May 012017
 

Chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, on a winning streak. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

Back in the day when nouvelle cuisine was firing up the new chefs of Europe, I wrote in the introduction to my first cookbook, published in 1986, that Italy, a country that has complained about the excesses of French cooking since the 16th century, would never succumb to it. Take, as an example, the words of Gerolamo Zanetti, a 16th century Venetian, which are still uttered by modern Italians:

French cooks have ruined Venetian stomachs with so [many] sauces, broths, extracts… in every dish… meat and fish transformed to such a point that there scarcely recognizable by the time they get to the table,” wrote Gerolamo Zanetti, a 16th century Venetian.“Everything masked and mixed with a hundred herbs, spices, sauces.”

But in a land where the inhabitants are descendants of peoples that settled there ages before Italy became a nation, there was another reason, called “campanilismo.” Derived from campanile, bell tower, it’s a word you never forget in Italy, one that symbolizes the very essence of the national character: the ancient attachment to birthplace and customs as proscribed by the sounds carried by the church bells in the regions, towns, cities, and city-states from which in 1860 the country of Italy was somewhat haphazardly formed. And it persists to this day.

I’ve had to eat my words many times since I embarked on that introduction, most recently after descending on Milan for a gastronomical summit arranged in part by the Italian Trade Agency, the Conzorzio of Grana Padano producers, Berlucchi sparkling wines, and other sponsors; in part with Identità Golose (literally, “Identity, Gluttonous”), the elite, Milan-based  fellowship of cooks, chefs, pizzaioli, pastry-makers, food producers, critics, and food experts.

Identità Golose founder Paolo Marchi, left, announces the Chef-of-the-Year, Riccardo Camanini. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

For three days glitterati of the food world gathered in the city famous for, among other things, panettone and its eponymous veal chop, to smash the tired stereotypes of Italian food and further advance the notion of the nuova cucina italiana, an idea that was born at the turn of the millennium on the heels of the French food revolution that never died. “It is to make the world realize that the cucina italiana [of] pizza, pasta, risotto, and smiles, is a folkloristic stereotype that can be erased through excellent products and chefs who… break with the past,” said conference founder, philosopher, and wine critic Paolo Marchi who, along with his disciples, feels that Italy’s cooking has been limited for far too long by tired traditions and provincial tastes.

“We have to overcome [this]… [because] when people speak in absolute terms and truths … they close themselves off… Even what today is tradition is now innovation.”

Tagliolini in the glass case at Peck, Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

What, is the Nuova Cucina Italiana?

Risotto marchesi. Photo: Marchesi alla Scala, Milan

For an answer, we need to step back into the 20th century to Gualtiero Marchesi, iconoclast, pioneer, painter, pianist, and thinker descended from five generations of performers at Teatro alla Scala, and chefs that cooked for kings, queens, and artistic royalty in a city reknowned for opera, food, and fashion. The most famous of Marchesi’s masterpieces, risotto made with edible gold and saffron, which we inhaled at his restaurant inside the city’s La Scala opera house, is a thing of beauty, delicacy, and taste. The chef, who first learned to cook at his family’s Milan hotel restaurant where he was born in situ in 1930, struck out for France in the 1980s in the ferment of nouvelle cuisine, learning from the master chefs of the era’s legendary Michelin-starred restaurants. He returned to Milan with a clear vision for a revolutionary restaurant of his own where he would bring to his food not only artistic refinement, but the application of science.

“Italian cuisine was essentially domestic cooking… too vulgar, too common,” he told the Wall Street Journal in a 2010 interview. He was awarded a Michelin star early in the first year he opened on Bonvesin de la Riva in 1977, and another the following year.  Seven years later, he became the first chef outside of France to earn three Michelin stars, a distinction rarely achieved by any chef in a lifetime, only to return the awards in 1985.

He took Italian cooking to meteoric heights with dishes that stupefied, like “quattro pasta,” four different pastas served up on a mirror in homage to Andy Warhol; or “dripping di Pesce,” a baby squid dish that takes after a Jackson Pollock canvas. At a private dinner I attended in 2007 at Alma, a cooking academy in the peripheries of Parma where he presided as dean, Marchesi presented a dish of pressed edible blossoms that astonished for its beauty and success in preserving the flowers’ natural flavor despite the transformation it underwent.

Chef Carlo Cracco with his sous chefs performing at Identità Golose Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

Chef Paolo LoPriore.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and other boundary-pushing figures, like Carlo Cracco, Paolo LoPriore, and perhaps most familiar to Americans, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, who took three Michelin stars in 2011 and first place in the 2016 World’s 50 Best Restaurants competition with dishes like compressed pasta e fagioli.

