The knives have been drawn in kitchens across Italy, and a debate is raging between two factions: the traditionalists, who belong to the cult of the ingredient (the preferred buzzword is materie prime, or primary materials), and the radicals trying to take food in bold new directions by experimenting with culinary technique, borrowing heavily from Spanish innovators, especially El Bulli chef Ferran Adria.
From the moment you enter, it's pretty easy to figure out whose restaurant you're visiting. In a materie prime establishment, there's considerable talk about the clover-and-acacia honey served with the cheese course as well as the flour-grinding secrets of the artisan who made the fresh pappardelle. There's usually a seal of approval from Slow Food (the culinary organization that promotes authentic regional cooking) posted somewhere near the entrance.
An experimental, technique-obsessed chef, on the other hand, might end a meal with a tower of a dessert, a concoction of, say, sugared swirls, chocolate, shallots, and rainbow-colored dust. The plate will defy geometric principles and all previously accepted taste combinations. Dazzle, showmanship, and presentation are paramount virtues here.
Which is not to say that practitioners don't borrow liberally from one another's traditions. These are differences of degree, not kind. Both theories have deep historical roots. Italian gastronomy has evolved since the Middle Ages from two sources: the conservative, bourgeois cooking of the city-states and the profligate, showy banquet cuisine of the kingdoms. Today the chefs receiving the most media attention are likely doing a variation on the themes, or attempting an artful melding of the two. Here's a look at a few of the top practitioners.
Back to Basics
It almost seems silly that materie prime are such a big deal now. Italy's gastronomic cornerstone has always been the use of the freshest, purest, and most authentic local ingredients. Truffles from Alba, lemons from Sorrento, vinegar from Modena—centuries before the nation was unified, Italians possessed a sense of national identity, much of it derived from their regional cuisines.
But alas, recent European Union initiatives have threatened Italy's core regionalisms. In the push to standardize methods of production and regulate the food industry, the loser is the artisan, who can't compete with multinationals. And so chefs, scholars, and concerned foodies rush to preserve what was—before it is lost forever.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, among the biggest proselytizers of the materie prime movement are Italy's best chefs, like the eponymous owner of Gualtiero Marches in Lombardy ( dinner, $270; 11 Via Vittorio Emmanuele, Erbusco; 39-030/776-0562) and Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore, also in Lombardy (dinner, $320; 17 Località Runate, Canneto sull'Oglio, Mantova; 39-0376/723-001). But Gianfranco Vissani is the true godfather. At Vissani, his restaurant outside Todi, in Umbria (dinner, $400; Località Civitella del Lago, Strada Statale 448, Baschi; 39-0744/950-206), the focus is not only on masterful dishes and elegant surroundings but also on the backstage operations. Detractors wish the famously arrogant Vissani would spend less time on TV and more time behind the stove, but no one disputes the talents of his wife, son, and sister, who turn out such plates as lobster in a sauce of tomato and orange peel; mullet quenelles with dried fava and seasoned with bay leaves; ravioli with porcini and blueberries; lasagna chiffonade with onions and black olives; and bass with truffles. It's a bit of a tease to talk specifics, however, because Vissani's menu is always evolving, depending on available ingredients, which he is known to research with obsessive zeal. (He has said that vegetables will be the protagonists of the future.) The fixed menu, based on regional Italian cuisines, changes every six months. Most guests select the menù degustazione, which rotates weekly. No revisiting favorites, no greatest culinary hits, no moss gathering on stones.
