A Taste of Italy
Italians. They are, simply put, a people who have raised the level of living to an art form. From Italian Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Caravaggio to Venetian school painters Giorgione andTintoretto,the names of Italian artists, philosophers, musicians and trendsetters are endless: da Vinci, Bernini, Fellini and Ferrari, to name just a few.
Whether it was Galileo’s laws of motion that created the basis of modern science or AlessandroVolta’s invention of the battery that sparked power for generations to come, Italians have set the standard of international style, science, and art with equal measures of ingenuity, imagination, taste and function. Everything it means to look, feel and sense is in their blood.
Staying Italian in America
San Domenico’s Odette Fada & Valentino’s Angelo Auriana reveal the secrets behind regional delicacies and the art of authenticity
For eighteen years, an immaculately kept two-floor kitchen on NewYork City’s Central Park South has been home to Tony May’s Italian American landmark, San Domenico, one of Food & Wine’s Top 25 Restaurants in the US. He is one of the nation’s most respected restaurateurs, beginning his career operating New York’s legendary Rainbow Room for twenty years, first as general manager, then as the owner.
These days, May owns and operates San Domenico while his daughter, Marisa May Bocognano, greets guests as the youthful incarnation of what it means to know Old Country tradition and New World novelty.
“My dad cooked every Sunday and it was always a feast,” she explains. “Drinking and eating was an art.Whereas every other child ate peanut butter and jelly, I had proscuitto and gateaux di patate. No one would trade with me…I don’t even think they understood!” she laughs.
Marisa gestures to the kitchen where she introduces me to Executive Chef Odette Fada, a petite Italian woman with jet black hair and a friendly, frenetic style. Hailing from a town in Northern Italy called Brescia, she was recently nominated by the James Beard Foundation as one of the best chefs in NewYork and is considered one of the best Italian chefs in the country. She is known for her wide range of delicacies including homemade Sea Urchin-filled Raviolini in a spicy scallop and cherry tomato ragu and Roasted Rabbit with green olives, marjoram and fennel marmalade.
Cultivating her talents with inspiring trips to Union Square Market and two months a year in Italy, Fada brings back fine herbs, savory cheeses, and new techniques. “One dish I was proud to discover in northeastern Italy was Dumplings and Small Plums—gnocchi with the entire fruit inside! I couldn’t find the plums here so I went to the market and used figs instead.Yes, my inspiration was in Italy, but
I had to come here to evolve,” she explains. Meanwhile, a coast away, for more than thirty years Piero Selvaggio continues to set the standard for fine Italian fare with his lasting Los Angeles landmark, Valentino. A far cry from his days washing pots and pans at NYU’s cafeteria, he now counts Wolfgang Puck among one of his closest friends and commands a rare sense of purpose when he enters the room, possessing an exuberant acceptance of life seen only among the elite class of self-made men.
“Twenty years ago, Los Angeles was the gastronomical capital of the U.S.; Californians were aggressive and curious. Chefs like Thomas Keller, Joachim, Michel Ricard, and Nobu were beginning to hit the scene, but many only knew the immigrant Italian cuisine—chiantis in a flask, heavy garlic. Slowly, we introduced a more refined cuisine. We imported the superb products from Italy that would make everything speak,” he explains.
Describing the process of pioneering what has become known as “Italian” in Los Angeles, Selvaggio identifies the impor tance of the “clear taste” of longtime chef Angelo Auriana’s carefully chosen ingredients. Carpaccios, procuittos, and ventresca in a light pesto are exalted with fresh ingredients like melons, preserves, and spices flown in fresh from Italy. Childhood influences like eggplant, smoked ricotta, and pachino (small red tomatoes) from Selvaggio’s native Sicily are married with the great olive oils from Puglia, truffles from Piedmont and the northern influences of Auriana’s native Bergamo.
“Think of blue jeans with a beautiful blouse.You can wear the jeans with a regular tee-shirt, but when you pair them with a fine silk top, your result becomes something spectacular,” Selvaggio explains.
“Italian food is such a versatile, ever-changing, multi-cultural thing,”Auriana adds. “I began my career working at Ristorante Angelo with Pierangelo Corneto, an amazing mentor. He was fond of antiques and paintings, a mentor full of philosophy and art. Customers came from Milan and Como to eat the trout and fresh lake fish but the profession wasn’t as interesting back then. We were skilled ar tisans, but Italians always shine where there’s some individuality. It isn’t always best for a restaurant, but that’s where Valentino excels…in keeping and maintaining a sense of local, cultural attachment. Authenticity.”
With favorable forays into the wide world of fruits, cheese, meats, and pastas, it should come as no surprise that Italian cuisine is arguably the most famous in the world: the shining star of the Mediterranean derived from ancient Greek, Roman, Norman and Arab civilizations.
Having studied under Gualtiero Marchesi at his restaurant, Marchesi, Odette Fada watched her mentor as he adapted regional cuisines to eventually incorporate the Vissani approach to fine cuisine, thereby exposing her to a more refined level of delicacy and ushering in what is now considered fine Italian gastronomy.
