Pane e Salute, 10 years later

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In July 2006 – before we had kids, before Old Tioga Farm – I was newly enrolled in law school, ready to buy my books and start classes in the fall. But before starting, I treated myself to an experience related to cooking, my principal hobby. I spent two weeks in the kitchen of Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, VT, a sort of mini-apprenticeship, or stage, as it’s sometimes called. It was two weeks that changed my life.

Dillon and I had learned of Osteria Pane e Salute a year or two before, stumbling across in a bookstore their cookbook/memoir Pane e Salute (since republished as In Late Midwinter We Ate Pears). Perusing just a few pages of the book, it was clear I’d found kindred souls, both in cooking philosophy and love of Italy. We decided to make a trip to the restaurant, and we were impressed. We met with the proprietors the next day – Caleb Barber manages the kitchen, Deirdre Heekin the front of house – talked of cooking, Italy, and the possibility of staging at the restaurant. They were kind, generous, and enthusiastic. We made plans to return for two weeks in July.

Back at home I was teaching cooking classes in my spare time, having already developed a clear and committed approach to cooking through studying the writings of Marcella Hazan, but had never worked in a restaurant kitchen. Caleb’s cooking spoke to me too, based as it was on the same understanding of Italian cooking as being rooted in the home kitchen: traditional dishes meant to comfort and nourish, more than impress with novelty. It was soulful cooking.

Despite my hopes to one day have a farm, at the time we were living in a city, both working full-time and saving money for the future. As a private school teacher, I didn’t see a way to earn enough to ever buy a farm, and law school seemed like a more practical career option. The agricultural dream was indefinitely put on hold, if not completely dead.

But staging at the osteria changed all that. Woodstock is the most picturesque Vermont town you can imagine, with a creek running right through the center, the most beautiful library I’ve ever seen, and independent businesses lining Main Street. It’s surrounded by agricultural land, and small, productive farms abound. Here was the world I really wanted. The restaurant was small, magical, and exciting. The osteria was exactly the sort of restaurant I recently wrote about, one in which the proprietors actually do the work, a restaurant in which a talented person with excellent taste cooks for those who appreciate the personality of his/her dishes. I worked for two weeks in the kitchen, and Dillon joined me for the last several days, working with Deirdre in the front of the house. The day Dillon arrived, I told her I wanted to drop out of law school.

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A visit back in 2011

The rest is history. Instead of law school we decided to start a family, and Peter was born the following July, one year after the Pane apprenticeship. The Christmas after the apprenticeship, exactly 10 years ago from the time I write this, we stumbled upon an exquisite but negelcted old farmhouse on four acres in Northeastern PA, just a mile from Dillon’s family. Walking through the house, we knew it would be right for a business – maybe a B&B, maybe for cooking classes, maybe a farm-based restaurant like we had seen in Italy a few years before.

A lot has happened in the ensuing decade, both for us and Caleb and Deirdre. A year after we found our farmhouse, the restaurant at Old Tioga Farm was born. We welcomed two more children into our family. We started a vegetable CSA to ground our experience in agriculture. Three years ago, I was finally able to resign from my off-farm job in order to expand the restaurant. Now I lead culinary tours to Rome and Bologna.

Deirdre and Caleb’s journey has been just as rich. They had always lived in the country, some distance from the restaurant. But they began to give more attention to food production there, from their gardens and orchards. Deirdre wrote a second book, Libation: A Bitter Alchemy. Despite all the successs and business they could want at the osteria, Deirde decided she wanted not just to study and serve wine, but to make wine herself. She studied in France, planted grapes on their farm, and took the first steps toward crushing and fermenting the fruit. The results have been nothing less than spectacular. Long dismissed as a region incapable of producing fine wine, Deirdre has shown that the unique terroir of Vermont is actually capable of producing wines of real interest and character when produced by someone with good taste and the right experience. She wrote a third book, An Unlikely Vineyard, which caught the attention of Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, who was so intrigued he found time to visit them at the farm and write about it here. They’ve reduced their hours at the osteria in order to devote more time and energy to the winery – La Garagista – and they’ve begun offering wine and food events on their farm in addition to the winery. Perhaps a time will come when they will let go of their Woodstock osteria and become an exclusively farm-based winery and restaurant. Caleb and Deirdre have been one of the seminal influences in our life, and we like to think our lives and businesses have been an inspiration for them too.

A ten-year anniversay is a good time to celebtrate. I raise my glass to Deirdre and Caleb and offer a warm embrace for their friendship and example, and good wishes for new things to come.

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Now that’s a sexy couple if ever I’ve seen one.

