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Lunch and Lecture with Massimo Bottura

Please forgive me if I seem a little star struck, but it’s not often that I get to meet Massimo Bottura, who has been named number one chef in the world. You may have seen him in an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” where he explains the evolution of some of his iconic dishes such as “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart,” or “An Eel Swimming up the Po River.”  His three-star Michelin restaurant in Modena, Italy –  Osteria Francescana – has also taken top honors for best restaurant in the world, and is consistently on the top five list. I still haven’t been to his restaurant on any of my trips to Italy, since snagging a reservation is harder than getting a private audience with the pope. So when I read that he’d be in New York, I jumped at the chance to experience some of his food.

He was in town recently for several reasons — one of which was to lecture and host a lunch at Eataly’s birreria. It was a perfect fall day to sit outdoors on the rooftop terrace (with about 50 other lucky people) and enjoy a sampling of Massimo’s food, accompanied by perfect wine pairings.

Massimo’s passion for people and food were evident during the lecture, as he described the various dishes and reasons why he came up with some of his creations. He never stood still, pacing back and forth, gesticulating all the time he spoke, even imploring one of the day’s sponsors who was present, to shift away from its plastic bottles into more environmentally friendly packaging,

He brought many of his staff with him from Italy, and they were kept busy cooking, while Massimo regaled us with stories – some about his food, and some about his employees love life!

After some prosecco and foccaccia to whet our appetites, the first course arrived – a simple halved fig roasted in a wood oven, topped with some aged parmigiano cheese and a drizzle of cherry balsamic vinegar. Never have three simple ingredients tasted so perfect together.

Massimo is a lover of contemporary art, and his culinary philosophy toward cooking incorporates many ideas from artists who veer away from tradition while embracing its roots. “It’s looking at centuries of history, but filtered by contemporary minds,” he said, citing Ai Wei Wei, an iconoclastic Chinese artist who took ancient Han Dynasty earthenware vases and dipped them in industrial paint.

The first course was a perfect example of that philosophy, and an homage to the region of Emilia Romagna, where Massimo’s restaurant (and my mother’s home town) is located. The innovative chef gave a traditional dish his modern interpretation. The metamorphosis started with two classic Renaissance dishes – sbrisolona, (recipe here) a buttery, almond shortbread-like cake normally served as dessert, and cotechino, a large pork sausage typically eaten on New Year’s eve.  Massimo transformed the sbrisolona into a savory base for this first course, reducing the sugar and adding some salt. Above the sbrisolona was a disc of cotechino, not prepared in the typical way of boiling, but instead, first cooked sous vide (slowly under vacuum in a very low temperature water bath), then browned in a wood oven and finished in ashes. Enveloping it all was an eggy, foamy zabaglione sauce, drizzled with an aged balsamic vinegar, also a product of his home region. Massimo likes to call this a “breakfast dish” that evokes bacon and eggs, but I’d be glad to eat this any time of the day.

For the main course, Massimo broke with tradition again to conjure the ancestral flavors of a typical pollo alla cacciatore made by families throughout Italy. He combined it with trout in an unexpected, but delicious way. “The best part is the sauce, not the chicken,” he said, noting that the cacciatore is slowly cooked in a copper pot, and the flavors are extracted by steam, then dehydrated to make a powder. The trout is seasoned with the powder, and a pesto with those flavors is used to sandwich the two pieces of trout together. A light flavorful broth is poured all around it. “Cooking is like art,” he said, “You have to pay respect to the flavors from grandmother, but use it in ways to break borders, to evolve.”

Dessert was also a tour de force. A edible bright red wafer-like disc resembling a piece of origami was made using flavors extracted from the unusual combination of oak trees, strawberry grapes, roses and bay leaves.

The fragile disc broke away in shards to reveal a small portion of rosemary and olive oil flavored gelato. I could have easily quaffed three more of these.

Osteria Francescana may be the mothership, but he has since branched out to other locales, including a partnership with fashion house Gucci in Florence and a restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey. In the last year, he opened a high end guesthouse in Modena – Casa Maria Luigia – with its own dining venue.

While eating at his restaurant doesn’t come cheap, Massimo is not deaf to those less fortunate. After Milan’s world fair “Expo” in 2015, whose theme was “Feeding the Planet,” Massimo took that project to heart, starting a nonprofit with his American-born wife Lara Gilmore called “Food for Soul.” They opened what they call a “refettorio” (the Italian word for a dining space where monks eat) in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Milan and set out to provide nourishing meals for the underprivilged, using donated food that would otherwise have been thrown away. Since then, they have opened rifettorios around the world, in an effort to reduce food waste and provide multi-course meals to the needy. His visit to New York also included a talk to the United Nations on food and sustainability, and a collaboration with Sotheby’s auction house for its “Contemporary Curated” sale.

