenhouses, the famous serre that supply the region with fresh basil in winter. A dozen missed turns later, I walked into pandemonium.

Shrieking babies, nonne gossiping furiously, and a posse of brunettes in disco-glam outfits—all were lunching alongside a quartet of chain-smoking nuns. I congratulated myself for having found the most deliciously improbable of Italian Sunday scenes. Then I learned that the kitchen had just run out of pesto.

My consolation prizes were meat ravioli and soft crêpes with porcini and pumpkin. When the crush subsided, Bruschi obligingly whipped up two batches of pesto for me: one blender, one mortar. Which was which?I hadn't a clue.

The next day Pietro Uslengo greeted me with a dignified smile, one befitting the man who heads L'Ordine dei Cavalieri della Confraternita del Pesto, the Pesto Brotherhood, created to guard the honor of pesto against impostors. "Pesto was our daily poetry, something our nonne made every morning," he said. "Suddenly—boom!—a global industry. Like toothpaste." The best basil for pesto, he continued, is the basilico di Pra that I saw around Voltri. Pra basil has small concave leaves and an aroma that is often described as lemony rather than minty (mentolato is a nasty word in Uslengo's vocabulary).

The word pesto comes from pestare, "to crush," a task traditionally performed with an olive-wood pestle in a large marble mortar. (Mortar pesto is preferable, but even Uslengo confessed to using a blender—occasionally.) Small leaves are pounded and smeared into a paste with tiny doses of garlic, sometimes pine nuts or walnuts, local olive oil, and grated cheese, usually a mix of Parmesan and pecorino. Then again, pesto here changes subtly every five miles: sometimes mellowed with ricotta, for instance, or the yogurt-like cheese prescinseua.

Pesto recklessly tossed on salads or grills?Unthinkable. In Liguria it dresses lasagna sheets called fazzoletti di seta ("silk handkerchiefs"); trenette, long strands of pasta tossed with potatoes and string beans; and troffie, delicious worm-shaped gnocchi made with local chestnut flour. For minestrone, the iconic potage of Genoese dockworkers, pesto is made without nuts. The rules are strict.

My search for hand-pounded pesto took me next to La Brinca, a gem of a hilltop trattoria above Lavagna. Its sun-dappled terrace hung over a precipice, and the dining room buzzed with baptism and retirement parties. The set menu was a primer on inland specialties: fritters of borage leaves and acacia þowers, chestnut-flour focaccias, and rustic pasta diamonds veiled in pesto that had the aroma and not-quite-smooth texture of the hand-pounded article. "For the pasta we revived a strain of wheat that was near extinction," the owners informed me. No, they'd never insult such pasta with a metallic-tasting blender pesto.

My final lunch was in Genoa, at Trattoria da Maria, a battered canteen with sauce-splotched checkered tablecloths inside and laundry þapping outdoors. Naturally, the pesto and the minestrone were finiti. I went to plead with the kitchen, which was populated entirely by octogenarians. Signora Maria gave me a toothless smile. Certo, she'd throw a few leaves into a blender for trenette with pesto. The pesto came. No, it wasn't a sonnet. No, not an emerald. It was just food. Not good, not bad, but somehow completely essential.

ANYA VON BREMZEN's book Ladies and Gentlemen...The World's Greatest Dishes will be published by HarperCollins in February.

Ciro a Santa Brigida

Da Michele

Di Matteo

Sorbillo Gino

Fiaschetteria Toscana

Osteria da Fiore

Al Covo

Riseria Ferron

Trattoria Due Cavallini

Al Bersagliere

Hosteria Giusti

Osteria Francescana

Osteria dell'Acquasanta

La Brinca

Trattoria da Maria

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