The problem with food porn

Suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theater by simply bringing a covered plate onto the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us when you can get a large audience together to watch a girl undress on the stage— a strip tease act?

C.S. Lewis

To me, one of the more disturbing trends in food culture has been the adoption of the term “food porn” to refer to food photography which is particularly salacious. It term bothers me because, like pornography itself, food porn places appearance over substance and tries to satisfy with illusion rather than reality. As a result, both pornography and “food porn” are dangerous.

A full-blown critique of pornography is better left for another day and another forum, I think. But the key insight for me is that pornography deals in lust, not in love (or even in pleasure necessarily). It is the fulfilling of one of our most primal urges, but out of the context of the human culture that makes the fulfillment of that urge truly human and not simply animalistic: love, safety, commitment, etc. In short, if true human sexuality is best expressed through a loving relationship, pornography is fake.

Much professional food photography is fake too, literally. Perhaps the milk in a bowl is glue. Or perhaps the grill marks on a steak are drawn on. Or, my favorite: perhaps the little black flecks on the strawberries are really flecks of beard collected from the photographer’s razor (I’m not making this one up, folks). Even the food in Stanley Tucci’s film Big Night, a film which is all about how meaningful food can be, was fake. As Tucci has explained:

All the food was spat out by all of the actors. The audience walked out of the theater starving, and the actors walked away from the set sick.

Of course, most “food porn” today is not fake professional food photography but amateur photos of real food about to be eaten by real people. But like pornography, which is literally real but fake in a deeper sense, the concept of “food porn” encourages a distorted view of food and its role in our lives.

As in so many aspects of my cooking, my teacher on this subject has been the writing of the late Marcella Hazan, who wrote that it was taste, not appearance or artifice or novelty, that made cooking good.

All that really matters in food is its flavor. It matters not that it be novel, that it look picture-pretty, that it be made with unusual or costly or currently fashionable ingredients….Such incidentals may add circumstantial interest to the business of eating, but they add nothing to taste and signify nothing when taste is lacking.

Although I might quibble with the assertion that flavor is all that matters in food, Marcella’s point is a sound and important one, especially for our particular culture at this particular time. Because although food, especially beautiful or delicious looking food, has become prominent in our culture, we have no idea whether much of the food which attracts our attention is any good, because we never even taste it, as much of our attention on food is based not on actually eating, but on entertainment, whether through cooking shows or videos, cooking demonstration classes, cookbooks, or “food porn” — not on producing food or even eating food, but consuming it secondhand through visual images. Whenever I see a cooking show where a dish is tasted by the chef and he or she asserts that it tastes “amazing”, I always have to laugh. What are they going to say? That it’s underseasoned or that the flavors are poorly integrated? That it’s not cooked through or that the ingredients weren’t fresh or flavorful enough to start with?

Or think of what cookbooks look like today. How many are chock-full of recipes and wisdom in the manner of Julia’s Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, neither of which has a single photograph? Instead, cookbooks become almost like art objects, loaded with gorgeous photos and beautiful layout, but whether the writing is any good, or (God forbid) the recipes actually work or are delicious — that all seems beside the point. Some of us are even more likely to look through and read a cookbook for pleasure than to actually cook from it!

Likewise, although Julia Child more or less invented the cooking show, it was always very clear that she was not simply entertaining her audience, but teaching them how to cook so that they could do it themselves! How many of us ever cook a recipe we see Emeril or Bobby Flay cook on TV? The point of the Food Network is to entertain, not teach. It’s an amazingly ironic paradox that we say we don’t have time to cook, and yet we spend 30 minutes watching someone else cook while we could be doing it ourselves! Although there is more interest in food than ever before, there is less interest in cooking than ever before.

One reason for this strange state of affairs is that we don’t do it well. As much as we talk about not having time to cook, I think it is more accurate to recognize that the problem is not simply lack of time but just as much or even more the lack of skill and competence. Like pornography, which can make our own rather ordinary bodies seem paltry by comparison, so too can contrasting our own skill in the kitchen with that of celebrity chefs make us feel impotent. Perhaps we would make time to cook if we felt better about the results. After all, many working people in Italy and France still find time to produce delicious meals because they simply know how to do it with an economy of effort. And they value the result, not only delicious food but time spent at table with friends and family.

For most of our history, even when the quality of our cooking wasn’t great (and it never has been in America), at least we had a cultural sense of the social and personal value of eating over and above its self-centered pleasurable characteristics. For those who were raised with mom or dad tending the braising pot in the kitchen, who doesn’t attribute such memories with warmth and affection? Although some of my happiest and most formative experiences cooking were when I cooked for myself as a bachelor, there is no doubt that in its fullest expression, cooking is an act meant to result in sharing good food with others, family, friends and loved ones.