"It's almost unbelievable, but twenty-five years ago, restaurants on the Amalfi Coast were serving risotto al Champagne. What's Neapolitan about that?" asks Livia Iaccarino, who, along with her husband, Alfonso, transformed Don Alfonso 1890 ( dinner, $190; 11 Corso Sant'Agata, sui due Golfi; 39-081/878-0026), their third-generation family restaurant and hotel on the Sorrentine peninsula, into one of Italy's best and most celebrated restaurants. (Last spring the couple opened a new, more casual outpost in Rome: Baby, in the Hotel Aldrovandi Palace [dinner, $135; 15 Via Ulisse Aldrovandi; 39-06/321-6126]). The quest for the finest materie prime led the Iaccarinos to take drastic measures; they became their own farmers. Le Peracciole is an impossibly picturesque organic garden situated on a cliff, in the shadow of Capri. Here they grow most of the vegetables they serve as well as the olives, tomatoes, and lemons used to create their own oil, pasta sauces, and limoncello. (The family will gladly take hotel guests on a tour of the farm.) The restaurant's dining room, awash in soft florals and soothing greens, is pretty and feminine, a perfect backdrop for vigorously nuanced and beautifully presented dishes, like the lightly seared rocciola (Mediterranean yellowtail) with tangy Szechuan peppercorns and citrus, accompanied by a purée of peas and ginger. Or the triangle of pasta stuffed with pumpkin, sausage, and greens in a pistachio-Parmesan sauce. A bewitching coffee-flavored zabaglione impressionismo arrives in a baked-cookie cup. Favorite entrees are classified, dated, and labeled either "creations" or "revisitations." (Oh yes, this kind of self-conscious menu is having a moment in Italy right now.) "Tradition is important," says Alfonso. "But you must be able to depart from it." His son Ernesto, who left a promising career at Pricewaterhouse to work alongside his father, agrees: "When we serve a cinghiale [wild boar] just hunted from the forest, our guests can tell they're getting something their grandmother used to make," he says. "And unfortunately, that's something we are losing globally."
Everything in the Sud-Tirol, a region along the Austrian border, is bilingual, including the food, which is a mix of Italian and Germanic influences. Mushrooms abound and the meat is hearty. And a group of young chefs are beginning to earn raves for their deft interpretations of local cuisine. For Herbert Hintner, growing up bicultural gave him and his peers an edge. "We know how to respect certain parameters of taste and presentation," he says. "But we also know how to play." Such an approach is not uncommon at his restaurant Zur Rose (dinner, $150; 2 Via Josef Jinnerhofer, San Michele Appiano; 39-0471/662-249), which dates back to the 1700s and is housed in a medieval building. You'll find ricotta enfolded in pumpernickel dough, served, somewhat startlingly, alongside a calf's head and the shoulder and knuckle of a baby goat. Some noteworthy peers in the area are Karl Baumgartner of Schöneck (dinner, $160; 11 Via Castello Schöneck, Falzes; 39-0474/565-550) and Wolfgang Kerschbaumer of La Passion (dinner, $85; 5B Via Sant'Nicolo, Vandoies di Sopra; 39-0472/868-595).
In With the New
The gauntlet tossed out by the Spanish is being picked up by the Italians. While foams, gelatins, and wacky food pairings may now be as clichéd and ridiculed in Italy as they are everywhere else, proponents of change are cheap and easy targets. The trendy Milanese restaurant Joia (dinner, $125; 18 Via Panfilo Castaldi; 39-02/2952-2124) is Italy's version of a "raw" restaurant, like Pure Food and Wine in New York. Pietro Leeman, who was born in Switzerland, apprenticed with Gaultiero Marchesi at his restaurant in Lombardy and studied in China and Japan as well. He takes a lighthearted, literary approach to his menu. "Renaissance Ravioli" are stuffed with a blend of radicchio, shallots, and chickpeas, and served with poached and roasted pears. "Tuna Fish and Its Shadow" comprises four different preparations of tuna with a "shadow" made from cuttlefish ink. Sure, it's all very flashy. But also very fun.
