a conversation with Alessandro Galtieri

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alessandro

Alessandro Galtieri and his wife Cristina are the proprietors of the coffee bar Aroma, in Bologna. In addition to operating Aroma, Alessandro travels throughout Italy and Europe training baristas in proper coffeemaking technique. He also competes in national and international coffee competitions, most recently winning Gold at the Italian Brewers’ Cup in Rimini in January. In April, he will represent Italy at the World Coffee Championship in Boston.

In the interview, Alessandro and I discuss what makes espresso unique among brewing methods, why it’s OK to have cappuccino in the afternoon, and why not all coffee in Italy is of a high quality.

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JN: Alessandro, let’s start with espresso, what in Italy is just called caffè [coffee]. Everyone has heard of espresso, but many in America have never tried it, or if they have, it’s been bad. Of all the different ways to produce coffee in a cup, what is distinctive about espresso?

AG: The best way to describe espresso is that it is short, intense, a quick recharge. Filtered coffee by contrast is long, smooth, and relaxing. I say with my students that espresso is an .mp3: concentrated, compact. Filtered coffee is an LP. Espresso is the principal way in Italy to have coffee outside of the home. Especially in the morning, Italians don’t have satisfaction if you prepare coffee in a different way. But often they drink bad espresso, even in Italy. A lot of home coffee drunk in Italy is very bad as well, because people pretend to know how to prepare coffee, like it’s a natural-born ability, but they don’t know really how to treat coffee in the best way. They try to have a kind of magic!

JN: Espresso is the most expensive way to make coffee, because the equipment is so expensive. It’s such a technical, precise operation: the pressure has to be perfect, the grinding has to be perfect, the temperature has to be perfect. There’s nothing quite as technical as the espresso machine, and the result in the cup, you describe as an .mp3, compact. I’ve sometimes used the word concentrated, thinking of a raisin instead of a grape, something like this. What should a well-made shot of espresso look like in the cup, what should it taste like when you drink it, what should its texture be like?

AG: I look for balance. So, I search for sweetness – natural sweetness, not added sugar – I try to avoid bitterness, and I search for an interesting acidity in each coffee I can produce.

JNFor those who don’t know espresso well, tell us about crema, what is is and why it’s important and unique to espresso.

AG: Crema is a creamy emulsion – the oil and protein, the carbon dioxide of the coffee – extracted during the brewing of espresso. In espresso brewing, here is a great amount of energy on a little pack of coffee, and this brews a lot of the solubles inside the espresso. So it’s very concentrated and very strong.

JN: Does crema affect the flavor or only the texture of it?

AG: Yes, it does, because carbon dioxide is a little bitter. Some coffee geeks throw away crema when they drink espresso.

JNThat seems crazy, because for many it is the best part – at least, the texture of it.

AG: The texture, yes, but not the flavor.

JN: That’s interesting. Espresso is also the foundation of other drinks that are very famous throughout the world. Everyone knows about a cappuccino, but not everyone knows about a macchiato. In America, at Starbucks, a macchiato is totally different from a macchiato in Italy. Can you tell us about some common drinks one would order at a bar in Italy?

AG: It’s very simple. The list is short: espresso, cappuccino, latte macchiato. There is not much more than this, because people ask for variations. They don’t say, “Flat white.” They don’t give it a name. They say, “One cappuccino with a little bit of foam and two shots.”

JNSo, they don’t give it a name, but they tell you the way they want it?

AG: Because people often go to the same bar, they say, “Give me mine,” and you have to know.

JNIn Italy, how do you know that you’ve been served a well-made cappuccino? The American version is often super-sized and served too hot with poorly-frothed milk. What makes a well-made cappuccino, in your opinion?

AG: Of course, the size of the cup has to be not so big; let’s say, about 180-200 milliliters, not more, with one shot of espresso. The milk has to be foamed well. There is a technical way to foam milk in order to make tiny, tiny bubbles [called micro-foam] that give a silky, rich sensation of cream, not milk. You can drink a milk beverage that seems to have cream, but has only milk, and the fat is much lower. You can have high satisfaction with low calories.

JN: Is it true that Italians consider cappuccino only a drink for the morning? Is it really a faux pas to order a cappuccino after lunch?

AG: No, no. It’s true that Italians drink cappuccino more often in the morning than in the afternoon, but it’s not a rule. It’s not true that Italians don’t drink cappuccino after lunch. But maybe not with lunch or just after. They do not consider it as a dessert.

JN: So, if an American wants a cappuccino in the afternoon, it’s OK? They shouldn’t feel embarrassed?

AG: Absolutely not! For breakfast, and for what we call merenda, a snack in the afternoon, it’s OK. Absolutely OK.

JN: Let’s talk about macchiato. So, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with just a little frothed milk.

AG: Yes. You have to froth the milk in the same way as the cappuccino, but using a super little quantity of fresh milk. No recycled milk! Fresh milk for the best taste.

JN: How much? I see various styles. Some really just have a drop. Others are maybe 50/50.

AG: There is not a classified way to make coffee drinks, in general. So, it’s difficult to say this is right, or this is wrong. But my vision is that, given the amount of espresso, you have to have half milk and half foam. If you can, as a barista, make a good pattern inside your cup, that’s a good way to present, for cappuccino and macchiato. Not only latte art, but a pleasing silky, shining crown of crema.

JN: You mentioned both milk and foam. In your pitcher of milk, you feel like there are both, it’s not homogeneous all whole way down?

AG: Yes, you have to manage to have tiny, tiny bubbles, and you have to make a motion before, to pour the milk. In this way, foam and liquid milk melt together, so you can have that sensation. Because if you wait, of course the foam goes up and the liquid goes down.

JN: When you pour it, the milk and the foam should all be the same.

AG: Not perfectly the same, but yes.

JN: I see. You mentioned earlier the “flat white.” It’s interesting, because in the US where most milk is frothed badly, the flat white came along. I had to laugh, because it seemed like a flat white is just a cappuccino made properly.

AG: OK! [Laughter]

JNIt’s like they finally figured out how to froth milk right, and they gave it a new name! But how do you think of the term? I was surprised to hear you use and embrace that term. How is it different from a properly-made cappuccino?

AG: I love something new, I like to promote different ways to expand my work for many years. It’s very interesting that other countries have invented some recipes different from the one that we drink generally in Italy. I’m pleased to propose to my customers – foreigners, but even for Italians – why don’t you try this? For me in a flat white there’s two shots, not one shot; there is a lower quantity of milk, so it’s stronger in taste, and there is a little quantity of foam, so there is more liquid. It’s a different way. So, why not?

JNLet’s talk now about grinding. It’s such an important part of espresso.

AG: It’s difficult to understand the importance of the grind, because we can’t see it. The grind for espresso is so small, we can’t see how it’s made. But if you grind the same coffee with different grinders and you use a microscope, you can see that it’s completely different.

JN: And you mean different grinders of different quality? You don’t mean two grinders of the same quality?

AG: Even with two grinders of the same quality, there are differences. It’s difficult to cut a coffee bean! It’s not like cutting vegetables or meat. You know how chefs are interested in knives.

JN: That’s right, knives are very important to chefs.

AG: Very important. The grinder is very important for a barista, because the grind size, the particle distributions, the shape of the grind, the dimensions of the particle — all give differences.

JNIf someone loves coffee enough to buy a machine at home, and they’re willing to spend 1,000 or 2,000 Euro on a small machine, they need to spend that same amount of money on their grinder, pretty much.

AG: Yes, almost. You have to spend at least 600 or 700 Euro for a good electrical grinder.

JNAnd how about dosing? One difference in America is that baristas have increased the dose or amount of coffee per shot. The traditional dosing in Italy for two shots is 14 grams, is that right?

AG: Yes.

JN: In America, they started doing 18 grams, even 21 grams, and then turning that into a single ristretto shot. Now, instead of having 7 grams in a shot, you could have 20 grams or more. You can imagine the result of that. To me, it’s not balanced.

AG: It depends. Italians produced this recipe – 7 grams for 25 ml – because they have the same blend. All the roasters made more or less the same blend. So, it’s right for them. That recipe is quite good for most of the espresso blends in Italy, but not for other roasts. So, when you want to prepare a single origin, specialty coffee — very selective, light-roasted, very soluble — and you want a thick mouthfeel, you have to add more coffee, a higher dose.

JN: OK, so that’s how it came about, through different types of beans and different ways of roasting?

AG: That’s one reason. The other reason is the geometry of the filter. Italians used to use the single basket, but the single basket is wrong, it’s not the proper geometry. You can see, it tips. So, when you press with nine bars and 93 degrees on a little cake of coffee, you crush it in this one.

JNSo, you never use the single basket.

AG: I do, because I’ve been a barista for many years.

JNYou can do it, but it’s harder.

AG: But not for coffee. For Italian-style coffee.

JNSo how do you dose?

AG: For me the ratio generally is 50 percent, so if you use 14 grams of coffee, you have 28 grams of liquid. Generally speaking.

JN: One important difference about espresso in Italy is that often they are blends of arabica and robusta beans. In America, robusta has developed a bad reputation among small, artisan roasters. Why has robusta traditionally been included in Italian blends, and is it a good thing?

AG: Robusta is important in the traditional Italian blends because we want a strong and thick preparation. Espresso has to be strong and thick, and robusta gives that body, it gives that thickness and a thick crema. We are used to adding sugar, so we don’t care if espresso is a little bit bitter, because we balance that bitterness with a little bit of sugar.

JN: What percentage of Italians add sugar to their espresso?

AG: Eighty percent, I think, because sugar adds body. So, you have a greater amount of body inside a thick and strong espresso.

JN: Does it make you sad to see your customers adding sugar to your coffee at the bar?

AG: Yes. [Laughter]

JN: Because it shouldn’t need it! And they don’t even taste it first, they just add sugar.

AG: It’s a habit.

JNSo, the robusta is providing body, more crema…

AG: And, a bitter taste that some people do like.

JNObviously, it’s good to have different flavors. When you drink espresso, do you prefer blends with robusta, or 100% arabica?

AG: I prefer arabica, specialty coffee – I search for fruity and citrus-like flavors.

JNSo you use blends with robusta to meet people’s expectations, but you prefer arabica?

AG: Yes, I think that my work is to give quality, not say to my customers what is good or what is not good. They have to decide. I give quality in any case.

JN: But you wouldn’t encourage American roasters to start including robusta in their blends.

AG: I think it’s the future, actually. Maybe not soon, but I think that robusta will be included, because robusta is less rich, of course, than arabica, but the bad taste of robusta is often because it doesn’t have the same attention given to it, as arabica.

JNSo, it’s usually bad because they’re not paying attention to it, but if people are doing it well, it could be just as good as arabica. Different, but just as good?

AG: Yes. It’s the same as with wine and beer; if you’re eating lobster, maybe you appreciate champagne. But if you’re having a crostino, maybe you want Barbera, not champagne.

JNIt’s always good to have different options, different flavors.

AG: The same man can go to the 3-star restaurant and to McDonalds and appreciate both.

JN: For any roasters reading this, when you blend robusta and arabica, what kind of ratios are we talking about, in traditional Italian blends?

AG: Generally, 80% arabica and 20% robusta.

JN: I’ve had 100% robusta shots that taste quite different, but which are wonderful, so it’s possible even to have 100% robusta of high quality?

AG: Yes, definitely. Ten years ago, in the books of chocolate masters, it was written that it was impossible to have 100% chocolate that tastes good. It’s not true! You can have 100% and have it taste good.

JN: So, we’ve talked about ways espresso and roasting are different in America. Let’s talk about Italy now, because many Americans who visit Italy wrongly think that everything is perfect. Of course, when you’re on vacation, everything tastes good. But it’s not true!

AG: Yes!

JN: But people say things like, “I’ve never had a bad meal in Italy,” and “I’ve never had a bad coffee in Italy.” It’s not true. You’ve told us how you’re working here; tell us about how your work is different from other bars in Italy. You mentioned earlier that many Italian baristas don’t have much training. They think they can do it just because they’re Italian. What are other bars doing that makes you sad?

AG: They don’t give value to coffee, sadly. The bar generally has 30% of their work making espresso, because they’re also selling panini, aperitivi, and so on. 30% is a great amount of your cash, so it’s as important as the other part of your work. So, I don’t know why, but the quality of the espresso goes down, and generally when a new guy comes in and he doesn’t know how to do the work, they ask him, “What do you know?” and he answers, “Nothing,” and they say, “OK, go to the machine.” The perfect opposite of the other country: there, you can’t touch the machine, and you are scared. Of course, because the machine costs a lot of money, and people come into your caffetteria because there is good coffee. They might have a cake or something else, but they come because there is good coffee. In Italy, often it’s not so. They say, “What does it take to make an espresso? Anyone can make an espresso, it’s not important.” It’s not true, it’s not proper. It’s a pity, in a country so valued, as you said, for the quality of the food and beverages. It’s a pity. We are changing this.

JN: I understand what you’re saying, and I agree with it about Italian bars. It’s just so much worse in other countries though. Even “bad” espresso in Italy is better than it is in most other countries. That’s interesting too.

AG: Yes, this is interesting. It’s because we grew up with espresso. In our mind, there are some proportions – you know that there has to be that amount of water in the cup, you know that there has to be that amount of coffee in the basket. You know because you grew up with espresso. But it’s not a real knowledge; it’s an instinct.

JN: Speaking of being trained, something I see people in Italy tamp very firmly; other times they barely touch it. I’m curious what your attitude is about tamping. How important is it?

AG: Tamping is not as important as people pretend. But it is important, because during the tamping you take out a variable: the air pockets in the grind – the air particles that are inside the basket in a confused way. So, you have to compact the coffee. To do that, you use the tamper that has to properly formed for the basket – not too small, as often is used. It has to fit correctly, to get all the air out. This is the work of the tamper. You have to be consistent, to avoid injury of your hand if you’re doing it professionally all day.

JN: And I guess we should have mentioned that the reason you need to spend 1,000 or 2,000 Euros on a grinder is so that the particles are all exactly the same size. That’s one reason the grinder is so important.

AG: It depends on the brewing method. For espresso, no. For espresso, it’s better when there are different particle sizes.

JNReally? That surprises me so much. Not identical?

AG: No, not identical. So, some are very fine and some less so.

JN: And a good grinder does that better than a cheap grinder.

AG: Even very expensive grinders are not right for espresso. It depends, some very expensive grinders do not give the right particle distribution.

JNSo, like buying a car, you probably shouldn’t buy a grinder you haven’t tested with your machine.

AG: Yes, it has to fit well with your machine.

JNAnd machines vary, too, they have their own personalities?

AG: Yes, of course.

JN: The brand of machine you have now, is it new or have you used it for your whole career?

AG: Yes, I have changed, of course. This kind of machine was invented in 2000. Before, there were only E-61 type, so I used that kind then.

JNHave you ever used a machine that’s totally manual, with a hand pull?

AG: No. I do like it, but you can’t manage the temperature so well.

JNSo, of the other coffee bars in Italy, some of them probably aren’t even cleaning their machines very well, or their portafilters.

AG: No, they think it’s bad. Sadly we have lots of baristas think that if you clean the machine, the coffee is bad.

JN: The opposite of what’s true! Do you find the quality of the coffee is even dependent on different types of baskets?

AG: It is not simply a basket; it is an extraction chamber, not only a basket. So, the shape, the number of the holes, the distance between one and another, the shape of the holes, everything is important.

JN: Let’s move on to a topic of interest to Americans visiting Italy: etiquette at a coffee bar. What should Americans who have never been in an Italian coffee bar know about what to do? In some bars, you pay first and then bring your receipt to the barista; in other bars, you order first and then pay. People don’t know whether they should stand at the bar or sit down. What advice do you have?

AG: As with the issue of the recipe, generally you don’t find a menu, because people ask for the same things and they ask for different recipes personally made. The Italian espresso bar has developed in a peculiar way. Working-class people made the espresso bar. It’s a place where workers go to meet someone, to socialize. The Italian espresso bar was born during the Industrial Revolution in Italy, that started after the Second World War. A lot of people from the country went to the city to find work. They lost all their culture, all the people they knew, and they had no money. So, what do we do when we don’t work? We go to the bar, and we can socialize with the small cost of one espresso. Then comes gambling on soccer, then the TV, everyone goes to the bar to watch TV.

JNWhich is ironic, because in the US, sometimes working-class people think that people who go to espresso bars are snobs. They prefer to have a 12-ounce cup of American coffee.

AG: Yes, it is a new way to drink coffee for Americans. I think [former Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz had a great idea to promote espresso for Americans, because espresso is a cool thing. It’s not the coffee that you’re in the habit of drinking, but it’s something more cool. The same, maybe, will be in Italy for pour-over.

JN: Speaking of pour-over, your bar is one of the few here where one can order a pour-over. When did you begin making pour-over filter coffee?

AG: Two or three years ago. I started to appreciate it.

JN: Do you make it for yourself?

AG: I’m afraid to say that, [Laughter] but I drink a lot of filtered coffee, more than espresso!

pour over

JN: Earlier you compared it to an LP, whereas espresso is an .mp3.

AG: Yes. I like this way very much to prepare coffee. Of course, when you prepare pour-over coffee, you use specialty coffee, not commercial coffee. It’s very interesting to find the way, manually, to exalt the pleasant characteristics that are inside the coffee. It’s difficult and challenging.