There is great cultural confusion about the place of food in our lives, even while there’s never been more interest in food and the quality of cooking has probably never been better. We’re more likely to lustily devour images of food than to cook for ourselves. We’re more likely to eat out than to eat at home (not counting convenience foods). And we’re more likely to focus on the shallow, self-centered pleasure of eating rather than its nourishing or social aspects. In certain high-end restaurants, we’re more likely to be concerned with plating than flavor, as Marcella warned us.

The result is a food culture which at first looks impressive, at times even beautiful, but like pornography it’s a beauty that is only skin-deep. And like pornography, it brings a whole host of evils with it. It brings obesity through the prevalence of processed and fast foods. It brings disempowerment through the loss of the ability to cook. It brings crassness through emphasizing our animalistic lusts, like on Facebook when someone asserts “I want that!” to a photo of something that looks delicious. And it brings narcissism, through the focus on self and pleasure. In general it brings shallowness through the emphasis on secondary things in place of primary things.

Real cooking, like real sex, is about nourishment, connection, and love. It is about self-sacrifice and giving, and sharing with those we love. Neither should be about the gratification of lust nor a self-centered shallow pleasure. Although the term and concept of “food porn” isn’t wholly or even mostly responsible for these cultural ills, it is part and parcel with them, and I won’t be using the term.

Justin Naylor, chef & proprietor, Old Tioga Farm

Cooking from the garden

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I have watched with delight the growth of farmers markets, CSAs, and farm-to-table restaurants during the last decade or two. Although we have a long way to go, this is certainly the best time we’ve ever had in terms of obtaining quality veggies, raised with care and respect for the land.

Still, not all vegetables are equal, even farm-fresh ones. So many factors affect the flavor of vegetables: genetics, climate, soil conditions, and more. The vegetables, for example, from the island of St. Erasmo in Venice have almost mythic fame. Closer to home, from my own garden I see sometimes good results and sometimes great results. This is both frustrating and exciting. I always tell people that my life as a farmer is just as intellectually stimulating as my former life as a Latin teacher, and it’s true! My goal is the ever elusive goal of bringing to my customers vegetables of the highest freshness and quality, veggies that practically glow with health and vitality.

But it’s an elusive goal. Take beets. Some of my beets at some times of year from some garden plots are so sweet they taste just like sweet corn. A little butter and touch of salt are all they need with no other adornment. I swear I’d rather eat beets like that than the finest white truffle from Alba! But at other times of year, from other garden plots, the beets are just okay. Sugar content in vegetables can be measured by a Brix meter, and Dan Barber in his book The Third Plate tells the delightful story of how his gardener at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was delighted to find out that his carrots measured in at 16.9% sugar, compared to the store-bought carrots which measured in at a whopping 0%. Zero? So much for thinking of carrots as a commodity.

But what promotes the flavor of vegetables isn’t always clear. Yes, good soil and organic fertilization makes a huge difference. Yes, genetics make a huge difference. But weather and other unidentified but real factors make a huge difference too. Why vegetables from St. Erasmo are so remarkable is partly a mystery.

And so, as much as I applaud the local foods movement, there is a deeper and further step to be taken. As a chef, if I really want the best ingredients possible, I need to find a way to produce them myself, to produce exactly the types of vegetables I want to cook with. I need to recognize that good cooking happens as much in the field as in the kitchen, just like good wine is as much a product of the vineyard as the cellar. Just as the best winemakers are always producers of the finest fruit, so I believe that the best chefs need to become farmers and gardeners and producers of the finest produce. We need to take the next step beyond simply promoting local produce, and move on to promoting the most flavorful produce, and these two things are not necessarily inseparable. It’s a Herculean and at times Sisyphean task, but one I’m proud to be devoted to.

Cooking Duck Breasts

Duck is one of those dishes, like fish, that people order in restaurants far more often than they cook them at home. It’s a shame because duck is delicious, and it is hardly more difficult to cook well than chicken. One obstacle, however, is that it is hard to find. Few markets carry it regularly. Sometimes it can be found during the holidays, sometimes frozen at the supermarket. Fortunately, it can also be mail-ordered here and here.

Cooking a whole duck can be challenging, but cooking the legs and breasts separately is relatively easy. We’ve been cooking duck breasts all month at the restaurant, and I’ll describe the process here.

