Don’t I look happy on this brilliant day in May? I am traveling by water taxi, on my way to Ristorante Signori, one of the finest seafood restaurants in Sirmione on Lake Garda. Maria Callas, the divine opera singer, had a villa on the shore of Lake Garda. Supposedly, this jewel of a spot is where “La Divina” came to recover from emotional wounds inflicted by her lover Aristotle Onassis.
I, too, came to Italy to heal. For me it was from the long, horrible winter of 2009. The only thing that got me through the ice storms and depressing economic news was the dream of coming to Italy in the spring to hone my Italian cooking skills and meet others who are truly passionate about good food.
Specifically, I wanted to meet food writer Faith Willinger in Florence and butcher Dario Cecchini in Panzano before joining teacher Giuliano Hazan for a week of cooking in Verona. What a fabulous cast of characters! I had been reading about them all for years and at last, we met. I am grateful to you, Faith. My dining experiences in Florence and Venice were richer and more meaningful thanks to your advice. Dario, “brother” to Faith, thank you for caring so much about the quality of the beef that you serve. Every rustic dish from your kitchen was prepared with care. The slow-cooked spicy meat ragu was especially divine. And I am in debted to your staff (family) for making me feel so welcome.
The majority of my time in Italy was spent cooking in Verona with Giuliano, so I’ll elaborate on that adventure. Giuliano, is the son of Marcella Hazan, legendary cookbook author and teacher, most noted for The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating first published in 1973. Giuliano is a respected author and teacher in his own right and now offers, along with his wife Lael and partner Marilisa Allegrini (of the famed Allegrini Winery), a one week total immersion cooking program at Villa Giona in Verona. I expected the villa to be romantic and tranquil (It sure was.) and I hoped the cooking lessons would take place in a well-equipped modern kitchen (Fantastico!) and focus on some of the classic techniques mentioned in several Hazan cookbooks (Yes indeed. Now I can say with some authority that I know how to knead pasta till it’s soft as a baby’s bottom and pound veal scalloppini without tearing the flesh).
I also learned how to make culatello, the most aromatic, richly flavored prosciutto in the world. It is made from the hindquarters of a pig. First it is boned, stuffed into a bladder, cured and hung for two years on chains in a damp cellar. I know this because I watched Giuliano’s friend and colleague Chef Massimo Spigaroli perform the entire butchering process from beginning to end at his 14th century estate in Zibello. It was mesmerizing to watch Massimo. Every stroke of his knife was perfect, no wasted movements, no stress to him or the meat. He exuded respect and love for his craft. No wonder. He is the great grandson of a butcher from Zibello who made specialty pork products for Guiseppe Verdi. Oh, by the way, Prince Charles has his slaughtered pigs sent directly to Massimo who turns them into culatello for the royal family.
Good wine is as important to Italians as good food. How fortunate I was to have the charming and articulate Marilisa Allegrini as my guide. Marilisa is the sixth generation of her family to make wine. She has deep knowledge of every aspect of her business, and she shared much of this information during our time together. I am particularly grateful for the numerous opportunities I had to swirl, inhale, and savor Allegrini’s big, ripe, raisiny, ruby red Amarone, one of the most elegant Amarone’s on the market.
Since it is about $80 per bottle, few people would dump an entire bottle of this liquid into a hot pan in order to make a syrupy glaze for pears! But money was no object on this trip. Graze mille, Marilisa, Giuliano, and all of my new friends from Italy. Your high standards, hard work and love inspire me.