JNIn addition to the regular espresso drinks that every bar makes, you also make these lovely drinks which are sort of like dessert coffees. There’s one with zabaglione, one with chocolate, and one with fior di latte cream. Tell us a little about where the idea came from to make those.

zabaione

AG: We started to have a specialization in coffee when in Italy there was no one doing it. We had to imagine a way. We were pioneers.

JN: How long ago was this?

AG: We started in 1987 to make single-origin coffees, and in 2001 we started with this place. When we started, we had only espresso. Not only espresso, but only coffee. We didn’t make sandwiches, alcohol, nothing. And we threw away sugar! We were very hard on our customers. They were interested, but they didn’t know what we were doing. So, to maintain a link with our customers, we started to make something gorgeous, some concoction with our product, espresso. We started to think about a list of recipes. We have reduced our offerings a lot, but during the years we’ve had many recipes, dessert coffees.

JN: You mentioned having this shop for 18 years. Are you from Bologna?

AG: Yes.

JNSo, you’ve seen Bologna change in your lifetime, especially the past few years. I understand that tourism is really beginning to get stronger. As a resident of Bologna and an owner of a coffee bar, how do you feel about the changes? Is it good so far, or is it something you worry about, Bologna becoming like Florence or Venice?

AG: I’m afraid of that, of course, but we have the possibility to build a better, different way of tourism. Bologna is closed, it’s a medieval city, and it has a lot to offer in terms of culture, not only food culture. Of course, I’m pleased; I am representative of the food culture, so I’m lucky. There are a lot of non-food artisans who are in trouble now because people only want to eat and drink. This is a pity for other artisans. I see that often tourists think only about food. It’s a pity, because Bologna can offer a lot in terms of culture.

JNWhat would you recommend to a tourist visiting Bologna for the first time, in terms of how long to stay and how to organize their visit?

AG: Bologna is a small town, so you don’t need too many days to visit it. I suggest to visit not only the church [Basilica of San Petronio], but also the museums that are very, very good; the archaeological museum; the medieval museum; the music museum; the University museum is very interesting. Between one meal and the next, I suggest that. It’s good to go up the towers, too, but not only that.

JNYour shop is close to the Piazza Maggiore, but not too close. Do many tourists find you? Have your experiences been with tourists been positive?

AG: Very, very positive. I want only tourists!

JNMaybe they appreciate it better than the Bolognesi. [Laughter]

AG: It’s much easier with tourists for my kind of offerings. Very much easier, and they are very much more happy. For me, it’s a real pleasure to serve them.

JN: Finally, you mentioned being a lover of the food of Bologna. People shouldn’t come and only eat, but of course eating is an important part of visiting Bologna. Having grown up in Bologna and seen the city for your whole life, what is the quality of the Bolognese restaurants these days? Is the quality very high, or is it declining?

AG: It was worse in the past. Maybe now with all this tourism, it’s getting better. There are many people in the past who started doing something thinking only about money. Now they want to give quality, not just make more money. When there wasn’t tourism, only people coming for big fairs and conventions, the quality was worse.

JNWhat are some places where you enjoy eating?

AG: I like Osteria Bartolini very much because of their fresh fish daily from Riviera Romagnola (80-90 km from Bologna), Osteria Bottega for tagliatelle, tortellini and salumi, and Ristorante Marconi (30 car min. out of Bologna) a one-star Michelin restaurant, when I want to cuddle myself much more!

JN: I’d love to talk all afternoon, but unfortunately we should probably stop there. Thanks again!

AG: My pleasure.

cristina

a conversation with Monica Venturi

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Monica (left) and Daniela Venturi

Monica Venturi is the co-owner, along with her sister Daniela, of one of Bologna’s most lauded pasta shops: Le Sfogline [“the pasta makers”]. After first pursuing a different line of work, Monica joined her sister and mother in the family business and has dedicated herself to the craft of making fresh egg pasta in the tradition of Bologna ever since, for  over 20 years.

Back in November, Monica and I had a chance to chat in person in her beautiful shop. During the conversation we talk about growing up in Bologna, why tortellini are only eaten a few times a year, and why cotoletta alla bolognese is like a drug.

For a quick preview, check out this lovely video of Monica in action. (All photos courtesy of Le Sfogline.)

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Justin Naylor: I’ve been studying the cooking of Emilia for about twenty years, so to talk to a sfoglina of such experience is very special for me. Let’s begin at the beginning. Did you grow up in Bologna?

Monica Venturi: I was born inside the walls, so I’m a real Bolognese girl. I lived with my parents, sister, and two grandparents. Our grandmother was with us every day and she was the one running the house. So, starting in the morning, making the dough every day; every day we ate tagliatelle with ragù or with another sauce. The most important thing was the dough, the sfoglia. We started seeing our grandmother stretching the dough when we were kids, and then also our mother when she was at home and wasn’t working. She used to have very good meals for us. The tradition for us has been very important. For my generation and my sister’s, it was having someone at home who was making the food starting from the beginning. In our family, there was always something like that. It was really difficult for us to eat spaghetti or rice – only when we were sick, or on Fridays because we had to eat something without meat, so it was just a little bit lighter. That doesn’t mean that we were fat, but we were fed in the right way. That’s why we grew up properly. We tasted many things without saying,  “No, I don’t want that.” Just taste it.

JN: How was Bologna different in those days? You’ve seen Bologna change quite a bit, I imagine.

MV: Yes, but not only food. First of all, my generation saw the beginning of women working outside the home. The housewives were very few, or very rich, so they had someone helping them. Since we opened the shop 22 years ago, we have seen how many women come here because they don’t have time to cook an egg, because they stay out from the morning until the evening. Maybe they have kids, so they have to run the family, the job, and so it’s very difficult for them. My sister and I were really lucky having a family like ours. Our generation was lucky. I don’t want to say that women mustn’t work. For most of them it’s very important to work.

JN: I guess we can at least say that you can’t have everything. What you said about having egg pasta every day is interesting, because the younger generation is more likely to say, “Oh, we don’t eat fresh pasta every day – maybe once a week, or on the weekend.” They almost seem to have forgotten that in the past you could have tagliatelle with ragù or something else every day. They seem to think of it as something that’s special. That seems to be a change.

MV: It’s completely different. But everything is different. When I was a kid, I used to stay in the playground – every house had a playground, so I was with my friends or in the nearby gardens, and so I could play with my friends. Now, every kid must have the music lesson, the basketball practice, swimming. I used to go swim, but I was really lazy and I didn’t want to swim too much. [Laughter] If my teacher wanted me to swim for 800 meters, I said, “No, that’s too much.” I was not nervous, but always busy doing something.

JN: You can’t remember a time before pasta, but you can probably remember a time before you did the rolling yourself for the first time. How old were you when you started to do it on your own?

MV: I really only made it beginning thirty years ago as an adult. Not as a child; I just tried, with my mother and my grandmother, to do something like that. But I must say that when we grew up and I was working, and my sister and mother were working, and my grandmother was at her daughter’s house, we usually ate egg pasta on the weekend, because we didn’t have the time, like all women in Bologna and in Italy. When I started to approach the sfoglia again, it was because I wanted to have some fun, because I knew how to make it. I remembered it. It’s like riding a bicycle: the first time, you make something really horrible, and the next time it is better, and so on. So, sometimes I would bring my friends some tagliatelle, eating it together.

JN: For those who don’t know, can you describe how the cooking of Emilia is different from other Italian regions? When you think of it, what is its heart and soul?

MV: I must start by comparing every region of Italy. Every region has its own proper kind of cooking made by what in the past centuries we could have. As far as Emilia is concerned, Emilia was a farmer’s place. So that’s why they have cows, pigs, chickens, and they had grain. That’s why they had to combine everything, to feed themselves. When you stay in Bologna, you will eat ricotta cheese made with cow’s milk, not sheep’s or goat’s milk. You can find them, of course, but it’s not typical to Bologna, because we had cows.

JN: Why are dairy cows able to be raised in Emilia more easily in than in, say, Tuscany?

MV: They were important a century before. We were under French dominion. If you go into Romagna, the dominion was different. So, in Romagna you will find pecorino cheese. In Romagna, the sfoglia is not like our sfoglia. In Romagna you eat piadina, which means that in the past centuries, they came from the ancient Romans. They had a kind of bread like piadina — or if you want, pita — which is a little bit different. And so, when we were under the French dominion, we used these kind of things, and they grew up in the centers. If you go to Modena, they must say, “Thank all life for the pigs,” because from the pig you can take everything (even the hair, for making toothbrushes), but especially you can have zampone, prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto – pork is the best for eating. So, that’s why in Emilia it is so important to have eggs with very yellow yolks. If you go in Lombardia, you will not find sfoglia like we make it.

JN: Why are they so yellow here, the yolks?

MV: Because the chickens are fed with corn. I always suggest to my students, who are very often American or English, to put some saffron on, to give the yellow color. If you use too many yolks, instead of the whole egg, you don’t have an elastic dough and it’s very difficult to stretch it properly. Because when you make tortellini and tortelloni, the dough must be very thin. The important thing with these dishes is the filling. If you cover it too much with the pasta, the sfoglia, and you cannot taste the inside of the tortellino, for example, it’s not right.

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JN: The fresh pasta in Rome is terrible; they don’t seem to understand it, because they’re used to spaghetti and rigatoni.

MV: Yes, it’s a different kind of thing.

JN: Ravioli – as they call them — in Rome are terrible!

MV: Many people in Rome want to dress tortellini with a good sausage sauce – agh! More than one time I’ve told them, “Don’t do this – if you do, I won’t give you tortellini.” It’s very strange for some people to realize that when the filling is so rich, you just have to dress it with something really light, to enrich the taste of the tortellino and also of the broth. It’s like tortelloni. Tortelloni with ragù is something that when you eat one of these you just have to – go to sleep!

JN: It’s too much. So, you said that in Emilia you use whole eggs because it’s more extensible and stretchier. In Rome they don’t understand fresh pasta at all, but in Piemonte they do. In Piemonte, where they’re using only yolks, it’s less stretchy, but it’s still good.

MV: Yes. In fact, that kind of dough is very, very thick. It’s about 2 centimeters thick, because they have to make spaghetti alla chitarra. That’s why I saw a program run by Gérard Depardieu, the actor. It was a very nice program, called Bon Appetit. He came to Italy – but not to Emilia, I’m so sad he didn’t come here – and was visiting places for culatello, parmigiano-reggiano, and so on. He went to Piemonte, and I saw a lady who, for one kilo of flour, used 23 eggs – only the yolks – and a few whole eggs. In fact, to stretch it, it was really, really difficult.

JN: You saw her working harder on the stretching because it had so many yolks?

MV: Yes, but the result is great also because they dress them with truffles, so…

JN: It’s OK. [Laughter] Back to Emilia, we have these rich ingredients – pork, cow’s milk. What’s the style of cooking that results from these rich ingredients?

MV: I must say, first, that we love broth. So, thinking that tortellini were eaten only twice a year – and one of these days was Christmas Day – drinking the broth, we used to have other things to put inside, such as passatelli (made with parmigiano, bread crumbs, eggs, nutmeg and salt) and also zuppa imperiale made with eggs, parmigiano-reggiano, some flour, a drop of butter, salt, and nutmeg. We cook it in the oven. When it’s cool, you just cut them in thick slices and then in cubes. Passatelli and zuppa imperiale aren’t really pastas, but you can think of them as pastas. Both can be used in soups, vegetable soups. Instead of crostini, you put them and you have a great product. Apart from broth, we also have three other things that are very important in Bologna: tagliatelle, because we make ragù – and tagliatelle with ragù is at the top. The size of the tagliatelle when it’s cooked should be seven milimeters, which is the official width as recorded in our Chamber of Commerce.

JN: Why do you eat tagliatelle every day, but tortellini only twice a year?

MV: Because it’s a very rich dish. Every farmer had pork and so on, but once a year you had to kill the pig and prepare it for making all the things useful for the year. As nobody was really rich, they kept the parts of pork like a jewel. So that’s why this rich dish was only for Christmas. Apart from tagliatelle, we also have lasagne – a mixing and compacting of green sfoglia, which is lighter because using spinach brings water into the dough, and you use fewer eggs.

JN: And it also changes the flavor a little bit?

MV: Not that much. With bechamella and meat sauce, you make a layers of these fantastic things.

JN: Do you think that the bechamella should be separate from, or mixed in with the ragù? People do different things.

MV: Separate, and not that much. Using bechamella is for not making the lasagne too dry.

JN: How long should lasagne cook?

MV: It depends upon the size. If it is for one person, about 300 grams, you can cook it for an oven for 15 or 20 minutes. If you cook it for eight people, it’s about 2 kilos of lasagne, so it has to stay in the oven longer, for about 40-45 minutes.

JN: Since ragù might be the most famous of all sauces in Emilia, could you say a little about how your family has approached the making of ragù? I know every family makes it a little differently. What is important in making ragù for you?

MV: To have the top quality of all ingredients. The ingredients are important in anything you make – if you don’t have good ingredients, the product can’t be the best. That’s why what we made it at home, and what we are doing at the shop is the same. The kind of beef for making ragù, it’s ground only once and cooked in butter, celery, carrots, and onions.

JN: Does it matter what part of the animal it comes from?

MV: It’s very important. It’s the shoulder. We call it riale di manzo. We don’t use pork, only beef. Many people do use pork, but our ragù is traditionally without pork.

JN: Although all recipes for ragù have carrots, celery, and onion, often you wouldn’t know it because you can’t see it in the final result. Is it important to make them that small?

MV: Many ragù are very pale, and you can see a great part of the celery, carrots, and onions. I don’t like that. First of all, you cannot digest. It starts jumping all day long. You have to – not to brown the vegetables, but to cook them very well before putting in the meat. So, the first step is to brown the butter with carrots, celery, and onions – but not really brown, just let them reduce, and then you add the meat, and then you start stirring very slowly, boiling very slowly. You need time. You just forget your ragù over the fire.

JN: Three hours, four hours?

MV: It depends. To me, also five hours, because usually we have 7-8 kilos of meat.

JN: Is your family a family that uses a tiny touch of tomato, or more tomato? Because sometimes ragù is completely brown, and sometimes ragù is a little bit red. Do you have an opinion?

MV: We don’t use tomatoes or puree. We use tomato paste, and half a glass of water. Tomato paste is almost sweet. It doesn’t give the ragù that dry taste, which I don’t like. Our family’s tradition was always with tomato paste.

JN: The pasta dishes – the primi – of Bologna are so beautiful and so rich and delicious, sometimes it seems like the secondi have a hard time being equal. How do you follow tortellini?

MV: What about cotoletta?

JN: [Laughter] Fair enough!

MV: But you’re right, in a way. The primi can seem more special maybe because pasta is something unique. Secondi are made with meat, fish, vegetables – and you can find them everywhere in the world. Pasta is something made in Italy, and sfoglia is something made in Emilia-Romagna. This keeps it unique. For me, cotoletta alla bolognese is a drug. If you gave me one cotoletta and the most wonderful cake you can imagine, I don’t want the cake, and I’ll eat two cotolette!

JN: What is important, for the cotoletta to be perfect?

MV: Everything has to be balanced. If you have cotoletta, it should have enough salt – not too much, not too little. It can’t be dry.

JN: Which is hard, right, because it’s so thin?

MV: For cotoletta alla bolognese, at the end you put a slice of parmigiano-reggiano and a slice of prosciutto crudo, and you keep it in the oven just the time to let them melt over the cotoletta.

JN: Is it always and only parmigiano? It seems like some people make it a little creamier somehow.

MV: They make a cream with parmigiano, so the cotoletta is better, not too dry.

JN: Do you like that style?

MV: I like every style!

JN: Cotoletta is always coated in breadcrumbs and egg?

MV: Yes.

JN: Is it always veal? Can you ever make it with pork?

MV: Sometimes pork. I also like pork. Because you must realize that veal is very expensive, compared with pork. Following the traditions, it was easier having a cotoletta made with pork. The best part of the pork, the part we call lombo.

JN: Loin in English, the same part you use for tortellini.

MV: Yes. It’s very good also with pork, don’t worry.

JN: Speaking of secondi, tell me about bollito misto. Many restaurants don’t even make bollito misto anymore.

MV: Bollito misto is a heavy thing we have, to make the broth.

JN: Maybe not to eat every day, but a few times a year? It’s very special.

MV: Yes, I really love bollito misto. You boil pieces of meat for many hours – beef, the leg of the chicken without the skin, osso buco, bones. If I want to have the bollito misto afterwards, in another pan I just boil the tongue of veal and another part of the veal – copertina or testina. It’s chewy, and I like that part. Every chewy meat, to me, is good to be boiled.

JN: And you serve it with the traditional salsa verde?

MV: Salsa verde and pepperonata, yes. They are typical.

JN: In Bologna, in the salsa verde there’s obviously parsley and anchovies. What else is important, lemon and oil? Are those the main ingredients?

MV: Yes. Of course, in a family when you have the bollito misto, it’s very difficult to finish it at one time. The leftovers of the bollito misto become a very good dish with friggione, another very light thing.

JN: Friggione, the dish with tomatoes and onion?

MV: Yes, or our grandma used to take the left over meat from the bollito misto and cut in very thin slices when it was cold, and have a salad with finocchio, only finocchio usually, crudo. I must say, to us, nothing should disappear in the dustbin. Everything is recycled. Many times is much better. It’s like frying the tagliatelle with ragù – it’s a drug.

JN: Tell me a little about the desserts of Bologna.

MV: Zuppa inglese, torta di riso – these are typical. Raviole, it’s a kind of shortbread with mostarda inside.