Pan-seared duck breast with rosemary & garlic, accompanied by braised chard (serves 2)

Begin by scoring the skin of an 8-ounce duck breast with a very sharp knife in a cross-hatch pattern, and generously season both sides of the duck. Duck has a great deal of fat which needs to be properly rendered, and the scoring of the skins facilitates this.

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Let the duck rest for an hour or two at room temperature, or even a few hours longer in the refrigerator.

The first step in cooking the duck breast is to render the fat. Because duck breast is traditionally served medium (a little pink), we need to do this with care so that most of the fat renders without the breast becoming overcooked.

Place a pan over high heat and add just a little olive oil. As soon as it begins to smoke, pat the duck breast dry with paper towels and place in the pan, skin side down. Immediately lower the heat to low or medium low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the fat is rendered but before the skin burns or becomes too dark.

Remove the duck from the pan and place on a plate, skin side up. Unlike chicken fat (aka schmaltz) which doesn’t taste very fresh and is unappealing to most people, duck fat is a treasured substance, perfect for cooking all types of dishes, from eggs to sautéing vegetables. Even one breast will render a shocking amount. Simply store the fat in the fridge, where it will keep a very long time.

While the duck is browning (or while it is resting), slice or chop a little onion and sauté over lively heat in a small pan with a little olive oil or duck fat for a few minutes until softened and beginning to take on some color. Add a large handful of chopped chard or spinach leaves and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine and add a bit of water to steam the greens. Lower the heat and turn off once wilted.

To finish the duck, return the pan (the one you used before and poured the fat from) to high heat. Add a little duck fat or fresh olive oil. When the pan is very hot, add the duck breast skin side up. After 30 seconds or so, add a little chopped garlic, rosemary, and hot pepper. About 30 seconds later, remove the pan from heat and deglaze with some white wine, broth, or water. There will be a lot of steam, so I just hold it right up to the exhaust fan.

Place the pan under the broiler for about 2 minutes. Every broiler is different, but mine is strong and so I place it in the middle or lower third of the oven to crisp the skin without burning. You may need to do it differently.

Return the pan to high heat for just another minute or so and remove from heat.

Place the duck on a cutting board and slice into thin strips with a very sharp knife.

Place the chard on two plates and top with the duck. Pour over the pan juices and serve at once.

Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm

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An abundance of riches

When I started cooking in the late ’90s, there were no cookbooks focusing specifically on Rome, at least that I could find. But a few years later there was a flurry of publication: David Dowdie’s Cooking the Roman Way, Jo Bettoja’s In a Roman Kitchen, and Maureen Fant’s Rome (Williams Sonoma).

After another few years of quiet, a new crop of Rome cookbooks has suddenly burst on the scene offering an abundance of riches for those interested in the cooking of the Eternal City.

First, I offer an apology for not including a discussion of Rome: Centuries in an Italian Kitchen by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi. It has only recently come to my attention and I haven’t had a chance to spend time with it yet. When I do, I’ll report back.

But I have spent time with three new books on Roman cooking: Eating Rome by Elizabeth Minchilli, Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill, and My Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy. You might wonder whether the market needs three new books on Rome. But these three books differ so much in content and tone that it wouldn’t be at all redundant for someone interested in Rome to own all three.

 

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Elizabeth Minchilli’s Eating Rome was the first published, and it is perhaps the most diverse in its content. In addition to recipes, it is full of charming stories as well as copious recommendations of where to shop, eat, and spend time in Rome. Minchilli is American, but moved to Rome with her family in the 1970s when she was 12 years old. They only stayed two years, but after numerous repeat trips for vacation and graduate school, she eventually married a Roman and has lived in Rome ever since. Having spent three decades in Rome, her breadth of experience is hard to match.

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For the sake of full disclosure, I must say that second author, Katie Parla, has been my friend and mentor in all things Roman since I started taking my high school Latin students to Rome and hired Katie to do our touring. I quickly learned that her expertise in the Roman culinary scene equalled her expertise in Roman art, history, and culture. So when I heard that she would be publishing her first cookbook, Tasting Rome, co-authored by Kristina Gill, I was pumped. Katie has an exceedingly rare gift of excellent taste. I’ve been let down many times by restaurant recommendations, but rarely from Katie. She has high standards, and like the late great Marcella Hazan, doesn’t suffer fools or fakes. She has strong opinions and doesn’t keep them to herself. This makes her writing compelling, especially on her blog. Her cookbook is beautiful. While it doesn’t have the breadth of Minchilli’s book, it more than makes up for this with its depth. It doesn’t try to do everything, but what it does it does very well. Perhaps its most unique and valuable characteristic is the extent to which it offers recipes from some of Rome’s finest chefs. The gnocchi recipe is the recipe from gnocchi master Arcangelo Dandini. The spaghetti alla gricia recipe is from Claudio Gargioli of Armando al Pantheon, to me the restaurant with the most exquisite rendition of this dish. The amatriciana is from Nabil Hassen of Roscioli. The fact that these chefs were happy to share their recipes with Katie for the book is a great testament to Katie’s reputation in Rome. Having recipes from masters such as Arcangelo, Claudio, Nabil and others elevates and ennobles Katie’s book. If there is a shortcoming to the book, perhaps it is that it’s surprisingly impersonal, and Katie’s personality doesn’t come through as it does on her blog. But it is a very important book, and one that I am thilled to have.

