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.
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.