JN: What is your favorite Bolognese dessert?

MV: Well, I must say torta di riso because you can eat it cold, you can keep it in the fridge and just pick up a piece.

JN: Tell me about noce moscata [nutmeg]. Why is noce moscata important? Because there aren’t many spices in Bolognese cooking.

MV: Noce moscata is a religion in Bologna, for a few things. We don’t put noce moscata everywhere. I must say that in the filling for tortellini and tortelloni, passatelli, zuppa imperiale, yes, we put it in. But, for example, we don’t put noce moscata in the ragù, or the bechamella.

JN: What does it contribute to a dish? Warmth?

MV: To me, it’s the flavor of my house. I don’t know about others, but to me, noce moscato is Bologna, it is my family.

JN: Returning to sfoglia for a moment, I tell people that the best sfoglia is made by hand, not rolled by a machine. Tell me why sfoglia rolled out by hand is better?

MV: It’s because the board is made with wood. You use Canadian poplar.

JN: Always Canadian poplar?

MV: It’s the best, because if you go to IKEA and you buy a board, they have the kind of surface that is not good for making sfoglia because – I cannot tell you right word, it’s shining, glittering. Poplar is good, maple, or pine. We have places where they sell good boards for making sfoglia, also for a rolling pin, it should be made with wood for the same purpose: you can stretch the dough properly. But if you used the Imperia machine to stretch it out, you can, you just start stretching the dough with a rolling pin over the board. Then you just make the dough thinner with the Imperia, then you just finish it with the rolling pin and board. It’s not quite the same result as rolling completely by hand, but it’s better than using the Imperia alone.

JN: What is the difference between sfoglia rolled by hand, when you eat it?

MV: We say that it is ruvida [rough], like my hands. It’s better to keep the sauce. If it’s not ruvida, and it’s viscous, smooth, everything slips away. Also, when you make ragù, it’s the same thing. If the ragù is too liquid, it slips away from everywhere.

JN: How do you know, whether you’re rolling it by hand or by the Imperia, when the sfoglia is the right thinness?

MV: Experience.

JN: I learned that if you put it on a newspaper, you should be able to see through it.

MV: You should see also the church of San Luca up on the hills just outside Bologna.

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[Laughter] I must say that I prefer not to see San Luca, because I like it a little thicker. Thick but not wide. Perfect for the sauce with prosciutto.

JN: So, your tagliatelle is a little thicker than some people’s.

MV: Yes, but only at home. Here we never have tagliatelle, because every customer must special-order tagliatelle, so that they have the width and thickness they prefer.

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JN: You and your mother decided twenty years ago to open this shop. I read in an article in The New York Times from 1976 that a woman named Germanna Tinti opened the very first pasta shop in Bologna in wartime. This article said it was very rare to find a pasta shop, since as you said, everyone made it at home. When do you think that began to change?

MV: We come back to the same question we started with – women now don’t have the time. For example, when my mother had the shop here 22 years ago, I wasn’t working here.

JN: What was your other work?

MV: Selling records.

JN: Music records?

MV: Yes. Then, they won an award: the Golden Tortellino. The prize was given by the Mayor of Bologna. On that occasion, in 1996 or 1997, there were 200 sfogline in downtown Bologna and its surroundings. I think that now, most of them have closed because they became too old to go on. But many young people tried to open places like this, because there is a sort of romance about this work, that you always use the dough, you just knead it, it’s like handcrafting something. Among the technology of the 2000s, it’s not typical. But they never calculate that this kind of job takes your whole life. Like yesterday, I told you to come at 2 o’clock and we would have time. Yesterday was a horrible day because we had to make things but we didn’t know. Every day you have a surprise. Maybe you plan to work less, and then you work like a donkey. But this is our job, if you make everything with your hands. So, today for example, I must make a kind of pie with pears inside and grapes and Cannella  Cinnamon and biscuits, and raviole, and tagliatelle for a restaurant. So I didn’t know this yesterday. I knew about the tagliatelle but not about the rest. Yesterday I was full of biscuits and raviole, now, as you see, we’ve run out. Many young people think that when you work, you work from 9-5 and you don’t have to work on Saturday and Sunday. It’s not true. Sunday is untouchable, but as far as Saturdays are concerned, we work a lot. We’ve worked in this shop almost 22 years, always making things, always breathing the hot water vapors – especially during the summer, it’s terrible. I cannot bear it. But I fight for this. It’s our job, it’s like a mission, really.

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JN: I’m sure you don’t want to criticize other sfogline, but how is this shop different? Our friend Andrea has chosen this shop for his tours. What are doing that’s a little different from other shops in Bologna?

MV: We are open; not open as a shop, but open as people. So, if someone comes here and asks for lasagne and we don’t have lasagne, my sister especially will say, “Come in the afternoon and I will make you the lasagne.” Many shops would say, “Today, gnocchi. Today, ravioli alla zucca. Today, tortellini,” and if you don’t come that day, that’s it. For example, Thursday is the day for gnocchi, but we make gnocchi every day. Our window is always very poor, but we make a lot of things every day, fresh. If you need one kilo of tortelloni, come within thirty minutes and you will have your kilo of tortelloni. I don’t know how many of these shops do this, but I can’t criticize because I’ve never been in others – not because I feel more important than them, but because I don’t have the time. But I hear from customers, they ask us where they can go. We can just imagine, but we cannot suggest. We don’t know how their work is.

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JN: Even though Bologna is very famous in the world, until recently if an American would come to Italy, they might go to Florence, Rome, or Venice, but for some reason skip Bologna, even though Bologna is very famous for food. This is starting to change; Andrea tells me that in even the last few years he has seen an explosion. What do you think of that? Is the tourism good, or are you worried that Bologna could become a place like Florence or Venice? Would you like to see more tourism in Bologna, or do you think that it’s enough?

MV: To me, there have been many causes for this change. In the past, Bologna was a city every train passed by. From Bologna you could go to Venice, Milan, Florence, and so on, but nobody stopped in Bologna because they always went to these great towns. Then, three or four years ago, low-cost flights came to Bologna, so the Bologna airport became just a little more important. So, when you have low-cost flights, it’s the beginning. I think that five years ago, there was the most important exhibition in two centuries, “La Ragazza con un Orecchino di Perla” (The Girl with a Pearl Earring), the Vermeer painting. That was the first time I saw people queueing to see an exhibition in Bologna. Not only foreigners, but also Italians. So, Italians also started to think that Bologna could be a nice city to visit. The third thing was the Expo in Milan. I think most of the tourists who went to the Expo in Milan, came to Bologna because it was easy to stop in Bologna, sleep in Bologna, eat in Bologna, go by the Frecciarossa train to Milan and come back to Bologna. To me, these three things made Bologna famous. And then, the University, food. These last two years, for food it has been really incredible. This is a drama for me. I’m scared about food in Bologna. In the last two years, I think that I see new restaurants and bars, something new is opening every 30 minutes. In this street, which is not that long,you have six places where you can eat and drink. Everything here is for eating and drinking.

JN: You’re worried that the quality of the new places is not as good?

MV: The quality wasn’t that good before, because we had for ages the dominion of the conventions. The area of the big conventions on Via Stalingrado. We had about 300 days of conventions in the Fiera district, conferences, but also showing something about food machinery, and things like that. Business. So, many people came, stayed here two or three nights. So, they go out for dinner, and everything for them was paid for. Because these people did not know tortellini, restaurants used to give them not the best, for high prices. Some restaurants were really pissed off. When, in the 2000s, we became an EU Capital of Culture, and we were the only sfogline included in the guide for the Capital of Culture, I went to a convention – or it wasn’t a convention, but I stayed with a restaurant to plan the menus for the whole year. The guy that was in this place and had an idea of what restaurants could make, he was really desperate, because he said, “Your prices are too expensive, you must again reach the good quality of the cucina Bolognese, because we are the Capital of Culture.” It was really hard for him to choose the restaurants. The owners didn’t understand what he was going to say. It was really hard for him to be clear, because they were so closed-minded.

JN: In Venice, for example, maybe one restaurant out of ten is good.

MV: Also in Florence. Every town is like this.

JN: So, what do you think it is in Bologna?

MV: Bologna is different because when you go to Florence, you go to see the Baptistry, you go inside the museums, you go to Uffizi, you go to Pitti. Bologna is a museum. You just enjoy walking, looking inside the yards, inside the palace. Only in Bologna, you have Vivi Verde twice a year. Many rich houses open their gardens. You can find things here that you can never imagine.

JN: Out of ten restaurants in Bologna, how many do you think are good?

MV: Ah, a few. I can’t say a lot for restaurants. I must say that I never go out to eat Bolognese food. I have my taste, my family taste, and I don’t want to go out to eat the same things. I go out to eat pizza, I go out to eat carne alla griglia, barbeque. I like these things. We have a small shop, and we cannot sell to many restaurants, but I must say that if restaurants come here asking if we can serve them, we choose the restaurants that we want to serve. We serve three restaurants, one run by young people which is brand-new: I Conoscenti, close to Palazzo Fava. Then we serve Al Sangiovese and Oltre, which is around the corner, because we know the chef, he worked before for six years at the Bottega restaurant. Before La Bottega, he also worked in other places. We know he is a strong guy because we know the people. He likes to revisit the Bolognese cuisine with something that could be agreeable to the taste, but not the same as the real cucina Bolognese.

JN: Yes, based in tradition but with just a little twist. So, I need to let you get back to work, and I’ll try to wrap up soon. You and Daniela are not the only famous sisters in Bologna.

MV: No, the Simili sisters! And we are are so proud that we met them.

JN: The woman that I learned from, Marcella Hazan, who was from Cesenatico originally, started a cooking school for visitors to Bologna between 1975 and 1985, and then went to Venice.

MV: They were the first and the best.

JN: Did you know Marcella?

MV: Not Marcella, but I know the Similis.

JN: When Marcella left Bologna, the sisters I think helped to take over that and continue what she had done. So, they were teaching for many decades. Tell me all about them. What should people know about these famous sisters of Bologna?

MV: They’re wonderful. I don’t have the words to say it, but I think they had the same feeling we have in making this. This job is made of passion, and they had that passion.

JN: They taught cooking, but before that, their family owned a bakery, so they were both doing it every day, and then later on they focused more on teaching. Is that right?

MV: Yes, because people asked them. It’s like us: we didn’t start teaching, we didn’t know how to do it, and we weren’t sure if we could do it, but we had many requests. And I must say, there was an article about us in CondéNast Traveler, and after that article, mail started to come, and so we decided, Let’s start doing this. The problem is, [the Similis] had the space to do this; we don’t. Our shop is too small. Our lessons are only on Thursday afternoons after the shop is closed, and not in November, December, or January. But during the summer, in June and July, from Monday to Thursday we have classes, always in the afternoons, because we have to close the shop. We cannot sell to any customers.

JN: Is there anything that you learned from the Simili sisters? Obviously, you grew up in the same tradition that they did, and they have the same passion that you do.

MV: I did learn from them. For example, not to make too many things. Especially for cakes – because we are a fresh pasta shop. They told us, “Don’t make too many cakes. You’ll confuse people, and then you risk having too much of one, and too many of those.” And that’s what we do. We always say we are a fresh pasta shop, so our cakes are really familiar to us: torta di mele, torta di riso, during the winter torta di cioccolato, and in the summer, torta di pesca. Only this year we added torta di pere, but it’s the first time in 22 years. If you want more than these types of things, you go to the pasticceria.

JN: The Similis wrote in one of their books about a restaurant called Al Cantunzein that was destroyed in student riots in the late 1970s. Do you remember that restaurant?

MV: I’ve never been there. When it was destroyed, I was almost twelve.

JN: They described it as one of the best pasta restaurants ever in the history of Bologna.

MV: Everybody told me this.

JN: They specifically told about a famous dish that they made, called scrigno di Venere  [Venus’s jewel case].

MV: It’s a very heavy thing.

JN: Does anyone still make that dish?

MV: I don’t think so. It’s too much.

JN: I wish we could talk all day, but I think that’s a great place to end. Thanks so much for your time!

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a conversation with Andrea Chierici

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Andrea Chierici is the founder of Taste Bologna, a food tour company offering small-group walking tours of Bologna and Modena in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Andrea grew up in a small village near Bologna, and his own love of food, love of travel, and love of his native city led him to start Taste Bologna five years ago.

Andrea has been my own mentor in all things related to Bologna. For this interview, we met at the lovely Trattoria Da Me in central Bologna. During the conversation we talk about growing up near Bologna, the effects of rising tourism in Bologna, and why he decided to found a different sort of tour company.

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Justin Naylor: Andrea, thanks for taking the time to talk today. Tell me about your memories of Bologna growing up.

Andrea Chierici: Bologna was like a myth. It was like the big city. I remember when my mother brought me to the cinema in Via Independenza that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s all shops like Zara, H&M and so on, but if you look on the ground in Via Independenza you can still see CINEMA written there. We arrived by train and it was a lot different than my village. My village is in the countryside, it is a farmer’s village. It has a small city center. So, you can imagine: you arrive in Bologna, you see all these people walking in a hurry. It was like a different world.

JN: This was in the 1980s?

AC: Yes, then later, as soon as I was a teenager, of course my village was not enough to spend a night with my friends. As soon as I was fourteen, I got a motorcycle and then every time we could, we went to Bologna.

JN: How long a drive was it, by motor scooter?

AC: It was twenty minutes; it was close. But, imagine – in my village, there was one pub. You go to the pub, and it’s done. At that time, you had in Bologna everything you wanted. It was really an escape.

JN: Who cooked in your house, when you were growing up? What dishes do you remember from your boyhood?

AC: Until I was seventeen or eighteen, I wasn’t able to cook almost anything. I had interest, but I thought that having dinner was a hamburger, steak, a simple pasta, and that’s it.

JN: Because of that, did Bologna also represent a different reality for food? Maybe not until you were older?

AC: Yes, I discovered it later. When I was a kid, going to restaurants with my family was something really exclusive, something just for big events. Until I was eighteen or twenty, I went to a restaurant with my parents about twice a year. So I didn’t get any expertise.

JN: How then, without a strong background in food, did you come to found a company that gives food tours?

AC: Actually, since I was a kid I wasn’t near the kitchen, but I was looking, I was staring at my grandmothers preparing food. My grandfather used to bring me where the food was created. I remember spending a full afternoon with them going to farms, picking eggs. I knew where real food came from, and the real flavor of fruit and vegetables. One of my grandfathers was a butcher, and the other had a grocery store. So, even if my mother wasn’t a good cook, I started to appreciate the difference between a good product and an industrial product, not well-made.

JN: How did that lead you to start Taste Bologna?

AC: Taste Bologna started later. My interest in cooking and food increased through a friend. One of my dearest friends hosted me in Pantelleria. It’s a small island near Sicily where his mother lives. I spent two weeks with her when I was eighteen. Filippo’s mother used to own a restaurant; she was a chef. For two weeks, every day I had – morning and evening – different food with different ingredients, all made by her in the kitchen. I came home from the trip saying, OK, so I can live for two weeks not eating the same thing, but I can go shopping and make delicious dishes by myself just by cooking them. So then, I opened Pandora’s vase. I started to read and learn everything about food, how it’s made, and so my interest from that time – about fifteen years ago – was like, boom! And it grows every day.

JN: What was your intention in starting your company?

AC: When I created the company, Bologna was a lot different than today, speaking of tourism. Only five years ago, I was would walk through Piazza Maggiore and meet these young couples with a map, wandering. Where is San Luca? Where is the cathedral? Where should we go, what should we do? There was nothing on the internet in English, even in Italian, speaking about where to go and what to do in Bologna. I’m not really a fan of guided tours; I didn’t want to create the classic guided tour where you follow the guide with the umbrella and then she stops and talks about dates and historic events. If you’re interested in that – and there are people who are interested in that – you can get a historical guide, or you can read online and get informed. I wanted to do another kind of job: go around with a small group of people, because I want to talk with all the people that I meet, I want to learn where they come from, what they cook, what they like, what they don’t like, and I want people to talk to each other.

I’m not a teacher. I can teach you nothing! But what I can do is to help you discover the places where I bring my friends. I can take you on a walk, and talk about the things that I’ve eaten since I was a kid, and try to make you comfortable, and give you a good four hours that you will remember. You won’t remember the date when San Petronio cathedral was built, but hopefully you will remember the funny story of how tortellini were created, and the story of the wife and husband who fell in love through coffee, and who now own a coffee place together. With the phone in your hand, you basically have all the information you need, so why do you need a guide to bring you around? You need a guide to make you feel happy to visit a town, like you wouldn’t be by yourself. Of course you can visit Bologna by yourself, you can choose the place yourself. But with someone who has grown up here, maybe you can go a little bit deeper and break the glass between you and the people beyond the counter – hear their story, ask your questions, in a good five hours. That was my idea.

JN: In other words, making it personal.

AC: Yes.

JN: You said that it’s changed a lot in five years, and a lot of tour companies have popped up. How would you say that yours is different? Is it the fact that it’s more personal, or is there something else that’s unique?