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Last but not least is Rachel Roddy’s My Kitchen in Rome. To me, it’s the best title of the three. The original British title of the book, Five Quarters, might be even better, as an homage to the importance of offal in the Roman kitchen as well as as a metaphor for the frugality and honesty of Roman cooking. But the American title, My Kitchen in Rome, is pretty great too because it immediately brings to mind a homely, personal, and authentic quality which is the book’s greatest characteristic. Rachel came to Rome about 10 years ago and hardly intended to stay. But as for so many others, months turned into years. Back home in England, cooking had played a part in her life, but it was a part amplified and enriched by cooking at home in Rome, in particular in the Testaccio neighborhood which has informed so much of Rachel’s cooking and which she writes so lovingly about. Rachel is refreshingly honest about the limitations of her kitchen: tiny, no exhaust fan, improvised equipment. It’s a reminder that good cooking comes from humble surroundings. But in the loving descriptions of her kitchen, of her neighborhood, of her husband and child, of her favorite restaurants, markets, coffee bars, and butchers; in her loving descriptions of all of these, Rachel communicates a real sense of her personality, a real sense of herself, and this makes the cookbook both rare and a treasure.

All three of these women have come to know Rome as an adopted home and all three communicate in their own ways their love for the city. All three have blogs. But despite the similarities, all three offer very different books, each of which is worth adding to your collection.

Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm

Maialino

Please note that is NOT a proper review. Among other things, a proper review requires professional standards like repeat visits and tasting through a significant portion of the menu. Instead, I offer some impressions meant to be helpful to readers but not meant to be misconstrued as an official review.

When I learned a few years ago that chef Nick Anderer had worked at Mario Batali’s excellent restaurant Babbo, I was excited to check out Anderer’s own two restaurants: Marta and Maialino. I got to Marta first, several years ago, and was delighted with their accurate recreation of such Roman classics as thin-crusted pizza (the only in the US I know of) and suppli. Last week Dillon and I finally had a chance to experience Maialino, Anderer’s first restaurant, embedded within the Gramercy Park Hotel and with beautiful views of Gramercy Park itself.

It was a good experience, but not a great one. And for the cost, it could hardly be considered a value. From the moment we arrived, we felt a certain indifference from the staff, not the warm and personable hospitality we’ve come to expect from the best restaurants. It was a busy time to be sure, brunch on a Sunday, and the place was packed. The staff seemed a little frazzled, but that’s part of the art of restaurant hospitality: to make guests feel completely at home even when things are getting a little harried.

In any case, we had a few minutes before our table was ready and we started at the bar for a snack and drink. It was brunch time, so we ordered a croissant filled with pistachio. It was solidly good and clearly made with care, even if it wasn’t the shatteringly crisp and and light perfection of the best croissants we’ve had at such places as Tartine in San Francisco or Roscioli in Rome. Our cocktails were excellent, though at $18 each they better have been.

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I apologize for the poor photo quality. We left our good camera at home and only had this smartphone.

The dining room has an attractive warmth to it, even while large windows offer a beautiful view of Grammercy Park itself. The menu is appropriate in scale, with enough dishes for variety, but few enough that the kitchen can really focus on each one. Knowing that American portion sizes preclude ordering a number of courses in a truly Italian way, we decided to order 3 courses to share.

Our appetizer was burrata with grilled bread. Burrata is mozzarella filled with cream and stracciatella cheese. It was excellent, and so I asked who the producer was. Our server didn’t know; somewhere in upstate New York, she said. Not exactly the sort of expertise one expects from such a restaurant. I pressed on, insisting someone in the kitchen must know where it came from, and I fear I offended her. She never really expressed any interest in us again. Turns out it wasn’t domestic at all, but imported from Italy. Ouch. The dish was excellent, and perhaps the nicest touch was that it was served simply with grilled bread. It wasn’t all gussied up in the American restaurant style with 3 or 4 superfluous ingredients. It was a nice dish.

