After recently traveling to Italy, I discovered I must live there. I know I am certainly not the first, nor the last, to have this moving epiphany. But per me, it was the energy that surrounds food and bursts from the souls of all Italians, whether they are the cookers, the servers, or the eaters. This sensibility agreed with me, so when an imprint of that Italian boot walked its way to New York last weekend (October 12-14), I couldn't miss its arrival.
A true taste of Italy was welcomed to the city by way of Mario Batali's Eataly (as host on behalf of the Americans) in partnership with the Italian organization "Identita Golose." Developed by Italian journalist Paolo Marchi, the international chef conference brings together notable and influential chefs from Italy and similarly groundbreaking chefs in New York who bring the Italian cuisine to the American palate, with a series of cooking demonstrations and two five-course dinners. The name - my favorite part - refers to an identity revolving around the enjoyment of eating, a glutton in the best possible way. (See the connection?)
|Chef White (L) & Chef Cracco (far R)|
I was able to experience two cooking demonstrations, each comprised of an Italian chef and New York chef cooking side by side, as well as the final dinner comprised of dishes created by participating chefs on the rooftoop dining hall of Eataly - the spectacular Birreria.
Not to name drop or anything but just to name a few city chefs...okay, okay, all of them: Of course, Mario Batali (owner of Eataly and a restaurant empire; also recognized from Iron Chef America and The Chew on TV), Chef Alain Ducasse (of Adour Alain Ducasse at the St. Regis and Benoit), Chef Michael White (of Marea, Osteria Morini and Nicoletta), Chef Cesare Casella (of Salumeria Rosi), Chef Anita Lo (Annisa), and Chef George Mendes (of Aldea). If you are not a foodie and/or a New Yorker, these names may hold no water, but if you are, you know the fine china I'm talkin' 'bout.
So to get to the good stuff (the part where we eat and drink of course), I'll cut to my favorite cooking demo with Michael White (a Wisconsin boy who really does know what it means to eat Italian, I can attest), and Carlo Cracco who owns his own restaurant, Ristorante Cracco, in Milan. The two of them pulled out the stops.
White did an impecable seared scallop with a seasonal (very timely for fall) and innovative butternut squash-raisin caponata (instead of the traditional use of eggplant). With a shave of salty grana padano cheese and the sweet licks of squash to balance the plush scallop, traditionalists may scream blasphemy (seafood and cheese? mama mia!) but anyone with a tongue would only use it to savor the winning combination.
Cracco really impressed by being even more unconventional and making flourless pasta noodles out of only egg yolks. It was the most fascinating process to see the creation of carrot-orange foamy curls (dehydrated via microwave!) coined taglionlini. (Why the curious color? Cracco informed us the chickens from which the eggs came were fed an exorbitant amount of carrots. Makes sense.) While it felt like eating air - the noodles dissipating at the point of contact - the slender shaves of white truffle melted with the fatty viscosity of yolk to a mouthfeel that only begs for more. And an Italian making pasta that does not have to be boiled? That's some gutso gusto right there.
Keeping with the molecular gastronomy, he had the crowd oohing and ahing over mussels he served with their dehydrated edible shells, also foamy but like crunchy tissue paper that seeped into the tastebuds. Needless to say Cracco was my introduction to a fearless approach to Italian cuisine by an Italian in Italy. This was not something I saw firsthand in Italy but now that I know it's happening, I am titillated by the thought of discovering it when I return (and curious as to how the proud natives are responding to these new wave tongue twists).
So first came a demo and then came a dinner, a natural progression I'd say. Each of the five courses was curated by a chef. Overall I was most impressed by the gorgeously rustic wooden Birreria space, a modern barn with a greenhouse ceiling effect. The layout of communal dining was apropos for the Italian way di mangiare and the interesting company I kept in conversation (albeit in broken Italian and segmented English) made the night a success.
The food for the most part was pleasing but not equally impressive. (The impeccably incessant wine service certainly made that easier to swallow.) While I enjoyed the wheel block of grana padano cheese (yep, there it is again. sponsors.) where a man with a knife carved chunks to your whimsy, only one dish of the five really caught my tongue.
It was the first antipasti course from Chef Cesare Casella (Italian-born expat representing New York), a lobster salad with equally meaty Tuscan white beans topped with salty black Caviar. Though I was told by my Italian friend to my right that beans and seafood are not typical, we both agreed that the combination was splendid, if only we could have it for every course.
|Mackerel & Risotto|
Next was a perplexing combination (from Chef Francesco Apreda) of tomato-pastey "puttanesca" risotto grains and salty mackerel fillet. Nothing really bound the two components besides the plate they rested upon. By the same uninteresting token, Chef Antonio Guida's standalone hake piece was a nice tender texture but was not aided by the undetectable whipped bacalao bed upon which it perched, nor the expected salty bite of the caviar dollop.
Chef Pino Lavarra's final plate of mealy-crusted lamb had a lot of disjointed elements that had us diners confused as to how to eat it. Nonetheless, after scraping off the heavy, unnecessary soggy breading from the meat, we discovered the lamb was perfectly cooked and moist with a pink center that radiated to the charred edges. None of us could figure out which accompaniment was the cracker and which the popcorn terrine, but we picked it apart just the same. The finisher was actually quite lovely with a moist crumbly carrot cake absorbing perfectly mellow fennel pollen ice cream, crunched by a razor-thin fennel bulb chip. Grazie Chef Fortunato Nicotra.
Be you Italian or American, or both, or neither, we all can agree that breaking bread brings people to the table, and a table bestowed with such a vibrant Italian anima is one I will dine at again and again, wherever in the world it may be.
All photos by Rebecca Kritzer