AC: I’ll tell you what I think I do differently. I put the care and the quality of what you have on the table first, and my wish is to treat tourists – or customers, but let’s call them tourists – not as tourists. Some people could say, OK, you’re from a pretty different part of the world, you’ve never had gelato. Why should you have the best? I could give the cheapest. Or with Italian coffee, why should I give you the best? I could give the one that’s more convenient, that’s easier to reach. That’s not my interest. I want to give you what’s best for me, because I’d like you to come home with a new taste in your mouth, so you can make comparisons. When you come home, you can say, OK, I’ve had this gelato in that place, and now you give me this. So you have something to compare. I only choose places and producers and shops who care a lot about what they do. I don’t know if my competitors do it, but that’s my idea. For example, just today I saw a photo of one of my competitors, and there was this condimento balsamico, a budget-quality balsamic vinegar instead of the real thing.I took a 3-month course about balsamic, and I make sure all my guides make tourists know why you have to pay 50 Euro for that bottle and not 4 Euro.

JN: But this tour group today was getting the condimento as if it were the real thing?

AC: Of course, if it’s the first time you have it and you see “balsamic”, maybe IGP, you can’t know. My aim is to make you know what’s happening.

JN: For those who have never been here to Bologna, how would you describe the city? What is its character? How do you like to introduce the city to people who are deciding whether to come here or not?

AC: This is a very hard question, because it’s like asking me, “Describe the woman you love.” For me, it’s very difficult. What I can say to you is what Bologna is for me. Bologna is the place where I go out to walk at night, without any place to go, just to walk under the porticoes, get lost, find new streets…

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JN: It’s safe.

AC: You are safe, and just happy to do this. It’s not a big city – it’s not New York, it’s not Rome, it’s not London. But still, every time I go out – still today, after 33 years – I discover new places, new frescoes inside buildings I’ve passed a hundred times. The light was always turned off and I never noticed it; I passed and I saw a fresco inside which is just gorgeous. I can give you a lot of examples of things I discovered just by walking. I have a lot of friends who studied in Bologna and then decided to stay here. Some people say it’s about jobs, that you can find one easier here than in the South, but I don’t think it’s the right question.

JN: As the owner of a tour company, your mission is to bring more tourists to Bologna. But there’s a very fine line, because how do you keep it from becoming Venice or Florence? You don’t want to see the Bologna that you love become a theme park. How do you balance the desire to bring more people without losing control, the way Florence or Venice has lost control?

AC: It’s very important. With my tours I don’t want to have a big impact on the places we visit and on the city. So, for example, I take small groups of eight people, because we visit small, family shops. I want the normal customer not to think that they are going to a turistic place. I want Bolognese like me to still be able to go shopping in the same places. If I bring a group of thirty people to Osteria dal Sole, having fun, making noise, I would completely change the atmosphere. What’s Osteria dal Sole without the old men that are there all day, playing cards and drinking wine? I don’t want to change that.

JN: So, as long as the groups are small, you can have a lot of them before it becomes a problem?

AC: I have a maximum of two groups in a day, but all my guides know that they should try not to come together in the same place.

JN: Right. And ultimately – I’m thinking of Venice here – as much as it’s easy to blame the tourists, which I do sometimes, it’s also the government. They can do whatever they have to do to preserve local culture. The same is true for Bologna. What could Bologna do, to help instead of hurt the situation?

AC: These days, in the news, there’s a big fight between Airbnb and short-rent apartments and students from the University. Students can’t find apartments anymore. They’re all Airbnb, or at least that’s what people say. If you own an apartment in Bologna, you can give it to a group of students to 700 Euro a month, or you can give it to a couple of tourists for 100 Euro a night. If you leave the decision to the market, it’s an easy decision. It’s from the government that you should make some limits.

JN: Do you think that Bologna is going to do the right thing?

AC: I think at the moment there’s still a good balance between people who live here, people who study here, and people who come here for a weekend to stay. Even if I work with tourism, I’m still a citizen of Bologna and I do hope this balance is preserved. I don’t want more tourists in exchange for losing the soul of the city. What’s happening in Venice and Florence is not good, for me. If Bologna would become Venice – I don’t think it will, because Venice is a very strange city, very unique – I wouldn’t be happy. I think the government should make some rules that people have to follow. If you give people the opportunity to do whatever they like, with no rules, people will get as much money as they can and won’t care about everything else.

JN: Getting back to food, for those who have never been to Bologna, how would you describe the cooking character of Bologna?

AC: It’s a thing that’s very common in Italy: every city – I would say, every neighborhood – has its own traditions and recipes. If you just move a few kilometers from one town to another, the food culture completely changes. I think it’s one of the reasons Italian food is so loved, around the world. That’s very true in Bologna today. When people come here for the first time, they should expect a very tough city for vegetarians, and especially for vegans. Even if we are changing – on the tours, we can arrange a tour for vegetarians – it’s still a city based on meat.

JN: That’s because Bologna has always been an affluent city?

AC: That’s one reason, but it’s also about where our city is and how our region is geographically located. We are on a big plain that’s very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. It’s very humid. Compared to the South, it wasn’t good to dry pasta. So when people ask me, “Why don’t you make spaghetti bolognese, why is it a fake?” my answer is because we couldn’t dry pasta on the street like people from Gragnano near Naples used to. It’s a district known especially for the quality of the water but also because it has a lot of wind and a lot of sun, so the pasta could dry outside. That couldn’t happen in Bologna because we don’t have any wind. But we have a lot of countryside with a lots of farms, a lot of chickens and eggs. So in the past, to give strength to the peasants that had to work hard in the fields, we created something that could give them strength. Egg pasta was perfect. Also, in our tradition you see some very old dishes and sauces that were first made not to waste anything. My parents and grandparents taught me that food is really important, you don’t have to throw away anything. My favorite recipes from here are leftover dishes. Tortellini, first of all, was a leftover dish. It was first created to preserve the old meat that was falling apart. They folded it into a square of pasta and cooked it in broth. Another pasta I love is passatelli, which is made with old crusts of bread. You mix it with parmigiano-reggiano cheese, salt, and flour. You press it, and you can cook it in broth or you can cook it as a pasta. It’s one of the most delicious pastas that you can have. Everyone knows about ragù. Now ragù is something that you can pay 15 Euro for a dish, but it was another leftover sauce. You read in books that it took hours and hours to make this sauce. The reason is that we use old beef, so to make it tender you need more time. And so, in Bologna you get a very genuine cuisine. Not healthy, I won’t say it’s healthy, but it’s trying to use all the things that we have.

JN: Tell me a little about lasagne. You mentioned already the misunderstanding of spaghetti bolognese. I don’t know if you know about American lasagne, but it makes spaghetti bolognese look good, because in America they make very thick noodles – water and flour, no egg – and put in ricotta, mozzarella, and it becomes very heavy. Lasagne in Emilia-Romagna is very different; I always describe it as this beautiful paradox of luxurious and light, like cashmere.

AC: I have a memory about lasagne. I have a memory because I had this very rough trattoria just near my apartment, in my village, and I remember my father going there sometimes on Sundays. He would take home lasagne, and we had lunch. There were two fingers of oil in the bottom, it was really fat. It was something that was very heavy. Bolognese cuisine has changed a lot. The lasagne that we have today is not the one that I used to have twenty years ago. Now it’s a lot lighter than before. In this place, I don’t know if you read on the menu, it’s written, “We serve lasagne only on Sundays.” It’s not something that we have every day, it’s still something special.

JN: Because it takes a lot of work to assemble.

AC: It takes a lot of time. Most of the real, authentic Bolognese recipes take time to be made. Think also about the desserts, the rice cake. It takes at least a couple of hours to prepare. A lot of people think that we have these traditional recipes every day. I wouldn’t get to age 40 if we did, and my doctor would kill me if I had tortellini or mortadella every day. These are special dishes for us. The egg pasta, the lasagne, the bollito are things that are popular in restaurants or at home for special occasions.

JN: But why are they on every restaurant menu, then? Where are the lighter dishes, the healthier dishes?

AC: They are at home. We are called “the fat” because our tradition is a lot richer than Tuscany, or other cities.

JN: Now, in America, nothing changes more often than dietary health advice. First, fat’s the problem — then it’s not fat, it’s sugar. We’ve slowly come to realize that fat isn’t the demon that we said it was. In America, sugar is the current demon. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but has that happened in Italy? Is fat still the major demon in health?

AC: Well, there are a lot of trends, but you need to separate what’s marketing from what’s true. I can tell you my personal diet. One sentence that I like from an Italian doctor, Franco Berrino, a cancer specialist who wrote a lot of books about cooking, is  “Don’t buy from the supermarket and don’t eat something that your grandmother wouldn’t know.” You make your grandmother read the list of ingredients, and if there’s something that she doesn’t know, you don’t buy it.

JN: So, don’t worry about butter, but worry about the supermarket. Does that seem right to you?

AC: I don’t think there are super-healthy food and demons; I think it’s a matter of balance. If I eat the purest food on earth every day, I would get sick. If I ate avocado every day, in a month I would get sick. If I ate butter every day, I would get sick. If I eat butter once a month, avocado once a month, ham once a month, I would be good. Of course there’s good food and bad food, but I think it’s a matter of selection. It has to be put in how we choose how to buy.

JN: Are there statistics that Bolognese live shorter lives than other regions in Italy? Because, if not, you could argue, what’s the problem? If people in Venice aren’t living longer on seafood, then maybe it’s not so bad.

AC: There’s no such statistic as far as I know, and food is not the only factor.

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JN: We can’t talk about Bologna and not talk about tortellini. It’s a big topic, I know.

AC: Yes, it’s one of the dishes that you should have. You should say tortellini soup.

JN: In brodo. Some people serve it, like tonight, with cream.

AC: I recently saw a funny picture on Instagram that was The Divine Comedy’s Hell, by Dante, of Bolognese. In the worst girone [circle] of Inferno, there were people who served tortellini with ragù.

JN: [Laughter]

AC: And in the last one, there were Modenese – people from Modena. [Laughter]

JN: So, what’s in the tortellini, why are they so special, and why do they have to be in broth?

AC: Tortellini is a small square of sfoglia – egg pasta dough – which is folded and filled with a mix of pork loin, mortadella, a young parmigiano-reggiano cheese, salt, and nutmeg. In a lot of cooking classes, you can be taught about how to make the sfoglia, but the old artisans wouldn’t ever tell you the proportions of the filling. The ingredients you know for sure, but they would never tell you the proportions. That’s the real secret of tortellini. It’s another recipe that was not common to have every day, because it takes a lot of time. The typical Sunday lunch with family was preparing the meat broth first: putting a carrot, some onion, some potatoes, some celery, and then different kinds of meat. In the broth you can put some chicken, some beef, different kinds. At Christmas, capon, the bones, osso buco. And then, you have a fat and rich broth. The broth is really important.

JN: It cooks for a long time? All day, or for a few hours?

AC: It cooks slowly. In Bologna, we say the flame or the heat is low; in the South, the flame is high. So, it’s another recipe not to throw away leftovers. You eat the boiled meat, made to prepare the broth, as a second course, bollisto misto. So, you can take the best eggs, make the best pasta and the best filling, but if you cook tortellini in a terrible broth, you get a terrible dish. I remember one time I brought really well-made tortellini to a friend in Florence, but the lady didn’t know that they had to be cooked in broth, and she threw them in salted water. They were just terrible. The broth is as important as the pasta.

JN: So, they have to be not only served in broth, but cooked in broth. Someone could cook them in salted water and then serve them in broth, but that’s not the same thing.

AC: No, no, no. They need to get the broth, even if it’s a short cooking, a few minutes. It’s very important.

JN: The other day I came across a New York Times article from 1982, over 35 years ago. It was talking about how pasta shops were popping up. The idea was that before the 1980s, because almost everyone was making pasta at home, there really weren’t many pasta shops. They were saying that the pasta shop was a new thing, about 30 years ago. Today, I walk around in Bologna and I see these shops with tortellini. At least 50% of the time, they look already dried-out and old. Am I being too harsh in that assessment?

AC: You’re right, but I’ll go back a little earlier. At the beginning of the last century, there was a very flourishing industry of industrial tortellini. There was a big company that used to make tortellini and ship it, dried, abroad. Now, there are still a few, but that has almost disappeared. But in the last century, we were really famous for shipping it.

JN: Would Italians eat those, or were they only for shipping out of the country?

AC: Also Italians. During and before the Second World War, a lot of Italians moved to the United States. So I’m sure they were popular for Italians who moved away. Also, Bologna was the first place where canned tuna was created. That was created to ship mortadella abroad. Bologna had some very smart companies that created ways to ship food abroad. But to answer your question, it’s absolutely true that it’s really hard to find someone, especially young, able to make tortellini – not only able, but with the will to make tortellini.

JN: It does take some work, but it’s not that hard. It takes some time; I think it’s more of a time thing than a skill thing.

AC: Yes, it takes some practice, like anything.

JN: But eating tortellini from the shop, that look two days old – it makes me a little bit sad.

AC: I can tell you what I do. For Christmas, I’m not able to make tortellini. I order it from the shop that I know. I go there the same day, and take it home. But you can also freeze it. It’s OK; it will last a couple of months in the freezer, and then you take it out and throw it in the broth.

JN: Speaking of health, we’re finishing dinner here around 10 PM, and some people are just sitting down to start dinner. In America, there are some interesting studies that show that in terms of metabolism and gaining weight, we should be eating dinner many hours before sleep – like at 4 or 5 PM. I’m curious what you think about that.

AC: It happens a lot to me, that some of my customers ask me to book a restaurant at 6 or 7 PM. My answer is always the same: unfortunately, it’s not possible to eat in a restaurant at that time. As I told you previously, going to eat in a restaurant for me as a kid wasn’t a habit. It wasn’t something I do once a week like I’m doing now. I was taught to eat at home at 6:30 or 7:30 PM as soon as my father came home from work. He was tired, he was hungry, so he wanted to eat as soon as he could.

JN: So why is restaurant dining later? That’s strange to me.

AC: I don’t know, I think it’s a habit. The more you go to the South, it’s even worse. The more you go to Rome and Sicily, Puglia, you can go to restaurants around 9 PM and even later. Here in Bologna, the right time to go is about 8 PM.

JN: You finish at 10 PM, and you go to sleep at…?

AC: Midnight. At home I eat earlier. You don’t have to think about what’s happening at a restaurant as our normal habits.

JN: You mentioned earlier some wonderful things about Bologna. What are some things that aren’t wonderful, that you’d like to see changed about Bologna, either politically or culturally?

AC: There’s a thing that’s really paining my heart: I told you that I love walking under the porticoes; it’s one of the things that I love the most. The problem is, if you walk on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, under the porticoes, you’re going to meet a lot of garbage in front of every gate. You see on Tuesday the plastic, on Wednesday the paper. I am in favor of separating the recycling, but doing it in this way, you’re basically walking into the trash.

JN: There’s trash everywhere all the time, basically.

AC: To do a good thing, you do something bad. To recycle, you ruin the city. So, I think it’s not working at all.

JN: For most of the 20thcentury, Bologna was associated with Communist government; I think there was a Communist mayor until the 1990s. Is Bologna still Left-leaning in that sense? What’s the government like? Is it respected or ridiculed?

AC: Well, there are some topics of debate. It’s still laughed at. The last election, the Left won with about a few votes; something that ten or fifteen years ago would never have happened, beause it was completely Left then. You knew for sure who would win, before the election. Now, for example, in my village a civil party got elected. So, things are changing. For the Left in Italy, it’s not a good time. My opinion about these years is that Bologna is not getting worse than it was. What I see is the lack of courage, of bravery in making some unpopular decisions. Traffic, for example: closing the city center to cars, making some tough decisions that I think a politician has to make for common sense, not for just getting votes. If you are elected, you need to care about the city, not about votes – so you need to make some unpopular decisions if you care about the city. That’s not happening.

JN: We’ve talked most about the traditional cooking of Bologna, but of course even though people come to Italy for traditional dishes, every city is always evolving. What is going on in Bologna right now that is new and exciting to you?

AC: More than speaking about a single food, the thing that I’ve seen recently and that I like a lot is that different places are collaborating together to become better together. For example, O Fiore Mio, where we do the pizza tour, is collaborating with other good pizza makers to make good bread in the city, to improve. There are a lot of social events that put together some of the best chefs in the city. They collaborate and make new dishes; they try to innovate traditional dishes. So you see young chefs trying the change and innovate the tradition. I think that’s the most interesting thing that is happening right now. That’s what I see with my tours. I grow with the shops and producers I work with. Maybe we try to create something specific with our guests, or something that’s never been before. Two minds usually work better than one. So that’s what I see the most.

JN: What do you see happening with craft beer? I’ve noticed that not just in Bologna, but in all of Italy. Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t craft beer in Italy at all.

AC: I saw a boom in craft beer about five years ago. Everybody, even at home, wanted to make his own beer. Now it’s more settled. There are small producers, and you’re starting to see those small producers’ bottles in the supermarkets. I think the people that want to make good beer are there. I know good microbreweries, like Vecchia Orsa, Birra Cerqua, Statale Nove; it’s all good. I don’t see a lot of new beers, I don’t see a movement.

JN: Would you encourage visitors to seek out the beer in the city, and not just the wine?

AC: There’s a microbrewery in the mountains behind Bologna called Beltaine that makes beer from chestnuts, which is quite strange. One Canadian customer told me that they have so many chestnuts that they throw them away. If I tell this story to a farmer in our area, they would get mad because chestnut is very precious; they make pasta from chestnuts, they make desserts, they make polenta. And now, these young guys, they make beer. If you love beer, you can find something else. There’s another microbrewery called Vecchia Orsa that works with people with mental illness. They put the label on the bottle; I think it’s a very good project. They were hit by the earthquake in 2012 and their warehouse was completely destroyed, but after that they built it again, and now they have more beers. They are good guys. Even if there’s not something new about beer every day, there are people who do good work.