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Just as nice was our next course: garganelli with tomatoes, rabbit & olives. Garganelli is a hand-formed egg pasta, somewhat similar in shape to penne. This was a very successful dish, perhaps the most impressive of the meal. It showed excellent taste and balance. And it reminded me that I don’t cook with olives enough, and that I should be cooking rabbit too!

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Less successful was the chicken scaloppine with mushrooms and arugula. To begin, it was way too big. Keep in mind that Dillon and I were sharing, and it was still impossible to finish. I’m not where the necessity to serve such large portions comes from, but it is an unfortunate trend in American restaurants, making it hard to eat multi-course meals in an Italian manner. The quality, however, was very good. It was breaded in the Milanese style, which is perhaps unimpressive to some, but when done well can be delightful. It was very successful from a technical point of view. The crust on the chicken was exquisitely crisp. But it perhaps lacked a certain something in personality, and topping it with braised mushrooms seemed a bit distracting, not to mention the fact that it moistened the exquisitely crisp crust.

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Even with sharing, we were too full for dessert. Instead we treated ourselves to a quartino of Barolo. Profound and nourishing, as only Barolo can be.

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We ended the meal with two macchiati, which were executed very well and brought the meal to a proper close. It’s always a good way to test whether a restaurant really cares.

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Would I return? I think I would, particularly for more formal dinner service. But I can’t deny that I was put off by the disparity between service and pricing. If a restaurant aspires to a certain level of quality, quality of service can’t be shortchanged and really must equal the quality of cooking. Maybe we just had a bad day, but I would certainly hope the service to improve on a return visit.

Please note that Maialino is part of a growing trend of American restaurants adopting a no-tipping policy. The service charge is factored into the pricing on the menu, and this explains why the dishes might seem surprisingly expensive at first. We’re thrilled that other restaurants are adopting this model, and we’re proud to have done so years ago.

Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm

My idea of a restaurant

Italian cooking is not the created, not to speak of the “creative”, cooking of restaurant chefs… It is cooking from the home kitchen… Food, whether simple or elaborate, is cooked in the style of the family. There is no such thing as Italian haute cuisine because there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking. All roads lead to the home, to la cucina di casa – the only one that deserves to be called Italian cooking.

Marcella Hazan, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Last year, I asked Luca di Vita of Osteria alle Testiere in Venice why the cooking there was so exceptional. His answer was a validation of my own thinking about restaurants. Luca explained that they thought of it not so much as a typical restaurant at all but more as the French concept of an atelier, a kind of workshop or studio in which a master works, with utmost attention to materials and quality.

Nothing could be further from the approach of the typical American restaurant. Here, almost always, quantity wins out over quality. The chain restaurant, in which a restaurant becomes a kind of mass-production factory, is able to produce food all over the country that is the same at every location, even if it lacks any sort of character or personality.

But even in so-called “fine dining” restaurants, the image of restaurant as assembly-line-factory is far too common. One person handles the pasta station, another is assigned to salads, yet another to desserts. As is true in all factory work, the creation of a product is chopped into smaller pieces so that less skilled workers can produce a part of that product even while none of them has the knowledge to produce the whole. Line cooks are notoriously poorly paid, even less than servers in the front of the house. Products become less expensive this way, but at a cost.

A restaurant needs to produce dishes quickly as orders come in, and frequently this means producing certain dishes far in advance and reheating them as needed. For example, perhaps the braised pork I’m eating on Tuesday was made in advance on Sunday, enough to cover orders for the whole week. An order comes in, it gets pulled from the fridge, reheated, and out it goes. Risotto takes 25 minutes to cook, and while most quality restaurants in Italy remind diners of the wait time, it’s far too long for most American diners to wait, so in American restaurants risotto gets pre-cooked halfway in advance and finished off when the order comes in. Efficient, yes, but at a cost.

Profit margins are tight in the restaurant business, usually about 10%. I learned this years ago when a restaurant where I was working was thinking about switching from paper to cloth napkins for lunch service. The laundering bill would be $100 a week, which would require selling $1000 more food per week to pay for it! Most restaurants are dependent on turning tables to be profitable. That is, they need the same table occupied by two different groups each night in order to make money. Guests need to eat quickly and go, to make room for the next. The logical extension of this approach is to expand and open a second or third or fourth restaurant. A successful chef becomes well known and leaves his first restaurant in “capable” hands in order to open another, and then another, and another. Celebrity chefs begin to resemble CEOs more than artisans of a craft. Profitable, yes, but at a cost.