At the summit, Paolo LoPriore talked about preserving “the beauty of the past, changing only what has to be changed” while at the same time as he masterfully butchered and filleted a sweet water fish, the focus of his lesson. “The Lenten rules imposed by the Church for meatless meals gave great potential to the cuisine,” he said.

Destructed “taroz.”

Such figures in the Marchesi mould continue to “smash the folkloristic stereotypes” by deconstructing familiar dishes, like the reformed “taroz” we were presented with the day after on a tour of Lombardy’s Valtellina region, the northern side of the Alpine watershed.  At La Présef, a Michelin-star restaurant at La Fiorida Agriturismo there, master Chefs Gianni Tarrabini and Franco Aliberti prepared traditional and reconstructed versions of the recipe, a rib-sticking dumpling of potato, green beans, onion, pancetta, and the local Bitto DOP cow’s milk cheese. If the first was rustic, the new version was a revelation: light and brimming with the flavors of the mountain terroir.

“Travel Around the World With Your Eyes and Ears Open”

So began Bottura, reflecting the convention’s 2017 theme, “The Journey.” If Marchesi conquered France and brought back nouvelle cuisine, his disciples are criss-crossing the globe. While American chefs are leading a charge to grow and advocate for local ingredients and celebrate regional differences on their menus—a movement that was inspired by the ancient food culture of this land–the overarching message of the summit was the cross-fertilization of ideas.

Lamb riblet in the style of “La Milanese” over lemon potato puree at Seta at Mandarino Oriental, Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

“It’s a renaissance we’re going through now, a rebirth from the dead, and cross-contamination of ideas, like Nordic, nouvelle cuisine, Spanish,” said Bottura. “Basta with these risotti!… We’re becoming aware of our own past…. The most important ingredient for cooks of the future is culture.”

Chef Massimo Bottura.

On the restaurant menus, raw fish is the rage, and costolette alla milanese is ancient history. In the cutting edge restaurants you’re more likely to find raw lamb riblets flash-fried with a golden coating than golden, crumb-coated, butter-fried veal chops. Or to encounter high-wire acts like rigatoni over lamb’s lettuce anointed with licorice and grated oil butter; iced sea water puffs with oregano ice cream on the side; or foreign-inspired dishes like suckling pig with guacamole.

To quote Marchi, “Tiramisù has invaded the world and [Italy was] invaded by sushi.”

Rare blue lobster, raw, with savory zabaione, mushrooms and cardoons Gobbo di Nizza Monferrato IGP, at Seta at Mandarino Oriental, Milan. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

What About Your Grandmother’s Pasta e Ceci?

Keeping up with the collapsing of gastronomical borders and explosion of ideas that characterize the new Italian cuisine is nothing if not dizzying. While professionals “learn how to cook clean, concentrated, and organized” in the French restaurant tradition, there is something very different happening on the home front. Women, once the keepers of those arts, are running board meetings and performing surgeries; fewer and fewer are in the kitchen making ragù. And the nonnas padding around the kitchen in their slippers making gnocchi are largely on their way out. The result is a shrinking of critical cooking skills, even an acceptance of convenience foods offered in the supermarkets that increasingly edge out local farmers markets that were once the heart and soul of every town.

Butcher Angelo Dossena with the proper veal chops for true costolette alla milanese for sale at Peck in Milano. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

“La Milanese”

In this city on the cutting edge of everything from art to finance, fashion to lighting, furniture design to cuisine, we soaked up an orgy of ideas and flavors, grateful for the opportunity to rub elbows with the great chefs of Europe. On our last night in Milan, my friends and I headed over to a fine little trattoria a few paces from Gualtieri’s alter at La Scala for our last supper of pizza with a side order of costolette alla milanese. It made me think of chefs at New York’s tony Per Se who’ve told me they hit the good food trucks after they change out of their “whites” and head home after a three-star performance. Sometimes, smiles are good enough.

The Duomo of Milan with its campanile, designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante, and other architects. | Photo: Julia della Croce/Forktales 2017

 

Feb 182017
 

Heralded wine educator Kevin Zraly with the new 40th anniversary edition of his acclaimed wine primer. | Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

I know relatively little about wine. I was once ashamed of saying so in light of forty years as a food writer—but that changed recently when I admitted as much to world-renowned wine educator, Kevin Zraly. “It’s not surprising,” he said, adding that the same is true for most chefs he knows, and vice versa for wine authorities. As he writes in the introduction to his newly re-issued best-selling Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, “Studying wine isn’t merely learning about a beverage but also understanding the history, language, culture, and traditions of the people and countries where each wine is made… [it’s] a complicated subject, one that reinvents itself every year with a new vintage.”

Sangiovese, the signature grape of Tuscany, is the basis for most of the region’s signature wines. | Photo Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

I wouldn’t think of having a meal without it. In Italian fashion, I cook with it and sometimes I even add it to the food (if that line is stolen from somewhere, let me know, but it’s the truth). Yet as a wine drinker and not a wine expert, I still make my choices in a fairly haphazard way based on what I fancy at any particular time, or what I am cooking, or where I am.