JN: My last question would be, besides taking one of your food tours, what advice do you have for people who visit the city? One problem that Venice has is that the average tourist doesn’t even spend the night. They literally come in the morning, take a selfie at San Marco, and they leave. What advice do you have for people visiting Bologna? How long should they stay, how should they spend the time?

AC: I can give you things to do in Bologna for about a week. The city center is small; you can walk from one gate to the oppposite in about 40 minutes. So, it’s small, but there are a lot of things. It’s strange, but one suggestion I give for people who stay for more days is to visit the cemetery, because it’s an example of the beauty of my city. Of course, you wouldn’t go to the cemetery. I visited it for the first time a few years ago. It took my breath away, because it was like visiting another city in this city. It’s outside the walls, but it has the same structure. It has porticoes like the city. It’s really a museum; you can get lost in there, you spend hours just wandering around. That’s just one example. There really are a lot of things you can do in the city, not to mention the events and exhibitions that change constantly. All the students, all the people who come to live in Bologna give it this vibe, that the city’s always alive. There are at least five or six exhibitions to see every month. If you like live music, if you like jazz, there are many concerts. One suggestion is to use Bologna as a base to visit the cities nearby. It doesn’t make sense to me to stay in Florence and then visit Bologna during the day. You should do the opposite. Hotels in Florence are a lot more expensive, and from Bologna you’re in Florence in 35 minutes by high-speed train.

JN: Florence feels weird to me. I don’t know why.

AC: It’s weird.

JN: I can’t explain it. Even Venice doesn’t feel the same way to me.

AC: It’s conquered. I go to Florence once a year, on a Saturday. I have my places. I have this market that I visit, but I run away from the square. So, if you stay in Bologna, in less than an hour you’re in Florence. In 30 minutes, you’re in Modena, in 40 minutes you’re in Ravenna. One hour, you’re in Mantua, Ferrara. One hour an a half, you’re in Venezia. If you have a car, you can visit the hills. There are a lot of hidden gems that few people know about.

JN: We’ll wrap it up there. Thanks again for sharing your time and helping me to get to know this beautiful city during the past few years.

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a conversation with Chef Michael Millon

 

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Philadelphia native Michael Millon began his cooking career at Twenty21, continuing to  develop his skills at several restaurants in Boston and New York before settling back in Philly two years ago as Executive Chef of A Mano, which received a glowing three-bell review from Craig LaBan when it opened in 2016.

In our conversation, Chef Millon and I discuss the differences between cooking French and Italian, the merits of running a BYOB restaurant, and why he doesn’t feel compelled to use the term farm-to-table.

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Justin Naylor: In Italy, there’s a stereotype that French cooking is fussy and cheffy while Italian cooking is simpler and more direct. Since you have experience with both, I’m interested in what you think of the differences, and why you decided to go in the Italian direction.

Michael Millon: I do agree with the stereotype of it being fussy and cheffy. But I actually learned to cook French first, over ten years ago. I didn’t really know anything, so I learned the French way – French flavors, French ingredients. I cooked French for a while, but then eventual starting doing Italian. It’s more ingredient-focused, as opposed to technique-focused. At A Voce in New York I really learned a lot, and I learned that I really enjoyed it – the style of it, the flavors. You can use spices; things can be spicy. While I was in New York, Chef [Townsend Wentz] came up and asked me if I wanted to do this [A Mano] because of my experience at A Voce.

JN: What’s a good example, a dish or an ingredient – something that would be done this way in a French way, and that way in an Italian manner?

MM: Sauces would be a big one. French, it’s all saucework. Reductions, stocks.

JN: Which then become an embellishment of the dish, at the end?

MM: Right.

JN: So, they’re made separately, in advance, and they’re a kind of ornament, so to speak, to a dish at the end of the process.

MM: I feel like Italian cooking is more – to use a French phrase, à la minute.It’s in the pan, right there. Garlic, onions, a splash of this, a splash of that, some acid.

JN: I think that Marcella Hazan, whose books influenced me a lot when I started cooking, said that in Italian cooking there’s very rarely a sauce separate from the cooking juices of the dish. You’re not making something in advance as an ornament.

MM: Right, exactly. You don’t have a line that has rabbit jus, venison jus, all these different jus that are pretty much the same! I’m making all these, and I’m refreshing them every day, and it’s like, what is this all for, you know?

JN: One thing that got me interested in talking to you is, every time I’m here, I look back in the kitchen and you’re there. That itself seems pretty rare. I can’t help but admit that I have a bias – I think places that are most successful have a chef who has good taste and who is basically there.

MM: Doing the job.

JN: He or she might have helpers, but they’re there. You can’t just delegate taste, no matter how well you train someone, right? I’m curious if that’s still the case, if you’re still in the kitchen every night.

MM: Oh, yeah. Every day I’m on a station.

JN: Why have you made the decision to be there, in the lead, every day? Am I right that that’s unusual?

MM: I do think it’s unusual these days, especially with larger places. I think it’s more common in smaller, BYOB-type places like this. The profit margin isn’t too big, because we’re solely relying on the sale of food, we don’t have liquor to boost it up. I don’t think we would be able to afford someone to fill my role. It was structured that way, and that’s the way I prefer it. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t on a station every day. It’s too small of a place just to be walking around, checking on everyone. Plus, I like to cook; that’s what it comes down to.

JN: I often wish that I had gone to Vetri when Marc [Vetri] was doing all the cooking back there.

MM: I think he’s back there now.

JN: That’s what I’ve heard, now that he’s sold the other places.

MM: Good for him! Here, honestly – the people who work here now, everybody has great taste. The crew I have now, I could delegate everything. I could go on vacation and they’d be fine. But I just like to be with them, cooking. I was an executive sous chef for a long time, and this was the first step where I was the main guy. The level of integrity as a sous chef, as a line cook, to reproduce the same thing over and over again for someone else’s food is very rare, I find. If your name’s not behind it, and it doesn’t ultimately fall on you, I feel it’s easy to cut corners from time to time. So I think that me being here, we all work together. Leading by example, they all do the right thing all the time.

JN: You mentioned being a BYOB, and the tight profit margins. For those who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia and the BYOB phenomenon, could you explain a little about why that exists in Philadelphia and what some of the pros and cons are?

MM: The number of licenses is set, so they’re expensive and take a long time to process.

JN: In the city, it can be something like $800,000 for a liquor license, right?

MM: At least. From the time that Chef [Wentz] opened Townsend to the time that we opened here – about a year and a half later – the price had almost doubled. With all these places opening, I guess they just capitalized on it. Also, in PA restaurants have to pay retail price for bottles, and so they have to charge that much more.

JN: It’s crazy. So, if those are the cons, what are the pros? What’s nice about having a BYOB culture in Philly?

MM: Me, personally, I like that there’s no bar here. A bar opens a new door to trouble, I feel. It’s just more streamlined, it’s more of a relaxing atmosphere. People can bring their own wine.

JN: It’s actually cheaper, so they have more money to spend on food.

MM: They can have more of the menu. And personally – I’m the first one here in the morning, and I’m the last one to leave, because we’re closing the doors and we’re turning the lights off. If there was a bar, I’d be gone, and there would still be people here. I like turning the lights off at the end of the night. That’s a personal pro for me.

JN: Not to be too judgmental, but when people bring crap wine, do you guys cringe a little bit? When you’re making food of super-high quality, wouldn’t it be nice to offer wines of the same really beautiful, high qualitly from great producers?

MM: People bring in Tequila and lime, whatever they want. Me, I don’t care, as long as there are people in here eating and enjoying.

JN: Speaking of servers, do you feel like it’s harder to hire cooks or servers?

MM: Cooks. Oh my God, especially recently, with all these restaurants opening. Ten years ago, cooks were fighting for jobs. Now, if they don’t like it here, they can go down there and get paid $2 more an hour. These corporate places can pay well, and they offer benefits. It’s so hard to compete. I’ll be looking for somebody for two months, and can’t find anyone. Can’t even get a stage. Nothing. That’s why, right now, I’m pretty happy with the crew I have.

JN: Based on my experience eating here a few times, it seems like your bread is mostly or completely based on natural fermentation. Can you speak about your approach to the bread program here?

MM: I was working at Townsend before we came over here, and I wanted to make the bread here. I wanted to do a sourdough. There are different types of sourdough. Type 1 sourdough – that’s what we’re doing – is just making a starter from flour and water and letting it ferment. So it’s just yeast and lactic acid working together, as opposed to using baker’s yeast, which is quicker and probably easier. But I feel like the sourdough just has more flavor, and it’s more fun.

JN: Is it 100%? I know that some people include a small amount of commercial yeast.

MM: No, 100%. We’ve tuned into what time of night we’re feeding the starter, what temperature water depending on how cold or how warm it is in the building. It’s been 2½ years now. At the end of the night we’ll have the starter in different areas of the restaurant depending on what time of the year it is, to get the temperature we want.

JN: Did you acquire that knowledge from someone, or did you have to teach yourself?

MM: I taught myself. Just bought a bunch of books, read them, practiced, failed. More fails, and then we found this one that we’re pretty happy with. It’s very simple, but it’s consistent and it’s tasty. We don’t have much oven space.

JN: It’s still the foccacia?

MM: Right.

JN: Moving on to pasta: when Craig LaBan reviewed you a few years ago, he was complimentary in a lot of ways, but he seemed particularly smitten with the pasta. Can you tell us a little about your approach to pasta? You’re making egg pasta that’s rolled out, and some extruded shapes as well, right?

MM: People come here for the pasta, so it’s got to be good. There’s a ton of Italian restaurants in the city; everyone does pasta. We try to do ours a little different, make it more interesting, with more textures. We always have five on the menu. We try to do five different doughs. I have one guy who’s been working here since the beginning, Enrique, who makes all the pastas by hand every day. He’s amazing, but he can only do so much, so that’s why we need a rotation of doughs. If an extruded dough comes off the menu, I have to change one of the other ones to an easier shape to make, to balance out his work so he can handle it all.

JN: For people who don’t know, pasta can either be rolled out and cut into various shapes or be pushed through a machine – extruded – to get shapes like penne, spaghetti, and rigatoni. Lots of places are rolling their own pasta, of course, but to be extruding is pretty unusual. You could make your fresh pasta and buy really high-quality rigatoni, lumache, or whatever. What convinced you to go the extra step to extrude your own?

MM: We acquired an extruder.

JN: That’s a good reason!

MM: In the beginning, a friend of Chef [Wentz] had an extruder that he wasn’t using. We were getting ready to open the restaurant. I said, Let’s take it. We did it at A Voce a little bit, but they were mostly hand-rolled with egg. Extruding is pretty much flour, water, shape. We tried drying them, but that’s pretty difficult.

JN: So you just let them be fresh.

MM: Yeah, we tried all different temperatures and times, but they would just crack or they wouldn’t dry.

JN: I know Marc Vetri has written about how that was the hardest part.

MM: Oh, man.

JN: Not worth it.

MM: I gave up on it, it was that hard.

JN: How is your freshly-extruded pasta different from high-quality, Italian-made, commercial pasta?

MM: Because ours aren’t dried, they have more of a chew to them. The ones you buy in a box, a ton of them are great. I have them at home. But they’re more firm, and then they’re overcooked. It’s like there’s no middle ground. With the ones we make – and we’ve been incorporating different things into the machine, like squid ink, egg sometimes – we can put our own texture on it, however we want to do it.

JN: Yeah, I was wondering why extruded pastas are almost never egg-based.

MM: I think just because it jams up the machine if you don’t have the know-how of different levels of water to add. But Enrique’s a master of his craft, he tinkers with levels.

JN: Where did he acquire his mastery?

MM: He’s 36 years old, and he’s probably been cooking since he was six. He’s just a good cook, all around. When it comes to making pasta, these are my recipes that I brought to him. He’s the one in there making them every day, it’s not necessarily me. If it’s humid downstairs, he’s going to add a little less water to the dough. He’s figured it out and fine-tuned it.

JN: People are surprised to hear just how differently egg pasta can be made in Northern Italy. In Emila-Romagna they make it one way, in Piedmont totally different. Is your approach to egg pasta whole eggs, or egg yolks, or a mix?

MM: We do a mixture of both. If we’re making ravioli, we do whole eggs because the egg whites give the dough more elasticity. For pappardelle, we’re just using yolks for the unctuousness of it. But yeah, we do a mixture.

JN: Have you had a chance to travel much in Italy?

MM: Never. Never been!

JN: Because you’re working too hard?

MM: I wanted to go this year; everybody gets a week vacation, including me. But I don’t think I could do it in a week. I would need two weeks. So we’re just going to Mexico instead, sitting on the beach.

JN: Because you have this Italian place, taking a week and going to Italy – you need a break from thinking about some of these things! It’s not so much a vacation to do research in Italy, at least for me.

MM: I’d say to myself Wow, I’m doing this wrong, and I’m doing this wrong…

JN: I think you’d actually find the opposite! I’ve often said that they’re doing such a great job in Italy, in general, but the best American places are as good or better. In America we have this desire to really excel and we know we need to improve, which in Italy is not always the case because the general level is already so high. That’s why bread in Italy is generally bad. Some of the best Italian cooking in the world is in the US.

MM: I’ve heard that. People come by the pass and say, “We were just in Milan and this is better,” and it’s like, “Thank you very much!”

JN: I’m not surprised they say that. The chance of having a bad meal in Venice, for example, is really high. But even mediocre places are pretty good by the average American standards. They have this beautiful basic level of good taste that Americans don’t have. I just think the best American places are really nailing it.

MM: I feel like our job is a lot harder, working with the ingredients that we have here, most of the time. I feel like the ingredients and produce over there is way better, right?

JN: Yes, in general, but even there – do you know Katie Parla, who’s based in Rome?

MM: I know of her.

JN: I’m sure she’ll come to A Mano to eat eventually, and she’ll be excited about what you’re doing, I think. She’s documented how in Rome, especially since the economic decline beginning in 2008, places sometimes can’t even afford to buy the best stuff. Like here, it becomes a business decision: do I serve the best stuff I can, or do I pay my bills?

MM: Exactly. Especially when – with the BYOB thing – it’s a fine line, the talent that we can have working here, the ingredients we can use.

JN: I’ve heard a lot of restaurateurs say that they don’t make any money on food; all of their money is made on alcohol sales. It’s depressing.

MM: It’s nice to be able to lean on that. But it’s also nice to not have that around, and to have to figure it out. I like the challenge of that.

JN: Since you haven’t travelled to Italy and don’t have those precise experiences and taste memories, what does inspire you to create the dishes you create? Do you feel like you’re making mostly traditional dishes, or dishes that are completely novel?

MM: We always start with an ingredient, and we never do something that we’ve done before. As the seasons progress, we never put the same dish on the menu that we had last year, because we always want to learn and teach ourselves. At this point, my Sous Chef Nora and I have been working side by side for four years, since I was at Townsend. She knows everything I know now. I’ve given her all the knowledge that I’ve built, and now we’re just learning together.

JN: Does that mean when there’s a dish that someone really loves, and they come back hoping to see it again, they’re out of luck? Is it ever going to come back again?

MM: So far we haven’t put anything back on the menu. We strive to make the replacement better than the thing that was before. If it’s not better, we take it off and we put the old thing back. That’s happened twice. We put a rabbit cacciatori on, and it lasted one week. The same thing with a porkbelly set-up one time. It looked good on paper, but once we plated it and ate it, no – this isn’t as good as the last one, so let’s go back to the drawing board. We took octopus off – people were unhappy to see that go, but when we first put it on, octopus was $3.99 a pound, and now it’s $7.50 a pound. It almost doubled. And it’s on every menu in the city, too.

JN: You mentioned that your menus always begin with ingredients. In the last year or two, I’ve been hearing for the first time some backlash about the term farm-to-table. Not necessarily the concept, there’s no criticism of that, but the term. I talked to Dan Richer about this last month, and he thinks the term farm-to-table is just gimmicky, market-driven. I’m curious what you think about that. Because if you’re doing something special, and getting ingredients from local farms and not Sysco, you want people to know that – without being too over-the-top about it, right? I know Marc Vetri has also criticized the term. What’s up with that?

MM: Yeah, I think it’s a sales pitch to get people through the door. You’re kind of tooting your own horn. If people come in and they sit down and enjoy what they eat, and they can tell it’s fresh, what’s the point in telling somebody that you’re farm-to-table? You should just assume we’re getting good stuff.

JN: So, you would resist putting it on the menu – where this particular meat has come from – the way some places have done? Or is there any value in that?

MM: I think there’s definitely value in that. We don’t resist it or anything. Us personally, the way the menu is formatted, the margins are small. We can’t really put in many extra words. So we just say “polenta,” and use the best we can find.

JN: How often do you change the menu?

MM: We change things pretty much as the seasons progress, one or two dishes at a time. Never the whole menu at a time, because we’re working with such limited space. Changing even one dish moves a bunch of things around, and changes everybody’s work a little bit. There’s so much thought that goes into picking one dish. And, at the same time, we’re always trying to do something we’ve never done before.

JN: How does a place like Chez Panisse change their menu every day?

MM: I have no idea. They do it every day? I don’t know if I’d be able to sleep! I feel like it would be really difficult to operate at such a high level if you’re changing everything every day. There have to be some misses, there have to be some failures. Even when we change a dish, the first time we put it up we’re often putting it up for the servers to try, and we’re eating it at the same time. We’ve eaten everything separately; now let’s put them together on a plate.