As if my afternoon with Massimo and his food weren’t enough, the cherry on the cake was meeting tv personality Phil Rosenthal and restauranteur Nancy Silverton, who are friends of Massimo’s and were in town coincidentally. Phil was a writer on TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” and is the host of the show “Somebody Feed Phil,” where he travels around the world exploring local cuisines, including an episode where he visits Massimo in Modena. If you haven’t yet caught this feel-good show, check it out on Netflix. Nancy founded Los Angeles’ La Brea bakery and Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, and is co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza in two California locations, and has also been profiled on Netflix.

Click here to connect with me on Instagram and find out what Ciao Chow Linda is up to in the kitchen (and other places too.

Torino And Salone Del Gusto

Torino and Salone Del Gusto

 Enough with the macarons, the tarte tatin and the tapenade. It’s time for me to get back to Italy, and I did just that in late October and early November. Immediately following my trip to France, I took a train to Torino (Turin) to revisit one of my favorite Italian cities and spend some time in the exquisitely beautiful countryside of Piedmont, where this picture was taken. I have plenty of posts and enticing recipes for you from the region, but I’ll start with a very brief intro to Piedmont’s largest city, Torino – and finish with some photos from the Salone Del Gusto, a humongous food event held every two years. 

 The photo below is the Mole Antonelliana, an iconic symbol of this city in Northwest Italy that’s often overlooked by tourists. Too bad, because Torino, the capital of Italy for the first four years of its unification in 1861, holds many delights for the tourist, including elegant palaces, a myriad of museums, and some of the best food and wine in all of Italy. The mole Antonelliana was originally conceived as a synagogue, but today it houses an engaging museum of cinema.
The royal palace, below, was used as a residence for Italy’s rulers from the 1500s until the 19th century, including King Victor Emanuele II, leader of the House of Savoy.
The huge piazza was the site of nightly concerts and awards ceremonies for the 2006 winter olympics. During the games, I worked for the city’s daily newspaper La Stampa, and would occasionally leave my job early enough to hear performers like Ennio Morricone here in Piazza Castello. For those of you who aren’t Italian, you would certainly recognize Morricone from the many film scores he composed, including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and Cinema Paradiso.  He’s considered a national treasure in Italy.
 The building in the next photo is called the Palazzo Madama, and is so named because in the 17th century, it was chosen as the favorite residence by Maria Cristina of France, the widow of Victor Amedeus I. It was closed to the public for many years, but it’s now a museum where you can see beautiful works of art, from mosaics to ceramics to exquisite paintings.
 Just in case those two palaces didn’t suit them, the Savoy family had Stupinigi built in the 18th century, a  “hunting lodge” about 15 minutes by car from the city.

Back in Torino, you can feel like a royal at one of the many elegant cafes in town, including this one —  Baratti & Milano, where the waiters are spiffily dressed.

But even if you’re not a king or even a duke, the warmth exuded by people in the city can make you feel like royalty, including this couple — Maurizio Tassinari and Iva Battistello, who own a wonderful food shop called Sapori. They invited me into their kitchen to watch fresh pasta being made, then served me plateful after plateful, even opening a bottle of wine for me to wash it down with.

  Aside from the memorable meals I ate in restaurants in the city, I had my fill of wonderful food and wines at the biennial Salone del Gusto. This year, the Salone was held in conjunction with Terra Madre, another food extravaganza that brings in food producers from other parts of the world. The combined event, with more than 1,000 exhibitors from 100 countries, was held for five days in the Lingotto, the former Fiat factory,  and you could easily take that long to see it all. Imagine the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City multiplied by four.
Here’s a little slide show to give you a taste of what I saw, ate and drank during the 11 hours I spent there:

And since we were walking distance of this place –

the food emporium that started in Torino, my friend Lilli and I had to stroll over, peruse the aisles and finish the day with a pizza or two.

In the days ahead, I’ll be posting more entries from Torino and Le Langhe, including recipes of some of the delicious meals I ate. But the next post will be a detour to Sicily – for the newest menu addition to my traditional “feast of the seven fishes” Christmas eve dinner. Go out buy some Italian pine nuts now – just sayin’.