I can’t fault conventional restaurants for embracing these tendencies. It’s a tough business. And the results can still be excellent, despite the shortcuts. But it’s not an approach that appeals to me. Whenever Marcella Hazan writes about a great restaurant in Italy, it’s always a place with a remarkable chef who somehow transmits his personality into his cooking. It is cooking which is dependent on having good taste and judgment, skills which are difficult to transmit to others. It’s not the anonymous cooking of the assembly line, but the personal cooking of a master. This is the kind of cooking I experience from the kitchen at Alle Testiere in Venice, operated by Bruno Gavagnin (business partner of Luca di Vita, who manages the front of the house). In Bruno’s kitchen there are no line cooks or pasta stations or reheated sauces from three days ago. It’s just Bruno, one assistant, and the day’s fresh catch from the lagoon. And the food tastes just like what it is: the careful and personal cooking of a master. Could Bruno train a low-wage line cook to produce the same dishes? Could he open three other restaurants in Venice, leaving Testiere in the capable hands of another professional? He most certainly could, but only at a cost; one which, thank God, he has been unwilling to pay.

People often ask us why we don’t expand our restaurant, assuming that every proprietor wants to grow his or her business. Why do we only do one seating per night? Why do we only seat 16 people per night? Why do we offer only a set, prix-fixe menu? The answer is simple: our little restaurant is as large as it can be without taking shortcuts. How many guests can my wife Dillon, our manager, comfortably serve and properly attend to? How many dishes can I send out of the kitchen and still have time to make sure each one is perfect? We’ve chosen not to hire staff. It’s just the two of us: Dillon in the front of the house and me in the kitchen. This imposes limits on what we do that help us maintain focus and provide exactly the experience to our guests which we want them to have.

The highest praise I receive about my cooking is that it tastes honest and fresh. I’m convinced this is largely the result of the fact that nothing that we cook is prepared far in advance. Pasta sauces are cooked, rest a short time, and are served. Slow-cooked braises spend the day in the oven and come out just in time to serve. Pasta dough is made at 4:00 and served at 7:00. Nothing comes out of the fridge and nothing sits under heat lamps waiting for the rest of an order to be ready. When Dillon and I dine out, we’re always seeking meals that don’t taste like “restaurant cooking”.

In effect, the cooking I do at Old Tioga Farm is closer in execution to good home cooking than conventional restaurant cooking. Of course it is careful and elegant, beautiful and balanced, I hope. But I also hope it is fresh and full of character and personality, that it tastes like it was cooked by a particular person, that it was cooked not for profit but with love. Rather than try to impress guests with extravagant preparations which look beautiful but taste of nothing, I prefer to cook dishes which are straightforward and full of rich but recognizable flavors. These are all traits I associate more with the home than the restaurant, and for us there’s no doubt that Marcella is right to say that one of the highest compliments a customer can pay to a chef in Italy is to remark that his or her cooking tastes “of the home”, even if this sounds odd in America.

This approach isn’t going to make us rich. Restaurant empires are for that. Perhaps this approach – more of an atelier than a restaurant, as Luca says, or perhaps more of the home – will never be the norm, but I like to think of it as an ideal that more chefs could aspire to. I’d like to see more restaurants that see themselves as the expression of a particular person with good taste. But for that to happen, that particular person needs to be the one doing the actual cooking. I like to think that it is an approach that has integrity and that creates a dining experience that is more personal, more intimate, more meaningful, and more delicious than that of a conventional restaurant. Although I never knew her, I like to think that Marcella would be pleased.

Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm

Lament for a once-great restaurant

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Now that’s a sad bread basket. Salt shaker is a nice touch too.

When my wife Dillon and I first visited Italy more than 10 years ago, the city of Bologna was on our short list of places to visit. Although not on the typical tourist circuit, I’d become intrigued about Bologna from the writings and cookbooks of Marcella and Victor Hazan.

Marcella ran a cooking school in Bologna in the ’70s and ’80s before relocating to Venice, and she writes about numerous Bolognese people and institutions: the Simili sisters, a country trattoria called Perla, al Cantunzein (“perhaps the greatest pasta restaurant that has ever existed”), and above all, Ristorante Diana.

Diana was and is a Bolognese institution. Marcella describes it as “Bologna’s great classic restaurant.” She includes recipes from the kitchen of Diana, including their custard gelato and bollito misto, or mixed boiled meats. I understand that many readers will not appreciate a dish with such an unappetizing name in English, but trust me (and Marcella): bollito misto is lovely. It is also Herculean in scale, so much so that it is vanishing from restaurant and home tables. Various cuts of meat, including cotechino sausage and a whole chicken, are gently simmered until meltingly tender and served with a series of piquant and flavorful sauces. It is a meal fit for a crowd.