JN: The other extreme is a place that never changes. This is admirable in its own way; in Italy, there’s not much changing. You go to Rome, you go to Armando al Pantheon, and the menu doesn’t change, ever. They’re making these Roman classics. That’s admirable in its own way, but it could get stale. There’s a fine line between spontaneity and mastery. So I’m wondering how you know when it’s time to change the menu.

MM: We have a small team here, but you can tell when people have just phoned it in and they’re bored of a dish. If I’m bored, or if Nora’s bored, or if something becomes ridiculously expensive, we’ll just say, We’re done with this. Bibou changes its menu every week. They have a set menu, he’s there in his kitchen every day, Wednesday through Saturday. He takes Sunday off with his wife and his kids, and then on Monday and Tuesday, his team is back in there. On Saturday night, they’re writing the menu for the next week.

JN: We’ve touched on a couple of aspects of the business, like profit margin, alcohol, etc. Is there anything else you wish people knew about the business side of the restaurant? Because people have no idea what the profit margins are, they have no idea about the kind of attention that’s being paid in creating these dishes.

MM: That’s what I wish people knew – the amount of work that goes into creating food on plates every night, night after night. Like the fact that we get in here at 11 o’clock in the morning, but we don’t open until 5. I wish people knew that. The level of attention each person has on their particular tasks through the course of the day, how to schedule your work week in order to accomplish what you need to, so that everything is consistent. Consistency – to accomplish what I think we do here consistently – is really hard, and I wish people knew what it takes. The oregano we get in today could be really different from the oregano yesterday. It’s a balancing act.

JN: It’s not just hard work in terms of hours, but it’s also hard work in terms of sheer skill level, just as it is for a doctor doing surgery. It’s hard because there’s serious skill and talent on all levels, on the service end and on the line.

MM: Yeah, if someone can’t make it to work that day, if their mother got rushed to the hospital and they’re out of work that day, everybody else has to kick it up a notch to cover for that person. The multi-tasking part of it – you’ve got four, five, or six things going on at once, in the oven, on the stove, you’re cutting something on your cutting board, sometimes you have two cutting boards – I wish people knew more about that.

JN: Do you have a particular philosophy or approach to service here? In the kitchen, you have a defining philosophy. Do you have anything similar on the floor? How do you teach or train your servers?

MM: I feel like it’s the same in the front and the back, here. In all the restaurants I’ve ever worked, this is the closest the two teams have been. Often in restaurants, some people work in the front, some people work in the back, and they don’t talk. That does not happen here. The servers we have here have been doing it for years. Our General Manager, Lauren Vergara, she is fantastic, and she hired fantastic people to work here. She does her thing – I’m not the one out there. She gets all the credit for that. But they all have so much experience. It’s just a powerhouse. I have enough on my plate in the back. They do their thing.

JN: Which is more likely to be deficient at a restaurant, the cooking or the service? When you go out, do you find yourself thinking, I wish these dishes were a little better, or do you find yourself thinking, Man, these dishes are great, but I wish they paid attention out on the floor?

MM: It’s an interesting question. One of the best meals I ever had in my life was at 11 Madison Park. I went there assuming the food would be good, but what made it the best meal of my life was the service. They took it above and beyond.

JN: What was different about it?

MM: They knew we were coming from Boston, so they prepared a special Boston clambake for us, just for our table. It was my girlfriend’s birthday; we had a 10:30 reservation, and it’s a three-hour meal, so we were still there at midnight. At midnight – her birthday was the following day – they rolled a champagne cart over to the table at the stroke of midnight. I didn’t ask them to do that! Wow.

The food being of less quality than I would hope happens a lot when I go out to eat – that’s why we only go to places where we know it’s going to be good. I don’t want to spend money on the risk.

JN: What are the defects when you go out?

MM: Lack of salt, lack of acid. Those are the most common problems.

JN: One person I interviewed had an interesting, if controversial theory. She’s a cookbook author, not a chef. Her theory is that a lot of restaurant cooking is actually oversalted. She thinks it has something to do with the fact that restaurant kitchens are still dominated by men, that there’s a lot of ego. She thinks there’s a lot of stuff there that sometimes comes out in food that’s aggressive. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with that idea, but it’s interesting and worth considering, I think. There is the phenomenon of restaurant food where they’re so focused on the first bite knocking you over with pleasure that you forget it’s not just one bite, you have to get through a whole dish – and maybe by the end of the dish, it’s too aggressive.

MM: Yeah, that’s an interesting point; I learned that when I was in Boston. We had a lentil soup on the menu. If you’re making a soup and it has black pepper in it, and you go to have a spoonful and it tastes good – go eat a bowlful of that soup and your mouth’s going to be on fire with that much pepper. The chef in Boston told me that, and it stuck with me. I feel like, yeah, sometimes it’s overseasoned. You have six things working at once, and you forget that you salted that already. It happens. Or something goes unsalted, or oftentimes, especially with young cooks, it’s the stress of making something right. This doesn’t taste right – add more salt. That’ll do it. I think that happens a lot. I did it, when I was younger. The nerves.

JN: Just because you tasted it, and it wasn’t quite right, and the only tool in your box was salt? Maybe it needs acid, maybe it needs more time, maybe it needs less time, but salt is the instinctive reaction. That’s really interesting.

MM: Yeah, I think that’s the main one. I used to do it. But you learn over the years what things need, and when to hold back.

JN: When you do go out, what are you looking for in restaurants?

MM: Honestly, recently I like sitting at bars.

JN: Even though you don’t want to have a bar here!

MM: Yeah, I like sitting at bars and having a beer. As much as I enjoy dining at a table, if we’re going out once a week, I don’t want to get dressed up. I want to take it easy. Cost is a major thing. This industry doesn’t really pay very much. Oftentimes we don’t have time to go grocery shopping. If I’m spending $300 on dinner, what are we going to eat the next day? We still don’t have any groceries.

JN: [Laughter] I love it.

MM: [Laughter] You know? So.

JN: You mentioned the explosion of restaurants in Philly in the last couple of years, and how hard it is to find cooks, for example. How would you describe the Philly dining scene at the moment?

MM: I think it’s fantastic. There are so many places that are just great. My list keeps getting longer and longer, of places that I want to go eat. There’s all different sorts of cuisines from all over the world opening up. I don’t think it’s ever been better, from a diner’s standpoint. Even since I moved back four years ago, from New York, the amount of quality places that have opened has just been incredible.

JN: How would you describe the difference between living and working in restaurants in New York and Philly?

MM: Oh God, I hated New York. It’s 24 hours. I worked at Columbus Circle. Every day, I would get on the A train, and it would be like, am I going to be able to sit, or be jammed, standing up?

JN: Right, because you can’t afford to live close by.

MM: Right, and then the same thing on the way home. Just the grind of it. In New York there’s so many people who don’t live there; it never felt like home. When I moved back here, when I was driving the U-Haul back and I saw the skyline, I got goosebumps. You’re home, man. It was great. And it’s just friendlier here. When we opened Townsend, all the restaurants on the Avenue sent us flowers on the first day we opened, and cards. It was great.

JN: That’s awesome.

MM: In New York, A Voce was right below Per Se. There was a bar across the street called The Coliseum. That’s where we would go, and sometimes the Per Se team would come. They would just never mingle – it was very impersonal. And, cutthroat – everybody’s gunning for your job there. I like to cook; it’s not a competition for me.

JN: How did you settle on this neighborhood [Fairmount], and this particular building?

MM: This was all Chef [Wentz]. He found the space. It was a grocery store before, didn’t have a basement. He did all the work himself.

JN: That man’s a beast!

MM: It was an incredible buildout, the way this went from a grocery store to a restaurant. They dug out the basement with jackhammers, carried buckets of rocks. The summer before we opened, he was here every day. I was working at Townsend at that point, because I’m the one who freed him up there so he could do this. I’m not certain why he chose this; maybe just because the space was available. I feel like maybe this neighborhood needed another restaurant.

JN: Do you live in the neighborhood too?

MM: No, I live in South Philly.

JN: What is Fairmount like these days? Do you get mostly local people, or do people come here from across the city?

MM: I think from everywhere. In the beginning it was mostly neighborhood people. There was a lot of pushback; they didn’t really like the new guy on the block. It was a quiet little grocery store corner, and now there’s smells of garlic and onions in the neighborhood that I don’t think was very well-received in the beginning. The prices were too high, the portions were too small. But now I think we’ve earned our keep and we’ve earned their trust, so that we definitely have return guests all the time, neighborhood people.

JN: What’s the character of the neighborhood? Is it young, is it older?

MM: It’s quiet, definitely older; it’s families that have owned these houses for years. There’s not too many businesses over here like there are in South Philly, so it’s quieter. There are trees, you know?

JN: Was the open kitchen Chef Wentz’s idea, or was it a necessity of the space?

MM: He wanted it to be open. It’s more approachable, I think. It’s Italian. He wanted it to feel like a house, cozy.

JN: Is it your first open kitchen?

MM: No, A Voce was semi-open. There was a glass partition.

JN: How does it affect your work, having the open kitchen?

MM: Well, we have to stay clean. Not that we wouldn’t be clean if it was a closed kitchen. How does it affect our work? It doesn’t, really. I don’t use much foul language, so it’s not like I have to watch my mouth or anything. Everybody knows what they’re doing. I’m not a screamer. That’s a waste of energy, in my opinion. If I scream at somebody, they can go down the block and get paid $2 more an hour, you know what I mean? It comes down to that. Everyone knows what they’re doing. We often don’t talk.

JN: That’s what I’ve noticed, and I’m not the only one – other people have written about it. Compared to other open kitchens I’ve seen, yours seems like the most silent kitchen. Someone described it as “dancing,” in one of those articles. I thought that was exactly right. Kitchens have this reputation for being crazy, out of control, even if they’re not yelling or screaming. Maybe that’s less true of kitchens at a high level, but here it just seems effortless. Obviously that’s an illusion – it comes from skill – but it looks like this effortless dance back there, which I think people appreciate seeing.

MM: That’s good to hear. I can’t relate; I don’t know what it’s like from a diner’s standpoint, for someone who has never worked in a restaurant, but I guess it’s got to be pretty cool.

JN: I think so. People love to see it. Do you have experience with the screaming, yelling type of kitchen, or have you been spared that?

MM: I’ve worked with some madmen back in the day. Chef [Wentz] was never a screamer, but he comes from that era of screamers.

JN: So, it’s a real thing?

MM: Oh, yeah. They’ve got screaming in New York, screaming in Italy, screaming in France. I don’t get it. It’s just dinner! We’re not birthing children here or anything like that, you know? It’s just dinner. Sometimes you get really stressed out, a lot of anxiety, but you have to remember it’s just dinner. There’s no need; people don’t respond to screaming. We’re so laser-focused on the prep day, and ordering, and purveyors, and what we’ll need for the day and the week, that we never get to the point where things are out of hand, that would involve screaming. The problems are usually nonexistent.

JN: But that’s because of management and leadership; it doesn’t just happen.

MM: Yeah.

JN: Especially with your New York experience, were you surprised about all the stuff that has come out in the past year about sexual harrassment in restaurants?

MM: I’m glad these scumbags are going down. It’s disgusting. I’ve personally never worked in a place where that’s going on, but I know of it. I guess restaurants are male-driven – or they used to be, but not anymore at all. I respect everybody who walks in the door, no matter who you are.

JN: Do you think that this cultural moment is going to lead to real change in restaurants, or do you feel like it’s just a blip? Because it’s kind of a toxic brew – you’ve got high stress, low pay. In a way, I’m not surprised that restaurants have really suffered from this. Do you think we’ve turned the corner?

MM: Absolutely. I mean, I would hope so. I’m just glad people are getting called out for that. No one should have to deal with that when they go to work. We’re all here to work.

JN: Thanks so much. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk today!

a conversation with Dan Richer

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Dan Richer is a baker and chef, the owner of Razza Pizza Artigianale in Jersey City, NJ, and formerly owner of Arturo’s in Maplewood, NJ. After a life-changing trip to Italy,  Dan dedicated his life to bringing the flavors he had discovered there back home. In 2011, Dan was named a James Beard Award Semifinalist, and shortly thereafter transitioned from the tasting menus which had earned him that recognition to the more specialized pursuit of creating pizza of the highest quality. He was named a Semifinalist again in 2016 and 2017. In addition to being a first-rate baker and pizzaiolo, Dan is a beautiful and kind person, and I have benefited from his generosity on more than one occasion. He is an inspiration to me and many others.

In our conversation, we discuss the importance of taste memories, why natural fermentation produces better bread, and how to make a meatball which melts in your mouth.

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Justin Naylor: I’d like to begin by asking about something you’ve mentioned in other interviews. You skipped your college graduation and flew to Italy, and you’ve said that the food you tasted there was nothing like what you knew of Italian food growing up in New Jersey. How would you describe that difference, and how did it affect you?

Dan Richer: The Italian-American restaurants I had experienced growing up were not formal, not fine-dining. We’re talking about places where you get a plate of pasta for $10.

JN: Right, not places like Babbo.

DR: Exactly. But it was all I knew. So, when I went to Italy, even the most basic foods – pasta and tomato suace, or pasta with meat sauce – blew me away. These are things I ate growing up, but it wasn’t until I went to Italy that I really saw a difference between gnocchi in the US versus gnocchi in, say, Florence. As a 21-year-old, it was like listening to a new piece of music for the first time. You’re experiencing the whole thing, all of its parts, mingling and not really being able to pick apart the dish. I didn’t know, for example, if there were carrots in the sauce or onions. I was experiencing the thing as a whole. I just knew it was different and I enjoyed it more. It was so delicious, so balanced. Just better, and at that time I couldn’t say why.

JN: How do you understand it now?

DR: It’s all about ingredients and technique. As cooks, we have ingredients and technique, and that’s all we have control over. We’re always trying to find better ingredients and to hone our technique, whether it’s for sauce making, or pasta making, or pizza making.

JN: In the case of the gnocchi, what do you think was the disconnect between the Jersey gnocchi and the Florentine gnocchi?

DR: Pure technique. [In Italy] they knew what it was supposed to taste like, and what the texture was supposed to feel like in your mouth. When you know what it’s supposed to be like, it’s easier to recreate it. I say it’s all ingredients and technique, but there’s one more thing: having a blueprint for what it should taste like.

JN: Right on. What Marcella Hazan called “taste memories.” She didn’t cook a day in her life until she was well into her 30s, but because she had a lifetime of taste memories she was able to figure out what to do.

DR: So, that first trip was really the beginning of creating taste memories for me. I didn’t know how or why, but I knew that I wanted to bring that to New Jersey. I wanted to understand why it was so good, and I wanted to bring that home with me.

JN: How do you think Italian-American cooking lost that connection to the taste memories of cooking in Italy?

DR: It’s like the telephone game thing, where over time things just change, especially when you mingle a lot of different cultures together over a long period of time. I’m not a food historian by any means, and I can’t trace its lineage. Honestly, it’s not my lineage; I’m not Italian-American.

JN: So, you wanted to bring back something of what you had tasted in Italy, but first you had to learn and put in a lot of time in other people’s kitchens, because you had no experience.

DR: Right, lots of time. But not even that much in kitchens. I had worked in restaurants since I was 15, as a busboy. Even then, I liked watching in the kitchen. But when I got back from Italy I learned mostly from books, TV, trial and error. Mostly trial and error, cooking every day of the week.

JN: Any particular book or TV show that made a major impact?

DR: It’s really hard to say. I was watching a lot of Molto Mario at the time.

JN: That was such a great show.

DR: Yeah. Phenomenal. It’s like super-controversial to even be talking about him these days.

JN: I understand, but I think it’s important and I’m happy to talk about it.

DR: I am, too. It’s part of my story. I was watching a lot of that show in college, and it was so influential that it convinced me to fly to Italy instead of going to my graduation.

JN: [Laughter] So it was that show that did it! I’m not surprised!

DR: Yes. Also, my cousin had an apartment in Rome and I had a place to hang out.

JN: Eventually, you did learn and develop and you became quite accomplished. Before you opened Razza your focus was on preparing elaborate tasting menus, and you received significant recognition for that. But now you’re focused on foods as simple as pizza, bread, and butter. How did that evolution happen?

DR: Well, they’re not simple; they’re so complicated! I spent about a month in Japan in 2006, learning about the culture and learning about the food. That was where I really saw specialization: taking pride in doing one thing and doing it really well. So, I don’t look at it as going from complexity to simplicity. Everything I do is absurdly complex, though on the surface it seems very simple. As you’re able to focus your time on doing one thing, you’re able to expose the complexities.

JN: What convinced you to focus on bread? By bread, of course, I mean pizza as well.

DR: I got into bread because I got interested in pizza. I started my first restaurant in 2006. I actually bought a failing restaurant. It had two wood-fired ovens, and it had a pizza recipe which I inherited from the previous owners. My focus there was on the tasting menus. We would close down the restaurant twice a week to do these tasting menu dinners, 6 or 7 courses. It was a lot of fun and I loved it. But it got to the point where pizza was at the core of the businesses, because we were using these two ovens the other five nights of the week. I wanted to make that great, and focus on that.

JN: Because you can’t do everything, which is a hard lesson to learn. One that I haven’t really learned yet, but it’s important.

DR: Honestly, it was after I got my first James Beard Semifinalist award that I stopped doing the tasting menus, right at the height of their popularity!

JN: Cool.

DR: The James Beard announcement was in March or April, and we were booked until August. But it was at that moment I said, We’re done. This is it. Let me focus on the core of what we’re doing.

