Laura Lazzaroni may not win a lot of friends when she says that it is time to metaphorically kill the ‘nonna’ or grandmother philosophy. But she has a point. She writes about it in the introduction to her new book The New Cucina Italiana: What to Eat, What to Cook and Who to Know in Italian Cuisine published by Rizzoli New York.
“I meant it to be shocking to get the point across. Of course we all love our nonne (grandmothers) and they are extremely important. Our younger generation of chefs are respectful of tradition but they’re also emancipating and moving away from the stereotype. What grandmothers have done was fantastic particularly when it came to the craftsmanship of their hands, for example making fresh pasta. But, if we have to be honest, some things were not that great because they either did not have the technology or they did not understand the chemical reactions happening within ingredients. We also need to remember that for many young chefs in Italy today, the grandmother figure is something very different to what we think when we think about the nonna. Some of them are so young that their grandmothers, in their 50s and 60s did not really cook except maybe for opening cans or microwaving food.”
Laura does not need much introduction in Italy. A journalist, food writer and author of a number of books in Italian, she was also the first editor of Food and Wine Italia. I rarely publish question and answer interviews but in this case I hope you enjoy my conversation with Laura and buy the book.
I have to congratulate you on the book. I really enjoyed it and it really does a great job of bringing out the stories of chefs, some of whom were familiar to me and others not so much.
The book was conceived as a book for a foreign audience, especially an American audience. So for them almost none of these chefs are known. I mean not even Niko Romito is well known in the States, more so in Asia.
I kept having these conversations with non Italians whom I respect a lot, colleagues or even just people who are not in our industry but travel and have a solid experience of Italy, and yet when they talked of food, they were referencing the same things again and again. Even if their knowledge of Italy is and deep, I realised they had this idea that Italy was either about Bottura or about the amatriciana. It was frustrating for me because I knew the scene was much more than that. There’s a whole range of experiences between the two opposites. The book is therefore a way of seeing Italy and Italian food beyond these preconceptions.
When you talk about something as beloved as Italian cuisine it is a touchy subject. People have an idea of what it is. They associate it as the epitome of comfort, flavour and tradition. If you try to mess with that idea, they become defensive and not interested. I wanted to make a point that the scene is fresh, vibrant, there is a new energy even if the level of comfort, of flavour and deliciousness is still the same.
Many of the chefs in the book cut their teeth in Northern Europe, Asia, South America or North America. Some never left the country. They are applying a new approach whether it is re-discovering their territory through foraging, being more sustainable or being super scientific building a real laboratories and developing new techniques. Some are passionate about mixology and introduce super cool cocktail pairings into the meal experience.
There is nothing hyper conceptualised or for elite, they are for everyone. All across the board, this fresh approach goes from Michelin star restaurants to the new Osterie and Trattorie. One of the things I like about the scene is the redesigning of restaurant formats. A restaurant is an experience that goes beyond food. How do you rethink fine dining, or the space in between fine dining and a trattoria or fast food?
You start the book with two mentors. Niko Romito and Paolo Lopriore. You define Romito as a Culinary Jesus with a before and after Niko Romito moment for Italian cuisine. Then there is Lopriore who is very important for a number of chefs but who is not necessarily known at all outside of Italy. Why did you choose these two mentors?
It is the result of all the conversations I had with these young chefs. I like to say one thing which is that I couldn’t write an encyclopaedia. This is just the tip of the iceberg but there are other restaurants that fall under this umbrella and some have opened very recently so there is still this ongoing energy. Drawing from my conversations with young chefs and the food they were making, it seemed to me that the two main threads were Romito and Lopriore. They were the source of inspirations in very different ways. Niko made a point to codify his vocabulary and his language and transfer his knowledge in fully formed concepts with lessons. He has this academic mind and he likes this idea of teaching. He cares a lot about standardizing his processes: it is his idea of saying this is a written transcript so I can step away and give it to someone else to carry on. At the same time the world will know that he had started it.
Lopriore on the other hand is completely different. It happens through osmosis with him. I wouldn’t say it is all oral tradition because he writes a lot too but he’s certainly more cryptic. It comes from the inner stream of consciousness of a person who is a genius but is not necessarily thinking about codifying or making it easy. He teaches by showing what he is doing. So I found that for young chefs it was either Niko or Lopriore. It also had to do with what kind of chefs they want to be. Niko is the entrepreneur- restaurateur. Certain chefs with ambitions to build something big, to branch out and try different formats see Niko as an example.