Kevin Zraly, master of wine, showman, and renowned teacher with all eyes on him at Mohonk Mountain House. | Photo” Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

The idea of going to wine school has occasionally crossed my mind, particularly when I call up the advice of my first wine mentor, Victor Hazan, when, as a young journalist, I interviewed him and Marcella over lunch about his book, Italian Wine, released thirty-six years ago:

“Wine appreciation is like the appreciation of music or any other art,” he says. “We can turn on music as background and hang pictures on the walls as decoration, letting whatever they have to say slide past our consciousness. Or we can use our ears and eyes to turn to them the undistracted attention of our mind. We can negligently knock back the contents of our glass, or we can try to interest our palate in some of the things that nature, man, and time have put into it.”

Cantine Amastuola in Crispiano, Puglia, an award-winning vineyard tended by the Montanaro family. | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2016

If “negligently knock back the contents of [my] glass” hardly describes my romance with the drink that Galileo described as no less than “sun held together by water,” I confess to reticence in the matter of exploring the collaborative effort of nature, humans, and time in any but the most applied way. Particularly because the more I learn, the greater the journey looms. There have been many technological and scientific developments in viticulture over four decades with farmers going back to traditional practices that avoid soil-punishing modern agricultural methods (hooray!). And Italians, whose wines I am most inclined to drink, tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside its territory. In fact, they plant more grape types than any other country in the world. One million mom and pop growers owning two million acres of vineyards throughout the country’s twenty regions—we’re talking about some two thousands wines now—makes an outsized curriculum. In addition, how to begin to understand the differences between regions and styles? Besides, the trouble with any attempt to delve into the dizzying world of Italian wines with any hope of understanding it is confounded by U.S. import and interstate shipping regulations that makes most of them impossible to get here. What about other wines besides Italian? And just to throw a monkey into the kettle of fish, good Lord, how will global warming affect the vine?

Arriving for Kevin Zraly’s wine class recently at Mohonk Mountain House. | Copyright Nathan Hoyt/2017

Having percolated all of this for some time, I leapt at an invitation to take a wine class focusing on Italian wines with one of America’s most respected wine gurus on a recent frigid weekend at Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Ulster County. If I hadn’t been charmed by one of Mr. Zraly’s lectures before, we might not have driven up north in what amounted to a January blizzard, up the swiftly rising height of a mountain to the sprawling lakeside Victorian castle that crowns a savage 2,000-foot quartz ridge called the Shawangunks that is his retreat. Mr. Zraly is not just a consummate teacher, as the blurbs on the new edition of his best-selling wine book attest (some 5 million sold at last count since its initial publication in 1985), but a wizard at demystifying the complex and often intimidating subject of wines. The castle at the top of this mountain has been, for him, a “sacred space” since the legendary Windows on the World restaurant and home to the eponymous wine school he founded there forty years ago disappeared on September 11, 2001 along with 80 employees and construction workers who died in the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center that day. Mr. Zraly had taken the day off to celebrate his son’s tenth birthday.

The lesson plan. | Photo: Copyright Nathan Hoyt/2016

On this afternoon at the Mohonk Mountain House, he was the master showman of Zraly fame and he spoke vividly about wine, sprinkling his authority with wit and wisdom (such as, “Never drink Chianti again; you deserve more—drink Chianti Classico”). We dipped into eight Italian vintages from three regions that produce some of the most appealing wines. They were picked from among those that are widely available, even if the selection inevitably glossed over glorious bottlings from vineyards that we can only find by transporting ourselves to the geographical boot, getting off the tourist track, and exploring what Mr. Zraly refers to as the “vast vineyard” that is Italy for ourselves. There are always more mediocre wines than good ones in the wine trade, but the man who turned the most spectacular restaurant in the world into an “international wine mecca,” in the words of Alex Witchel of The New York Times, curates them for us in the book that has become his life work.

Kevin Zraly signing copies of the new edition of his book, Windows on the World Wine Course. | Copyright Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 2017

As for the many questions I have, I’m curling up with Kevin Zraly’s book for answers. It speaks with clarity, it’s lively, and it’s full of wit besides. Any book about wine should be nearly as much fun to read, as the subject is to drink.