Finding new motivations, while still maintaining a sense of authenticity, is a care- ful balancing act that both star chefs face.
“I love to cook for wine,” Auriana reveals. “Our list at Valentino is like the Disneyland for adult connoisseurs. If I can get the ripest peach with the perfect degree of sweetness and pair it with a Moscato d’Asti or select a Barolo or Brunello with nuances of chocolate and rose and pair it with my food, it makes for a more interesting play of the senses.”
Believing that the chef today is a performer, Auriana and Fada regularly attend events and workshops to continually keep up with other masters like Homaro Cantu, who recently developed edible menus that are printed with vegetable dye and taste like the very creations printed on them.
Who needs food when you can eat the menu? It may seem crazy to the traditionalists who dine at San Domenico and Valentino, but Auriana appreciates a clever touch.
“You can go two hundred miles an hour or you can go eighty, but it would be crazy not to look to the future,” he smiles. Layla Revis
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Back in the Italian countryside, time does more than ferment grapes—it has forged a dedicated passion shared by wine aficionados Severino Barzan and Daniele Zamuner
Just to the north of the A4 on the road from Milan toVenice lies the ancient
city of Verona. For centuries before Shakespeare laid the scene here for his
star-crossed lovers, the city’s prime location made it a center of trade, cultural exchange and pursuit of the arts that exists to this very day.Today, among the rolling hills at the foot of the Dolomite mountains, two men with very different backgrounds have pursued their individual passion for wine and arrived at very esteemed places because of it.
Severino Barzan was born near Aviano, Italy and, at the age of fourteen, went to work in an uncle’s vineyard in the Champagne region of France. After studying to gain the government certifications necessary to operate in Italy’s hospitality industry, in 1986 he bought an osteria in Verona known for its tradition of serving food and wine. Over the next few years, the place known as BottegaVini to the locals and Bottega del Vino to much of the rest of Europe and many cognoscenti Americans became a place to enjoy the world’s great vintages in a casual, friendly and entirely approachable atmosphere.
As the reputation of Bottega del Vino grew, Mr. Barzan faced a dilemma known to restaurateurs the world over: great wine needs great wine glasses, but great wine glasses are notoriously fragile and known for their high prices and short life spans. So, beginning around 1995, Barzan set out to solve this sommelier setback. He began working with regional glass blowers to find a crystal formula (only crystal can achieve the combination of weight, balance and clarity sought by connoisseurs) that would meet his exacting demands but be durable and dishwasher safe.
The result of Barzan’s successful effort is a range of lead-free crystal wine glasses, the shape, weight, balance and clarity of which can only be made by hand using centuries-old techniques.Yet, because of their durability, they are remarkably inexpen- sive. Beginning as a ball of molten glass at the end of a blow tube, the glasses are blown into wooden molds and carefully shaped into their final configuration. The stems are drawn out of the main body of the bowl, creating a one-piece glass graceful in every detail and much stronger than two-piece, machine-made chalices.
Around the same time, in the early to mid-eighties, a man by the name of Daniele Zamuner, an engineer with a long family history in manufacturing, began feeling the pangs of a desire felt by many but realized by only a few: to create a world class wine with his name on the label. More specifically, he was determined to make a pinot noir-based, French-style sparkling wine at home in Italy.There were two obvious and daunting challenges that faced him: first, no producer in the region made a sparkling wine. Second—and perhaps more challenging—no producer in the region was growing any pinot noir (known as pinot nero in Italy), so no local expertise was available. It would be “on the job” training in the truest sense of the word.
As luck would have it, his family had a piece of land in the hamlet of Sona, located about halfway between Verona and Lake Garda. The ground there was quite unique because it was situated right where a glacier had stopped tens of thousands of years ago, leaving a deposit of the chalky type of soil native to the region of Champagne and so well suited for the growing of pinot noir. Additionally, a micro-climate existed—a result of the interplay of warm air coming off the Adriatic Sea and cool air from the glacial runoff-fed Lake Garda—which provided the warm days and cool nights necessary to successfully grow pinot noir. In the mid-eighties, existing olive and fig trees were removed and replaced with the first Zamuner vines, allowing the cultivation of Zamuner’s now-famed wine.
During the early nineties, Barzan and Zamuner began to work together; Zamuner supplied his drive for perfection in his beloved vineyard and Barzan assisted with his vast knowledge of the technical side of champagne. In April of 2006, the two achieved a milestone when the officials of VinItaly, the world renowned wine trade exhibition, presented a seven vintage vertical of Zamuner Millisime Spumante. Each vintage was a reminder of the individuality of each year’s character and—presented proudly in Barzan’s crystal stems—provided a great-tasting experience for visitors. Perhaps more importantly though, the exhibition provided a great deal of satisfaction for these two true gentlemen of Verona. Carlo Biggioggero