JN: You also mentioned to me, when we met a few years ago, about the influence of Anthony Mangieri.

DR: Yeah, he owns Una Pizza Napoletana and was the best pizzamaker in New York at that time. He came to the restaurant and I was just so ashamed of my pizza.

JN: He didn’t come to a tasting menu?

DR: No, the regular restaurant, [with] the terrible pizza recipe I had inherited from the previous owner.

JN: [Laughter] Priceless. Did that make it clear to you that the pizza you were making didn’t represent who you wanted to be? Everything crystalized and you’re like, Now we gotta get serious about the bread.

DR: Exactly. I was just so embarrassed by what we were serving that I wanted to learn more. It all stemmed from a curiosity to understand things and a desire to create a better product.

JN: Had you had powerful pizza experiences in Italy at that point, or did that come later?

DR: I still haven’t had many powerful pizza experiences in Italy! Some, but not many.

JN: Maybe this is a good time to ask you to describe how pizza in Italy is different from pizza in the US, for those who have never been to Italy.

DR: Well, all pizza is essentially a flat bread with some kind of condiments on top.

pizza

JN: In that sense, pizza’s been around as long as there’s been bread.

DR: Exactly. Throughout Italy there are a bunch of different styles. Of course there’s Neapolitan pizza. There’s super-thin-crusted pizza in Rome, rolled out with a pin. There’s pizza al taglio [by the slice].

JN: In terms of flavor, did you have the same kind of experience with pizza on your first trip as you did with pasta?

DR: I had some pizzas that were certainly delicious, but I wasn’t as obsessed with the pizza on that first trip.

JN: So, was Anthony [Mangieri]’s pizza a major inspiration?

DR: I knew mine was not good enough, so I started studying bread because I knew pizza was bread with condiments. At first, I changed the condiments: I got the best tomatoes I could, the best olive oil. It wasn’t getting better, so I had to focus on the bread. I started studying fermentation, reading every bread book I could find, scouring Internet forums about fermentation and breadbaking. Now, this was 12 years ago…

JN: So there weren’t that many resources.

DR: Now it’s exponentially bigger.

JN: Did you consider going to Anthony Mangieri himself for help, or did you not know him well enough?

DR: Absolutely not. I knew him, kind of, but I would never ask him a question. He’s influenced me indirectly because of the embarrassment I felt about my product, but I’ve never learned anything from him specifically. I would never ask. Remember, this was 12 years ago. People were guarded about their information. If you wanted to know what kind of tomatoes someone used, you’d have to dig through their garbage, which is ridiculous. I would never do that. Instead of relying on specific information from others, I wanted to understand ingredients and techniques. With tomatoes, I came up with an evaluation system by speaking with tomato growers, canners, and discovering what characteristics tomatoes inherently possessed. You know, acidity, sweetness, texture. The seeds and the skins. Positive flavor attributes. Negative flavor attributes. I started rating tomatoes based on this system rather than relying on a specific region – like, the best tomatoes are from San Marzano – or on what kind of tomatoes a guy like Anthony Mangieri uses. I would never ask those questions or rely on that for what I would do. I’d use my palate and empirical data. You figure out what makes a good tomato and then do double-blind taste tests to determine which is the best.

JN: What about fermentation? 

DR: For me, I wasn’t dead set on it being 100% natural fermentation and I’m still not. Every day I do side-by-side comparisons. We usually have two or three batches of dough [at Razza]. One is 100% natural fermentation; one or two usually have varying levels of commercial yeast. All are less than the amount the French government says bakers can use and still consider the bread naturally fermented.

JN: Really? I didn’t know you could use any commerical yeast in France and still call it natural fermentation.

DR: You can, but we use much less, about 1/100 of a percent of the flour weight.

JN: Like sulfites in wine, where good producers use way less than the amount they can use by law.

DR: Yes.

JN: For those who don’t know the first thing about commercial yeast versus natural fermentation, how would you introduce that concept?

DR: There are a few types of commercial yeast, but they’re all a single strain that metabolizes the starch in the grain – the starch being sugar. The yeast converts that sugar into carbon dioxide, which leavens the bread, and alcohol, which produces a little flavor but then burns off in the oven. With natural fermentation, we’re relying not on the single monoculture strain, saccharomyces cerevisiae, but on diverse wild yeasts and bacteria which we keep going through feeding a starter on a routine basis. I cultivated mine from wheat which I had grown for me in New Jersey. I got whole wheat berries and milled them by hand and mixed them with water, and I’ve been feeding them continuously for over 10 years now.

JN: The key word being “yeasts” in the plural. Unlike commercial yeast, you have not a monoculture but an ecosystem.

DR: Yes, and bacteria which live in symbiosis with the yeast. Keeping that culture – or ecosystem – healthy is the key to what we do here.

JN: How would your bread be different if you followed the same process you use now, except you used only commerical yeast?

DR: I don’t enjoy bread made exclusively from commercial yeast. I don’t think they’re delicous.

JN: What are the flaws?

DR: For me, it’s flavor: so much less complex using commercial monoculture yeast. When we do our side-by-side tests every day, and taste the 100% naturally leavened pizza compared to the batch with just a tiny tiny bit of commercial yeast, there is a dramatic difference in the flavor. Even the tiny amount of yeast we use can outcompete the yeasts and bacteria in the naturally leaved dough, and produces less flavor. However, it does produce more gas, and so we use a little bit.

JN: So it’s a trade-off.

DR: It’s a trade-off from a texture standpoint, because the one with a little commercial yeast always has a better texture – a little bit airier, a little bit crispier. We’re constantly having the discussion about the tension between flavor and texture.

JN: For those who don’t know, how common is it to find a bakery that works with natural fermentation?

DR: Extremely rare. Certainly, 99% of pizzerias out there use exclusively commercial yeast. Over the past decade it’s increased, and that’s awesome, but it’s still a tiny percentage.

JN: Sometimes people ask me at my own bread classes why there is not even an attempt to capture the rich diversity of a natural starter in a commercial, dried product. Why is it a single monoculture strain?

DR: I think that culture, in general – all culture – is fragile. Commercial yeast is very vigorous. It’s a vigorous gas-producer, it’s reliable, strong. It performs a function that is very important; it provides vigorous, reliable fermentation. Under low temperatures it doesn’t die, it’s great. Natural cultures, by contrast, are very fragile, and they need to be nurtured. If we’re talking about the culture of an organization, the culture of society, or a culture of micro-organisms, they need certain things. They have to be nurtured. There’s no possible way, in my opinion, to have this magic pill that captures all of those good things without any of the bad. The process of keeping a starter alive is not difficult, but it does require attention. All you have to do is feed it once or twice a day. It needs food and water. That’s it. So, we try to teach people about that.

JN: When you make bread without the strain that’s in the commercial yeast, as you mentioned, it has fantastic flavor but it’s lacking a little bit of airiness. Why is that strain lacking in the natural culture?

DR: You can get great gas production with 100% natural fermentation, don’t get me wrong. That’s the main job of a baker, to get great gas production from natural means. About the commercial strain not being more present in the culture… that’s a question for a microbiologist. I do know that that strain of yeast is non-reculturable. It doesn’t reproduce very well. So you can’t take it from batch to batch; eventually it dies out. Because the specific yeasts and the specific bacteria that are in our starter culture live in symbiosis together, they provide for one another.

JN: For those who are ambitious, and want to do some natural bread fermentation at home, what tips do you have?

DR: For natural fermentation, it requires constant attention. You are taking care of your culture, so if you don’t have the time to feed your culture, you should just not do it.

JN: What about those who say, No big deal: throw it in the fridge, feed it once a week? In my experience, that produces a crap culture without vigor.

DR: You can do that; if you feed it and then put it in a lower temperature, it’s fine for a week, a month, two months – but before you bake again, you have to feed it, you have to make it vigorous. I’m a big believer that if you don’t have time to do something, then don’t do it.

JN: Assuming that someone is willing to take that on, and they’re willing to feed it every day or keep it in the fridge and then take it out and feed it a few days before –

DR: Three feedings, the more time apart the better. In an ideal situation – and this is not possible in a home baking situation – I would feed it three times a day at eight-hour increments. You can do it twice a day at twelve-hour increments, you can do it once a day, but the amount of old starter that you add to the new flour and water should be very low.

JN: Any other tips to anyone at home who is trying to do natural fermentation, from your experience, that you haven’t seen in books? For me, the turning point was when I realized that the usual standard for commercial yeast – that you ferment until it’s doubled in bulk – was totally irrelevant for natural fermentation.

DR: Completely irrelevant, yeah. There are so many things. I’ve been doing this since 2006, and I made my first pizza in 2003. It’s a lot of time of trial and error. I’ve learned so much.

JN: Do you have a particular book that you recommend?

DR: If you don’t have the time or dedication for natural fermentation, it’s Jim Leahy’s books: My Bread, or My Pizza. It’s super-approachable for the home baker. For natural fermentation, Tartine Bread is the baseline. If you want to spend the money, Modernist Bread just came out. I just bought it on Prime Day yesterday. It’s more expensive than my car! But totally worth it. I know the authors, for one thing, and there’s so much information in there. Just two chapters of it changed so much about how we make our bread.

JN: That’s the mark of a real master: the more you learn, the more you realize that you need to learn, right?

DR: Yeah!

JN: I know this might make you a little uncomfortable or embarrassed, but was it last year that the New York Times said that you were the best pizzeria in New York?

DR: That does make me a little uncomfortable.

JN: Congratulations! But I understand; you’re a humble guy. Plus the idea of there being a “best” is kind of ridiculous; I get that.

DR: Completely ridiculous.

JN: But look at it this way: why do you think they honored Razza with that distinction?

DR: There a couple of different reasons. Number one: if you did a double-blind taste test with our pizza and anything else happening in New York, I think you would see why, from what I’ve tasted. Of course, in New York there are so many different styles of pizza. Are we talking about a slice from Joe’s, are we talking about a slice from Prince St.? Is that what we do? No. There are so many different styles, so it’s difficult to rate. When I was coming up with our product, I took the data and the scientific approach and I came up with a list of about fifty characteristics about pizza that I love, and I worked every day – I continue to work every day – trying to be great at those fifty characteristics. It’s everything from the way the cheese melts, the way the cheese browns, the way the cheese spreads, to the sauce – all of those characteristics that we talked about in terms of tomatoes, those are part of the evaluation system for pizza. That’s what I think of as the best pizza, these characteristics. I also think that the writer of the review was trying to debunk the myth that location dictates whether your product is good, or not. A lot of people in New York have lots of not-so-nice things to say about us, just solely because we’re located in New Jersey. Whereas I feel that products are defined by their ingredients, their techniques, and the blueprints.

JN: This is ironic, too, because a lot of these same people, when they go to Italy, are the very ones who say, We went to this place in this nothing of a town, and it was the most amazing thing! Why aren’t they applying the same principle here? If it’s good, it’s good.

DR: Because people have a lot of pride. People have a lot of pride in New York, and New York has been one of the epicenters of pizza in the US. We have very strong feelings; we think that if a place has been open for a hundred years, that must be the best pizza. There’s something to be said for being open for a hundred years, but every day is an opportunity to make a great pizza or a not-so-great pizza. There’s no resting on your laurels; every day is a little bit different. That’s one of the things I love about pizza: every day is a little bit different.

JN: I know you don’t want to speak ill of your colleagues, but why do you think others are not putting in the time and effort to make their product excellent, as you have done?

DR: For a long time they didn’t have to. That’s one of the great things about the New York Times review: it got a lot of people thinking about it. When customers don’t demand a better product, there’s no reason for them to produce it.

JN: It goes back, doesn’t it, to the idea of taste memories? If you don’t have the taste memory of an excellent pizza, you won’t demand it. Why is charcuterie in the US so crappy compared to Italy or France? Right? Italy has mortadella…

DR: While we have baloney.

JN: Right.

DR: I’m a big believer in the idea that location doesn’t make your product good or bad. You can have great pizza in Phoenix and you can have great pizza in Japan, and you can have great pizza here in Jersey City.

JN: Speaking of great pizza, Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana, who so inspired you back in the day, is back from San Francisco and making pizza again in Manhattan. How excited are you that he’s back?

DR: So excited. I went to the friends/family opening, and it’s phenomenal. It’s very Neapolitan, so different from ours. It’s better than any Neapolitan pizza that I’ve had in Naples.

JN: How would you describe the difference between Neapolitan pizza and yours?

DR: We are anti-Neapolitan, actually. Everything about Neapolitan pizza, we are not. Neapolitans are generally looking for something that’s baked in 60 to 90 seconds, which ultimately leads to a softer crust. They’re looking for something that has a little bit of resistance in your teeth, but that is light, airy, and soft.

JN: I always compare it to the Indian bread naan, charred but soft.

DR: Sure. Americans like crispy. We like crispy pizza. We eat it with our hands. Neapolitan pizza is soft and wet, you need a fork and knife. There’s something beautiful about that, and mopping up the soupy bits with your crust. That’s a great thing. But in the United States we slice our pizza into triangles typically, and we pick it up with our hands and we want it to shatter when we bite into it. We want it to be sturdy enough to not sag or droop when you pick it up. We’re part of an American artisanal pizza movement that’s happening here in the United States.

JN: Does your pizza differ from Neapolitan pizza in ingredients as well as style?

DR: Yes. Neapolitan pizza uses only Italian products: bufala mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, Italian olive oil. That makes sense in Naples. But we’re in the United States, so we’re going to use tomatoes from the US – sometimes from California, but right now we’re testing the first Jersey tomatoes.

JN: Those are the ones you were tasting when I arrived?

DR: Yes, we were testing the specific gravity to see how the density would be and how they’d flow on the pizza. We’re taking the Italian ideologies and mentalities surrounding pizza and food in general, but applying it here. We’re using the ingredients that are right here. Use the ingredients available in your area, because that’s what makes sense, from so many standpoints, but certainly from a flavor standpoint. We don’t use buffalo-milk mozzarella because it’s meant to be eaten the day it’s made or the next day, so by the time it gets here it’s flat-out old. We don’t use 00 flour. It’s typically milled in Italy, but they don’t grow enough wheat, so they import the wheat, often from the United States. So [the US] ships it there, they grind it, and they ship it back. It’s a massive drain on our environment. I see something wrong with that. Why don’t we just find the mill closest to us, which happens to be 15 minutes away from here? That just makes sense to me.

JN: What are you using for mozzarella these days?

DR: We’re making our own.

JN: So you buy the curd and stretch it?

DR: Yeah, we have to. We’ve tried everything on the market.

JN: What happened to the bufala producer in New Jersey?

DR: They went out of business, even though the product was phenomenal.

JN: And you were using it?

DR: For all of last year.

JN: So that’s the second US producer making an excellent product to go out of business; Woodstock Water Buffalo was the other. Why can’t they make it? Is there no market?

DR: Oh, there’s a market. But the climate is too cold. They like heat; that’s why they’re all down near Naples in Italy. This past winter was really tough on the herd in Jersey. A lot just didn’t make it, and that was it.

JN: Could you say a little about the flour you’re using, the one that’s milled locally?

DR: We’re using a blend of two or three different flours right now. Our product is a living, breathing thing. Our process is always changing. There’s no saying, This is how we do it. Sometimes we’ll do it this way for a stretch of time, and then we’ll want to learn something else, so we’ll change one variable, like one of the flours in our blend, the water content of the dough by 1%, just to see what it does. We’ll change the fermentation temperature from 78 degrees to 73 degrees. We’ll change the feeding schedule of the starter. One variable at a time over a long period of time. So there’s no definitive answer about how we do it.

JN: Although you have a great mill close by, have you ever thought about doing any in-house milling, as Marc Vetri in Philadelphia has begun to do?

DR: I’ve grown a plot of wheat a couple of years ago, and we got a few bushels which needed to be hand-milled. But I don’t have the time to be a miller, and a baker, and a business owner. Milling grain is a complete science unto itself. I want to let the master millers do that. I could also make my own plates, as a potter…

JN: [Laughter]

DR: You know, I could do that too. But would I do it well? Probably not. I could even harvest the clay from some soil here in New Jersey, make the plates, and serve my pizza on it. But I’m probably not going to be good at it.

JN: So you’re not milling like they are at Vetri, but like Marc Vetri you’ve been critical of the term “farm-to-table.” Could you explain your opposition to that term?

DR: I don’t like it because it’s a buzzword now, like the word fresh was ten years ago. It just becomes meaningless. McDonalds started using the world “fresh.” It’s just a stupid term for a philosophy that for me is ingrained in what I do. It’s the way things are supposed to be. If you want to eat food, eat food grown close to where you live. What’s foreign to me is putting all the farms in the middle of nowhere, growing one or two crops, and shipping the food to where the people are. It leads to so many detrimental things. It’s so terrible.

JN: Is there a word or phrase that you prefer, or do you object to any description of the model you’re talking about? Because you want people to know that you’re doing something unusual, no?

DR: I’d rather have them not know it. On our menu there is no mention of a specific farm or anything like that. We might talk about it. For example, if I get some strawberries from my neighbor and drive them up to the restaurant and put them on a salad, having never seen a refrigerator, we can talk about that with our customers. But we don’t have to say “farm to table” restaurant.

JN: You’d rather have them just enjoy the product?

DR: Yes.

JN: I guess it’s a little bit like European wineries eschewing the term “organic” on their label, even though they are organic.