Marcella has not been the only one to sing the praises of bollito misto and Diana’s version of it. Mario Batali as well has written effusively of the dish and the restaurant, and it has appeared on Mario’s own menu at Babbo.

Diana is one of the few restaurants in Bologna that stills prepares bolito misto, and the sight of the bollito misto trolley being wheeled around the dining room is memorable. When the meats are lifted from their warm bath of broth, the dining room is infused with steam and the aroma of comfort. The meats are cut to order for each patron, and one feels like a king.

Except that the cooking at Diana today is a sad and pale shadow of what it once reportedly was. On our first trip ten years ago, I was feeling under the weather and could eat little. For various reasons, I hadn’t been back until this year. I’m not sure when things went so downhill for Diana, but my meal there several days ago was certainly one of the worst I’ve ever had in Italy.

To start, the bread seemed days old, and the breadsticks came in plastic wrappers. The tagliatelle with truffles was lifeless and poor in aroma (It’s pretty hard to screw up truffles). Most disappointing of all, the bollito misto I’d read about for more than a decade and which I’d finally come to eat was a complete failure. The cuts of meat were poor, some with more fat than meat, not especially tender, and they were accompanied by a single, unmemorable sauce. I didn’t each much, mumbling something about how it was good but too much. My cameriere seemed to read between the lines. But he himself wasn’t trained properly to work in such a place and frankly couldn’t have seemed to care less. The icing on the cake was the monumental mirror on one of the restaurant walls, a beautiful piece of decoration which had been cleaned so badly it looked as if it had been wiped down with a dirty cloth.

Agreement about Diana’s decline seems to be nearly universal. My Bolognese friend and mentor Andrea speaks of growing up with Diana as the pinnacle of Bolognese dining. He’s not sure what happened either. Oddly, Mario Batali still lists it on his website as a top choice for Bologna. He says, “The cart of bollito misto alone can bring me to tears.” Me too, but not tears of joy! Let’s just assume Mario hasn’t been in a while and is due to update his recs soon.

The Hills of Bologna

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A beautiful but harrowing adventure

I almost died last week. Well, okay, not really, but I felt like I might die. I found myself in the Colline Bolognesi, the hills of Bologna, leading a group of clients to visit a producer of parmigiano-reggiano cheese near Santa Lucia. Should I have previewed the trip earlier by doing a run through of the route? Absolutely. But time was at a premium. And I had a GPS. Nothing to fear!

Except GPS systems are infamous for choosing routes with minor roads and excessive complexity, all in the name of saving half a kilometer.

So here I was with a van full of clients climbing into the hills of Bologna, except “hills” are an understatement. Really it is the beginning of the massive Apennine mountain range which cuts through Italy like a spine, and these were no hills. Instead there were kilometers of steep ascents and hairpin turns around every corner. And instead of choosing a direct route, the GPS system took us on back mountain roads, including one which had literally disintegrated into rubble.

But the low point was at the top of the mountain when the brake fluid light came on. How could anything be worse? It was all I could do to keep my composure and continue to the caseificio, which miraculously was found, and with five whole minutes to spare.

The visit was amazing, and all was forgotten temporarily. We started down the mountain toward lunch at Amerigo dal 1934 in Savigno, which was so tremendous that I was once again able to focus on something other than failing breaks. The brake fluid light hadn’t come back on, and everything seemed to be working fine.

But just as we were almost home free, the GPS had other ideas. As I learned later from studying the route, for the sake of saving us a kilometer, the GPS led us on a “short cut” back up over another harrowing mountain, requiring speeds of 30 km/h, and turning what should have been a 25 minute trip home into an hour-long, hair-raising ordeal.

But one of my clients was an excellent co-pilot and helped me keep up my nerve. I was sweating bullets, it was dark, I was coming down out of a mountain totally unfamiliar with hairpin turns every kilometer or so for 15 kilometers.

Needless to say, the first destination after returning to the villa was a soak in the hot tub. Nothing had every felt so good. But the remarkable thing is that the harrowing adventure up and down the mountains became the favorite memory of the whole week for many of my clients. Even I can now look back with nostalgia on what at the time was pure hell.

This past week I took a more sane and direct route to the caseificio with my second group of clients, and although it was by far a more relaxing trip, I can’t say part of me wasn’t craving the drama and adventure of the earlier trip. Maybe just not so much as to actually do it again.