Lopriore is in a way is the complete opposite, stripping down, scaling down. He feels comfortable when he is quiet, alone with my thoughts and his cuisine and keeps making beautiful dishes. I chose them because they represent two very different but complimentary approaches that are followed by the majority of these young chefs.
Then there is Bottura from the previous generation.
The way I see it, Bottura’s reach is beyond everything else. I like to say that you have the umbrella of Romito and Lopriore and Bottura is the big arms that envelops everything.
No one to this day has had this kind of exposure, reach or impact as Bottura had worldwide. Bottura for me remains in another league. But Romito and Lopriore are the ones inspiring more and more young chefs today.
I would contend that if Niko spoke better English he would be among the most recognised chefs in the world, maybe in the top 5/10 important culinary figures of today.
It is also a question of personality. Massimo is Massimo also because of Lara (Lara Gilmore Bottura, his wife), who is a large part of the equation. He is from Modena, outgoing, super energetic and charismatic. He is not shy. He is not afraid to be on primetime television in the States or address a crowd of hundreds of thousands in his pyjamas from the kitchen of his home. He has this vibe which is great.
I think what has allowed Niko to be so strong in his philosophy, in how he is zooming in on concepts, strongly and precisely, is the fact that he has been a bit more secluded, he has kept to Abruzzo for as long as he could. Even if in recent years he has branched out internationally with Bulgari, he has not been on the international arena so much and this has allowed him to find his own mental space and focus on his own things. It is much more hands on.
Gualtiero Marchesi was also a great communicator, he had a deep and nuanced understanding of art and made brilliant connections between his dishes and art, but Massimo was the first to really weave everything together so beautifully, speaking the language of the people, the language of tradition, the language of conceptual art and beauty and explaining the Italian joie de vivre that is captivating for the world.
You have curated a great selection of names. How did you go about the selection? What was your process?
It was very hard as you can imagine. There were a few snags along the way. We were going to do a restaurant in Sicily. I was going to feature Fud Off in Catania and literally out of the blue I got a call from chef Valentina Chiaramonte, telling me that the owners had decided to close the restaurant and turn it into something completely different. So we had to pull it. We also had Undicesimo Vineria which closed its doors, before the pandemic. I was frustrated because I really think Francesco Brutto is extremely talented and I told him that if we had known before we could had gone to Venice and and shoot his partner Chiara Pavan at Venissa (the restaurant they now co-manage). On another occasion we were ready for the photoshoot with Oliver Piras and Alessandra del Favero of Aga on the Dolomites but they called me to tell me they were closing the restaurant and wanted to open in New York. I’m sorry because I like them a lot.
With regard to the process, I wanted to cover different formats (in the book I have: mentors, farmers & foragers, Sunday restaurateurs – which is my idea of the ristorante borghese, with a combination of classic service and familiar fare – fine dining creatives, pizzaioli, neo-osterie & neo-trattorie), to have a good number of different examples for each group. I also wanted a sort of geographic balance. I tried not to include restaurants that had just opened for obvious reasons: with an American publisher, there is a whole year from when you turn it in to when it is published, so I thought they should be in business for at least a couple of years to have a sense of longevity. I also tried to include as many women as possible. I am completely against the concept of the best women chef category, I find it offensive and believe there should be no need to specify this. At the same time, it is a fact that women are underrepresented and because I knew this book was going to provide a powerful international platform I wanted to make a point to feature as many as I could.
In some cases, I had more than one restaurant in one city or region but they exemplified different formats. In reality, I have enough material to do a second volume. I already know which restaurants I would include in a new volume.
Will there be a second volume?
I believe if the first one is well received, then Rizzoli would maybe greenlight a sequel, so I am hoping that it sells because the story goes on. It goes to prove the point that the situation is evolving.
You embarked on the journey just before the pandemic. How did the pandemic impact the book?
I presented the idea in 2018. We did the photoshoots for the book in 2019 and it was supposed to be published in September 2020. Rizzoli delayed publication and I liked the idea of the book coming out with Biden as president. I also feel that if it had been published in September we would still be far away from light at the end of the tunnel. The situation is still bad, we still have lockdowns but there is a sense that we are slowly heading towards a resolution of this horrible nightmare.
You managed to create a book which takes you to Italy without going to Italy. It also has a number of recipes, all of which can be done at home even if the difficulty level of each one is different. How did you choose the recipes?