From my notebook at my first official wine class:

  • Americans are now the largest consumers of wine in the world.
  • Vatican City is the number one place in the world for per capita wine consumption.
  • Washington D.C. is one of the greatest food and wine cities in the world. (Well, it would be nice to know that our tax dollars were supporting winemakers as much as defense contractors.)
  • You’ll get the true taste of a bottle of wine in the first 45-60 seconds in the glass (all that “breathing” is a myth).
  • 2015 was one of the best vintages around the world.
  • The best value of the top ten wines in the world is Brunello di Montalcino.
  • Pinot Grigio is the best white wine for the price.
  • Prosecco is the hottest thing in the U.S. right now, with sales increasing from 50%-70% yearly.
  • Don’t buy Amarone in a restaurant. It needs to age, and vintages ready to drink are unaffordable to us 99%-ers: Buy it retail and put it in storage for ten years.

Find out more about Kevin Zraly and his wine school on his website. The new edition of his book, revised with all the bells and whistles millennials expect from sidebars with wine stats to maps to videos attached.

If you have never bought a wine book before, start with this one. If you have a roomful of wine books, get this one anyway…. It makes wine fun, it makes wine exciting, and it carries its erudition lightly, just like this author…. One of the best start-from-scratch wine books every written. —The New York Times

Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, revised and expanded 2017 edition.

Feb 152017
 
Venice by Boat Culinary Tour: New 2017 & 2018 Dates

“I want people to see the lagoon as I see it. So many people come to Venice and never really understand what is out here.” —Mauro Stoppa, host of the Eolo As recommended by The New York Times, Saveur, Elle, The Herald Tribune, Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, The Guardian, Tatler, The Daily Meal, Marie Claire, Gente Viaggi, Meridiani, Yacht Digest, Gala, Côté Sud, and other prominent publications. Join our remarkable culinary tour of the city built on water and its lagoon islands. Our May 2017 tour is fully booked, but we are now offering these new dates: 2017 September 16-22 2018 June […more…]

Jan 282017
 
Venice Culinary Tour, May 15-21: Itinerary

Last Call! On May 15, 2017, our vessel, the Eolo, will shove off for a singular culinary and cultural tour of Venice and its lesser known islands. She is one of the few remaining purpose-built, flat-bottom boats left that were designed during the time of the doges to navigate this fabled city of 100 islands and 150 canals. Here is our itinerary, offering our guests an intimate experience for cruising by day, and first-rate accommodations in historic inns and hotels at night. We invite you to come on board for three days of island hopping, followed by three days of immersion in Venice […more…]

Jan 232017
 
Sail, Eat, Sleep Venice: Preview Our Video Now

Our culinary tour this Spring will take you to the undiscovered side of Venice that the typical traveler rarely sees. Even if you’ve been there before, you’ve probably never experienced this “most secretive of cities,” to quote author Victor Hazan, who with his wife, Marcella, ran a cooking school there for many years. That’s because it is a city of more than 100 small islands in a lagoon separated from the Adriatic Sea that cannot be reached by foot, but only by canals. To experience Venice behind its touristic facade, you have to get on a boat built to navigate the shallow waters […more…]

Jan 232017
 

We’re some four months away from my upcoming culinary tour to Italy, immersion in Venice and its lagoon. For those of you who are new to my blog, my new venture will take you to the undiscovered side of Venice that the typical tourist never sees. Even if you’ve been there before, you’ve probably never experienced this “most secretive of cities,” to quote author Victor Hazan, who with his wife, Marcella, ran a cooking school there for many years. That’s because it is a city built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon separated from the Adriatic Sea that cannot […more…]

Oct 102016
 
Undiscovered Venice May 15-21: Glide Away With Me

A marvelous program, a priceless exploration of some of the secrets of this most secretive of cities. I wish I were fit and free enough to jump aboard. —Victor Hazan Victor Hazan, who lived in Venice with Marcella, his wife and Italian cookbook legend, knows: Few outsiders ever get to see the real Venice.  You have to get off the tourist route and even off the map to seek out the city’s nooks and crannies, her hidden waterways and odd corners. Along with native Venetian Mauro Stoppa, our host and skipper, I will take you there, fork in hand. Now you can […more…]

Aug 252016
 
A Meal to Meditate: Spaghetti all'amatriciana

The quake struck Amatrice and the surrounding area at 3:36 a.m. — amazingly, almost the exact same time as the one that devastated L’Aquila and Abruzzi in 2009, which killed over 300. Some of the dead, this time, were tourists. Travelers go to Amatrice in August for the mild climate, an evening stroll and spaghetti all’amatriciana — a dish famous all over the world, invented by local shepherds in the Middle Ages. This week, the town was getting ready for the 50th annual festival dedicated to the celebrated sauce. Luckily, most visitors had left for the night. But the Hotel […more…]

Aug 232016
 
Italy's Sweetest Little Salsa: "Exploded Tomatoes"

I’ve had a stellar crop of cherry tomatoes this year and they’re ripening on the vine faster than I can pick them, never mind eat them. Time for one of Italy’s sweetest little tomato sauces —pomodorini scoppiati, literally, “exploded cherry tomatoes.” The recipe and story just out in Zester Daily today, here.