The real poster boy for culinary experimentation, though, is Moreno Cedroni, chef and owner of La Madonnina del Pescatore (dinner, $185; 11 Lungomare Italia, Marzocca di Senigallia; 39-071/698-267), a sleek seaside restaurant near Ancona on the Adriatic Sea, in Marche, which is being touted as Italy's new hot region. "Materie prime are the starting point for any culinary variations. But experimenting is what makes the everyday entertaining," says Cedroni. He doesn't deny the influence that Ferran Adria, the chef who began the experimentation revolution in Spain, has had on his food. "We Italians are riding in the wake of his movement. Were it not for Ferran, the entire gastronomic world would be twenty years behind." Cedroni's menu creativo begins with the Americano cocktail. Only it's not in liquid form; it's a cool cube of gelatin. The Parmesan gelato topping pays homage to Adria. Next up: la scatoletta, a deconstructed can of tuna served with its lid peeled back, dramatically revealing a salad of turbot, sea bass cheeks, plum tomatoes, and white onions. He intends it as "a surprising game, re-creating a dish commonly served by the Italian mamma." The meal continues with his daring Mediterranean riff on sushi called "Sushi & Susci." Instead of being accompanied by soy and wasabi, the fish is dotted with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and herbs. Save room for the liver truffle served with late-harvest tangerines.
Best of Both Worlds
Most interesting of all is the chef who can synthesize both trends. In 2002, Massimiliano Alajmo, whose restaurant Le Calandre (dinner, $200; 1 Via Liguria, Sarmeola di Rubano; 39-049/630-303) lies on a thoroughly unremarkable stretch of highway five minutes west of Padua, became Michelin's youngest ever three-star chef, at 28. Alajmo's perfectly executed dishes are made with materie prime (his family runs a fine-food store across the street), prepared and served in unexpected and often whimsical ways. A tender shrimp amuse-bouche arrives on a skewer wrapped in deep-fried strands of pasta. He brightens a classic saffron risotto with a dusting of licorice powder. Polenta, a dense Veneto staple, is whipped into atypical lightness and served with veal cheeks and mushrooms. Tortelli are topped with Parmesan, apricot jam, and coffee. His pièce de résistance this year is Chocolate Game 2004, an eight-course dessert served on a custom-blown Venetian-glass tray. One course features sheets of chocolate pressed with fennel and red pepper; the feast ends with, of all things, a pinch of green-tea powder. "I like to present serious subjects with a little irony," he says. "Because when we speak, often the most serious things are said in jest." Alajmo is circumspect about the impact of trends on Italian cooking. "I like the Spanish [influence]," he says. "But I also like a big meal at L'Auberge du Pont de Collognes [Paul Bocuse's famous restaurant near Lyons], cooked the way it was two hundred years ago. Soon there won't be anybody making classic French food anymore, and suddenly it will become trendy again."
BEYOND PASTA 101
Twenty-four-hour cable shows and racks of magazines dedicated to food apparently cannot satisfy the Italian hunger for all things gastronomic. Recently, three new educational institutions have opened in Italy, each dedicated to the culinary arts.
Slow Food, the global consumer movement founded in Italy in the late eighties "to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food," already publishes guidebooks, hosts conferences, and promotes agricultural preservation. Now the organization has helped found a school, UNIVERSITY OF GASTRONOMIC SCIENCES, in Piedmont. This fall, the first class of 60 students will attend such courses as "Sensory Evaluation," "Anthropology of Food," and "Sociology of Consumption." The university offers three- or five-year programs (annual tuition: $19,000) as well as a one-year graduate degree ($21,000). "The long-term goal is to legitimize gastronomy as an academic discipline," says Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food USA. At 9 Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, Pollenzo-Bra; 39-0172/458-511; www.unisg.it/eng.
Last spring, Barilla, Italy's largest manufacturer of pasta, opened ACADEMIA BARILLA in Parma. This is a hands-on cooking school; the two-to-five-day seminar-style courses (on everything from Piedmontese cuisine to how to make jams and marmalades) are geared toward both professional and home chefs. At Barilla Center, 3A Largo Calamandrei; 866-772-2233; www.academiabarilla.com.
Gambero Rosso, the multimedia company that produces the country's preeminent food magazine and guidebooks (of the same name) as well as a cable-TV channel, recently opened CITTA DEL GUSTO ("City of Taste") in a building in Rome. Each floor has a gastronomic theme. On the third floor, there's an osteria and shop, on four, a cooking school and a theater, where Europe's top chefs prepare meals in front of a studio audience of 88, and on five, a wine bar. At 161 Via Enrico Fermi; 39-06/551-121; www.gamberorosso.it.
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