It was a nightmare! I had a chart in my office that was organized by difficulty level and also by course, whether it was a first, second or dessert etc. I wanted to have a balance of all these elements, and I wanted both easy and difficult recipes. All the recipes have been tested and adapted for the American kitchen. Even the ones that may look complicated have been made at home on a little stove. We found hacks when there was specific equipment required. There’s an anecdote regarding one of Antonia Klugmann’s recipes (Beet gnocchi with plum gelatin and rose). As you know, she is technically very precise and does not like to take shortcuts. Her recipe called for a steam juicer, we agreed to say it was ok to use a hack to work around the recipe but “the chef still recommends a steam juicer”.
I wanted it to be balanced but I also wanted it to be a truthful reflection of what these guys are cooking. I feel like first courses, pasta, risotti etc. are really having a moment. Lots of work is being channeled here. Many are also working on vegetable-based mains and I wanted to give the reader a sense of that as well. I also wanted to include pizza because there is innovation in that too.
How do you see Italy emerging from the crisis? Compared to other countries, restaurants have been lucky to be open, maybe for lunch in some regions. Do you see a boost of creativity or maybe an approach towards more comfort?
I would start by saying that the road to recovery is still long and we will not have a true sense of the price to be paid until everything is reopened and has been for a while. Restaurant owners will have to deal with the bottom line and see how much money they have lost and whether it is possible to continue. I am however quite optimistic. I noticed definitely that there has been a great deal of resilience from our chefs, and it goes beyond delivery. Some have taken the opportunity to try and reach a wider audience working on easier, more casual concepts: opening Italian delis – gastronomie – or spinoffs that focus on natural wines, breads and pastries, and small easy dishes.
Others also have bigger projects. Niko is working on lots of new stuff, and when the time is right he’ll talk about it, Diego Rossi just opened a neo-osteria, which was still a project when we talked for the book. Antonia opened a gastronomia in Trieste: it’s the launchpad of her delivery service but it means she has a foot in the city and who knows maybe she’ll keep it (I hope so!).
Even from restaurateurs who are not necessarily in the book, I have seen lots of developments. There is a sense that people didn’t just try to survive.
The other thing that I like about the chefs in this movement is that they are a tight-knit community. Some are much younger some are older but they tend to gravitate around one another, collaborate, they ask each other for advice, tips, recipes, they share resources. This was a distinctive feature of this movement but has grown even more so during the pandemic.
There are many recipes in the book, most of which I would like to try at home. Do you have favourite recipes?
I have a few favourites and in particular I like the vegetable recipes. My favourites are the Fooders’ Romanesco cauliflower cutlets with garlic and chive mayo which is amazing, especially served as a veg burger (as they do at their fast food joint, Legs). Then of course there is Niko’s Roasted cauliflower, which is pretty life-changing. I also like all the first courses. In particular Alice Delcourt’s risotto with Robiola cheese, preserved lemon and Smoked Paprika, or Camanini’s Reheated rice which is ingenious and a testament to his work on the power of flavour and memory.
Then there are the two takes on spaghetti with fat working as a full fledged ingredient, by Pellegrino/Potì, of Bros’, and Francesco Capuzzo Dolcetta of Marzapane which I find excellent. The first uses a pungent sauce made with pork skin, whole crudo ham bone, vinegar, milk and chicken stock, the other smoked beef suet, worked into a sort of pomade.
One meat dish that I really love is Damiano Donati’s guinea fowl, marinated in sourdough levain for a few days, then fried.
The photo of this dish was a heavy contender for the cover. It is a beautiful dish, a beautiful photo but there was concern because of the claw of the guinea fowl which some thought could scare some people off. The guinea fowl dish is not just delicious but it also represents the spirit of collaboration among these chefs: Donati learned the levain marinade from Gabriele Bonci.
It is evident that many of these chefs are inspired by humble ingredients. If I look at the pasta dishes, they are all served with the most humble of ingredients but are elevated to another level. How important is this element in the New Cucina Italiana. I get the impression that this is recognised by the Italian guides but maybe not by the international ones.
What you said now is absolutely right. Italian cuisine even at its more sophisticated has always been about the ingredient, the strength, the flavour of the ingredient. The least you transform it the better it is. We have been taught to barely touch a quality ingredient because it is precious as it is. The lesson is simplicity. Think Fulvio Pierangelini, think Valeria Piccini. It has become stronger lately also because of environmental concerns, efforts made on reducing waste in the kitchen, working in close conjunction with the producers so that even at a super fine-dining level, you can do something great not with lamb but with sheep, or eggs and potatoes. Think about Gianluca Gorini with his passatelli – a pasta that was created out of necessity, using humble ingredients – which he serves in a rich, hearty broth made with the tough outer leaves of winter vegetables he would otherwise discard. Think of Cascina Lagoscuro’s risotto which is served with a fond made with all the vegetables scraps that would otherwise be thrown away. No matter the style of restaurant, from top to bottom this element is important.
You also raise the question of trattoria and the necessity to educate the palate of the masses even if this might sound elitist. What are your views of what is emerging in this space? How difficult is it to mess with the concept of the trattoria which is maybe the most successful model?
More and more young chefs are tackling this specific format and it makes sense because it is the most quintessentially Italian format it and it speaks to the masses. In a trattoria there is balance between the front of house and kitchen and both have to be strong and the dialogue has to be perfect for the format to really work. A trattoria puts ingredients at the centre of the dialogue. Take what Diego Rossi does. His knowledge of produce, meat and fish is impressive. It is the reason why so many people ask him for tips on producers or butchering techniques. A trattoria is the place where you have a small group of signature dishes and then a bunch of day’s specials. When you are creating daily specials you need to know your product and how to best use it in a dish and you need the front of house to be able to explain and sell it.
Italian cuisine is one focused on ingredients and at the trattoria is where this comes out in full form. The fact that it is informal does not mean there is no research or technique involved. On the contrary. People need to understand that excellent comfort food does not need to be super heavy. The new trattoria is the place where through technique delicious dishes can become lighter, and more sustainable. Diego Rossi told me during the first days of Trippa he lost a lot of weight because coming from fine dining he kept thinking “should I add more, should I make it more complicated?”. Then he realised that there is a lot already within the concept so he did not need to add anything.
It all boils down to knowledge. Say you have a special cut of meat one night. You need to think of a dish. You need to know how to butcher the animal if you buy it whole, how to portion it, how to cook it, which pan to use, at what temperature, for how long. Gianluca Gorini is the same. He looks at a piece of meat and knows immediately whether it is ready or not. That comes from experience and technical know-how.
Do you think that the fact that Massimo Bottura and Niko Romito are working also in these spaces serves to inspire youngsters to experiment in this space as well?
Absolutely. I think that on one hand it shows the young guys that you can be aspirational also within a more informal format. There used to be this thought that you are either a Michelin chef or a failure. But what is important is solid knowledge. I cannot speak for Massimo, but I think they are having more fun doing their informal concepts even if fine dining is what they are incredibly proud of and it is the driving force of their success.
Do you think that from the dishes that you have put in the limelight there are particular dishes that when we look at them say 20 to 30 years from now will remain and will be known like the amatriciana or the cacio e pepe for example?
Most definitely, the first courses will be known and appreciated. I think those for sure. Some of the vegetable dishes will also have longevity, I think. I would like to see a bit more work on dessert. It is the Cinderella in the whole picture. Some chefs have found a voice in this sense, but others are either still French inspired or super conceptual or else are serving family style desserts which don’t make sense in their style of cuisine. We haven’t spoken about Davide Caranchini: you have to visit him, he’s incredibly talented. His dessert (Bone marrow and saffron, a homage to Milan) is incredibly interesting. Then there is my favourite dessert in the book, the Poached pear in carob chocolate and minted milk cream (by the Montaruli brothers of Mezza Pagnotta, in Puglia). Chefs who are smart are thinking about dessert as an organic continuation of a meal (this is what Corrado Assenza has been saying for years!). I would personally like to see amuse bouche and petit fours abolished. They’re outdated and redundant. They don’t add anything to the experience.
Thank you so much for your time. Maybe one last question if you allow. Do you have another book project coming up?
I’ve written a first book about bread at the beginning of my passion for bread making. We explored different varieties of old wheat in that book. Now together with Giunti, we are working on a book that is more technical, that will be like a manual. It is, in a way, going to change how to make bread at home. It will come out in September and will be published in Italian.
It is also extremely timely given many of us have discovered the joy of baking bread at home during the pandemic.
I did an online masterclass and it was quite successful so now we’re thinking of developing a masters degree in bread making. I started a bread club with a subscription service. I like that people are truly beginning to understand what lies behind a good loaf of bread: they are more discerning. Italy has a long story with bread, we still have many particular regional breads that are well known and codified. We’ve also had lots of pretty bad bread, made with bad flours. I think we’re finally coming out the other end of it!
The photography in the book is by renowned Italian photographer Alberto Biasetti.