DR: Yeah, exactly. It feels like a marketing ploy. The most important part of what we do is creating a great product. It doesn’t matter where the ingredients come from. Everything else is secondary. The quality of the ingredients is the most important factor, and for me the best ingredients are local ingredients, but it’s not about being dogmatic. Everything else – the story behind it – comes second.

JN: So, local is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

DR: Exactly. I don’t care about the marketing behind it. For example, my social media is almost non-existent. I’m not trying to sell us as a restaurant.

JN: As in, you don’t have social media accounts or you just don’t care about it?

DR: I just don’t care about it. I do it myself, but rarely, because it’s just not important to me. What’s important is the product and giving our guests a real product that’s genuinely delicious, and serving it in a way that is hospitable, caring, and warm.

JN: Is your feeling about social media just a personal one, or are you making a broader generalization? In general, do you think social media has been a blessing or a curse to the food world?

DR: I don’t think I’m smart enough to comment on it. All I know is that it doesn’t make me happy. It makes me happy to have my hands in dough, making pizza and serving that pizza to real guests in a real way on an everyday basis, not just snapping a picture of it and having people “like” it on my social media. That does nothing for me. Having a lot of followers does nothing for me. What makes me happy is the smile I get when a customer enjoys my pizza, and having a conversation with them about the pizza and about life in general. That’s what makes me happy.

JN: I’d like to talk about the #MeToo movement as it relates to restaurants. We mentioned Mario [Batali] earlier, and about how many people don’t even want to talk to him or about him, as if he’s dead, which doesn’t seem to me like a healthy thing. Having worked in the business for some time, I’m curious if you have anything to say about this cultural moment?

DR: Yes, it’s terrible. There are good people and bad people everywhere in every industry. The restaurant business is a high-stress environment.

JN: Right. Low pay and high stress: not a good combination.

DR: I think bad people should be called out, and when they make bad choices they need to be called out because it’s not acceptable to speak to someone in the wrong way or insinuate certain things. This stuff is ridiculous. I can’t even believe it’s a thing. It’s sad.

JN: Do you think the cultural moment we’re in will lead to lasting changes in the industry?

DR: People simply don’t want to be yelled at, or harassed, or any of that. We try to take care of each other and be there for each other. It’s amazing to me – I mean, I can’t even fathom people talking to me that way. I would never talk to anyone that way. It’s terrible.

JN: We have just a few minutes left, but I can’t believe we’ve talked a whole hour without getting around to talking about butter. To some people, you’re just as famous for your butter as for your pizza. Could you describe how your decision to make butter came about?

DR: Yeah. It came about because I was studying fermentation, and I wanted to ferment everything I could possibly find. I started making my own yogurt, then I realized I could make my own crème fraîche. I was making amazing bread and so I thought, Why am I not making my own butter? As we said at the beginning, pizza is bread with condiments. In a way, what is a simpler form of that idea than bread and butter? It’s like an even more simple version of pizza.

JN: Interesting.

DR: Obviously there are differences, but it’s the same idea. So I started sourcing the best cream I could find, a grass-fed cream from Pennsylvania that was just phenomenal. We use an heirloom Scandinavian culture, and it’s very similar to the sourdough bread process: we take a little of the fermented cream, add it back into the next day’s fresh cream to start the fermentation, and it begins to bacterially ferment the cream, lowering its pH and giving it a mild cheese-like tang. And then we churn it. So the butter really is alive and constantly changing. We keep it at room temperature, so even during the night we’ll see a change in its flavor from the beginning to the end of restaurant service. That’s something I love: the variety and variability.

JN: Absolutely.

DR: It’s always delicious but it is subtly different. There are massive seasonal differences based on the grass and the diet of the cows the cream comes from.

JN: Just to be clear for those who don’t know, culturing butter is extremely rare these days. Except for some of the imported European products, butter is made from cream which has never been inoculated.

DR: Definitely. But in the past, before pasteurization, this is how all butter was made. The raw milk had naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in it which are killed by pasteurization, which is why we have to reintroduce them.

JN: Why do you take the extra trouble to culture your butter?

DR: Once you’ve tasted cultured butter, it’s hard to go back to sweet cream butter. There’s a massive difference in flavor profile.

butter

JN: When you started, was anyone else doing the same thing that inspired you?

DR: There is now, but there wasn’t then. I mean, I certainly didn’t invent the idea. I’m sure people were doing it, but nobody I knew. For me it was just an organic, natural progression.

JN: It really reminds me of what you said earlier about applying an Italian approach to an American practice. No one in Italy serves butter as a condiment for bread, but Americans do, so why not adopt an Italian mindset to an American practice?

DR: Yes, without a doubt.

JN: My final question is about meatballs. You and I share an affection for meatballs of high quality, and yet even in Italy it can be hard to find the best examples. Yours are some of the only I’ve had that really inspire me. Could you tell us what meatballs mean to you?

DR: So, I grew up eating meatballs in a certain way. My mom made them. Were they phenomenal? Not really, but it’s all I knew.

JN: [Laughter] Sorry, mom!

DR: Yeah, exactly. When I was in Parma, Italy, I went to a little take-out deli-type place. It had no tables, so we ordered some meatballs and they wrapped them up for me. I sat on a street corner in Parma, and I tasted this meatball that I had never tasted before. It was tender and melted in your mouth. It wasn’t dense. It was light and airy, not this compact, all-meat sort of thing. That meatball completely changed my view of meatballs. After that trip, I immediately started practicing meatballs, really picking it apart. How do you get that texture? What is a meatball? A meatball is a great way to use up some spare parts of meat that you have. Grind up whatever you have: beef, pork, whatever. Because meatballs are a dish of poverty, we take leftover bread, and that’s what lightens it up. So for our meatballs, since we have some day-old bread from our bread-making and since we have buttermilk from our butter-making, it’s just a natural thing to soak the day-old bread in the buttermilk and incorporate that into the meat that we have. Then we throw them on a tray and throw them in the brick oven because that’s the heat source we have.

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JN: Where do you think most people go wrong? Is it the common practice of using pulverized dried bread crumbs instead of fresh, soaked bread, or something else? I mean, it’s so sad that something that can be so delicious is more often so dreadful, even in Italy.

DR: I think people typically don’t use any or enough bread. We use really big chunks of our bread…

JN: So it has some texture too?

DR: Yes, and the bread is super airy, so it creates this negative space in your mouth. Like in a black and white photo. In the meatball you have the meat, but you need something for contrast. The bread is that negative space. When your teeth bite through it, you perceive that airiness — that negative space — in your mouth.

JN: That’s such a great insight. Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’re amped up to talk about?

DR: I’m amped up to talk about anything! Especially food-related, science-related. I think that stuff’s awesome. But I’m so hyper-focused on one specific thing – making pizza – that I don’t feel qualified to comment on really big important things. I leave that to people who are really smart – like our friend Katie Parla. I can comment on pizza and flour and tomatoes.

JN: Where do you like to eat these days when you’re not working?

DR: I have a one-year-old and a two-year-old, so right now I’m eating at home pretty much every night!

JN: Thanks again for your time, Dan. Can’t wait to return in a few minutes for dinner. There’s no place I’d rather eat right now than Razza. It’s just so good!

Marcella’s thoughts on using starchy pasta water

It’s become more and more common to see in contemporary Italian cookbooks what used to be mostly a restaurant technique: finishing pasta in a saute pan with its sauce and some of the pasta cooking water. The idea is to emulsify the dissolved starch in the water with the oil or butter in the sauce to create a creamier sauce which adheres well to the pasta.

It’s a useful technique, and I use it a lot. But I’ve always kept in mind Marcella Hazan’s thoughts on the subject. It’s an important topic, so I quote her at length from her wonderful book Marcella Cucina — perhaps her most splendid book — written at the height of her powers after almost three decades of teaching and more than a decade living full-time in Venice:

“Home cooks have long known that the water in which the pasta cooked contained some dissolved starch, and they used a spoonful of this water as a thickener, adding it to the sauce, to which they gave a very fast blast of heat and a swirl or two before tossing it with the pasta.

Restaurant cooks have gone further. They drain the pasta when it is quite underdone, add the pasta and some of its water to a skillet containing the sauce, and toss it over high heat for a minute or so…. Today, in restaurant after restaurant, it imparts the same tedious, faintly gelatinous texture to what otherwise have been fresh and lively sauces [my emphasis]. When used occasionally it is to impart a special consistency to a dish. When the practice becomes routine, it ends by being boring.”

Marcella’s advice, it has sometimes seemed to me, is often more revered than followed. This is a great example, as I’ve never see anyone refer to her thoughts on the issue. Of course, Marcella was a great cook and a great teacher, but she wasn’t infallible. Just because she thought something doesn’t make it so.

Still, I think she’s on to something here, and it’s an issue that deserves thought and attention among serious cooks. For me, the main advantage of the technique is that it keeps the dish piping hot until the moment it is transferred to its serving bowl. And as Marcella mentions, sometimes it imparts a special flavor or texture. Specifically she recommends it when making spaghetti with clams, because the pasta absorbs the super-flavorful clam juices as it finishes cooking.

So, it’s not that the technique is wrong. But as Marcella says, when it becomes routine it becomes boring. If every sauce has that same, starchy, creamy texture, we lose the delight that comes from variety. Most importantly, as she says, it loses the “fresh and lively” character that many of us find so appealing in Italian cooking.

Many journalists and cookbook authors have presented the technique as the “secret” to cooking pasta like an Italian. But don’t be fooled. Not every pasta sauce has to be creamy any more than every plate of potatoes needs to be crispy! Keep it as a tool in your arsenal, to be used judiciously and with good reason, but don’t employ it unthinkingly or by rote, just because restaurant chefs do it!

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The classic Roman dish Spaghetti aglio e olio, made without starchy pasta water for a more direct and lively flavor and texture.

 

 

Chickpea salad with leeks and celery

It started in Bologna. At Ristorante Da Fabio, they serve a salad of celery and parmigiano. That’s it. Dressed every so slightly with olive oil and lemon juice, it is the most exposed dish one could possibly imagine. When I take clients there, it always makes the deepest impression of any of the dishes. How could something so minimalistic provide so much flavor?

I had a similar experience recently at Razza, in Jersey City. I was with my son Peter, who loves chickpeas but is not an adventurous eater, and we ordered a little appetizer of chickpeas with scallions and parmigiano. Like the salad at Da Fabio, every aspect of the little minimalistic dish was perfect.

Both dishes inspired me to create a chickpea salad that would feature celery. It differs quite a bit from the dishes that inspired it (no parmigiano for example), but the defining concept is the same: a minimal number of ingredients assembled in perfect balance and harmony. It’s the sort of thing that inspires me most as a cook.

Here’s the version we settled upon for service at the restaurant last month. Perhaps it’s not quite as minimalistic as the dishes that inspired it, but it’s close. A big part of its success is dependent on the fresh celery we grow on the farm. This is not the mild, watery celery from California. It has intense aroma and a profusion of leaves, perfect for chopping fine and including in the salad. If you know anyone who grows celery, using fresh, local, aromatic celery will certainly enhance the dish. But if store-bought is the best you can do, be at peace with it. Ditto for the chickpeas. The best are bought dried, soaked overnight, and boiled until tender. But if you need to use canned chickpeas, don’t beat yourself up! Just make sure to get a good brand. To me, Goya is the best: perfectly seasoned and properly tender.

If you don’t owe a scale, go buy one now! It’s the best $30 you can spend for your kitchen.    Makes things simpler and more accurate.

Chickpea Salad with Celery and Leeks (makes 6 appetizer servings)

If using dried beans, soak them overnight if possible to reduce the cooking time. In the morning, replace most of the water with fresh, add salt, bring to a gentle boil, and simmer very gently until tender. Make sure to season the beans properly!! 1 pound (450 grams) of dried beans requires about 1 tablespoon of salt and will yield about 2.5 pounds  (1125 grams) of cooked beans. I cook my beans covered and then remove the lid near the end and reduce the water until it’s just above the level of the beans. If soaked, they should take 2 to 3 hours to become tender, but you need to check to be sure. Don’t go by the clock.

If using canned beans, rinse in fresh water. If they’re not tender enough, boil them for a bit. If not seasoned properly, fix it.

To make the salad, combine about 375 grams cooked chickpeas with 50 grams chopped celery and 50 grams chopped leeks (or scallions). Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 heaping tablespoon lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried hot pepper, 50 grams olive oil, and a generous bit of chopped celery or parsley leaves.

The salad can be served at once or allowed to steep for several hours while the flavors meld. It could be refrigerated if necessary, but I would only do it as a last resort. Just before serving, taste and correct for seasoning (salt, lemon juice, etc.) and garnish with a drizzle of fresh olive oil and possibly some freshly ground black pepper.

Chickpea salad

Another way with asparagus

IMG_2503As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was a problem:

I only cook them one way: briefly boiled and sautéed in something savory. There are surely other ways to do it, but sometimes when one way works it’s all you need or want!

This, from my post on asparagus a few weeks ago. It was true. It really is the only way I’d ever really cooked asparagus. But as I wrote I thought: How lame is that. A cooking teacher and chef who only cooks asparagus one way!

It spurred me to action. I resolved to roast some asparagus, allowing the dry heat to work its magic on the asparagus, concentrating its flavor and hopefully slightly charring the exterior.

Many chefs and home cooks love roasting vegetables of all types. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been slow to adopt that method. I cook almost all of my vegetables with moist heat on the stove top. Of course, it’s simpler on the stove top if the oven’s not on, and quicker too.

But it seemed like time to begin roasting, and asparagus is what I had. The first attempt, following a standard roasting time of about 10 minutes at 400 degrees, was only semi-successful. With our just-harvested asparagus, the cooking time was too long and the asparagus was mush, a good reminder of how even well-intentioned recipes can go astray based on faulty assumptions. A second attempt with a 5 minute cooking time was just right. With week-old asparagus the 10 minute cooking time was better, showing just how much freshness affects not only flavor but also time needed to cook.

The asparagus was delicious, more moist than I would have thought from the dry heat and perhaps not that different from boiling and sautéing, but with just a slightly different character. If the oven’s already on, you can’t beat the simplicity. Season carefully with salt and pepper and first-rate olive oil and throw in the oven, the kind of minimalistic cooking I love so much.

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Back from the cliff

The kids and I listen to a lot of audiobooks in the car. Currently, it’s the final book in the Emily trilogy of LM Montgomery, more famous for the Anne of Green Gables series. In the book, Emily, after a major life disappointment and illness, becomes engaged to an older man, Dean, whom she’s always looked up to as a friend and kindred spirit, even though she’s always given her heart to a younger man, Teddy, who doesn’t seem to reciprocate her affections. She figures that it is Dean who has been true to her, Dean who has always loved and heaped affection upon her, and Dean with whom she is most comfortable and at ease. They get engaged. They buy and furnish a house. They set a date for the wedding. It is all eminently sensible and desirable.

Except it’s not. Emily finally faces the truth: she loves Teddy and not Dean. She can’t explain it. She knows Teddy doesn’t reciprocate her affections and that she’s dooming herself to a life of lonely solitude. But she rejects what is comfortable, safe, and reasonable – but dishonest – in favor of what is risky and inexplicable, but true.

I had my own Emily moment this week. After a glorious start to our CSA season in May, the last week has been tough. We lost our first crop of cucumbers to the spider mite (a first!) and our first two plantings of carrots – an essential staple in our CSA – have been stunted and malformed (another first!). The cool weather has kept our tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant from maturing on schedule. And on Saturday I hurt my back. As I woke up on Monday morning at 6:00 am to harvest – back too stiff to work without soaking it in a hot bath, and lacking two major CSA staples – it began to seem like I’d reached a breaking point. The farm was keeping me from my family, from keeping the house clean, from studying Italian, and from any sense of relaxation. I wasn’t sure we’d have enough vegetables to harvest for the CSA in two weeks without the carrots and cukes. I told my wife that maybe it was time to finally admit defeat and suspend the CSA mid-season.

It would have been a comfortable, safe, and reasonable thing to do. I would have time for daily writing, time to make real progress in my Italian, time for the kids, and time to just take it easy a bit. Perhaps my farming life would have seemed crazy in retrospect. My wife would likely have been relieved.

But like Emily, it would have been comfortable but dishonest. Like Emily, I’m animated by a desire I can’t quite explain, one that nourishes and feeds me while being completely impractical. If I’m honest, I’m never happier than when I’m farming. The creativity, the connection to land, the production of something healthful and useful… all of these explain the attraction, but only imperfectly. Like Emily, my passion for farming is ultimately inexplicable, but no less true for being so.

I realized it later in the day talking to my extension agent, who had come to diagnose the trouble with the cukes and carrots. Even looking those disasters in the face, talking to him about the farm revived me. Thinking about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future reanimated me. Walking the fields thrilled me. I knew the sacrifices were real and needed to be continually considered. I knew I was taking the road less traveled and the road more torturous, but I knew that if I were honest I had to admit that it was the farm that most fed me and my passion for farming that was the great passion of my life.

Like any decision which one almost makes – walking away from a difficult marriage or an imperfect job – and later realizes would have been a disaster, the decision to continue on with the CSA come hell or high water has been a relief. It has breathed new life into what was becoming tedious drudgery. I came back from the cliff, and like a literal near-death experience, I’m left feeling more alive than ever.

on growing and cooking asparagus

May is one of my favorite months. The work of vegetable production in May can be oppressive, with never enough time to accomplish everything that must be done, but the month is redeemed by glorious weather and the presence of fresh asparagus.

I had always cooked and enjoyed asparagus, but it’s only when I started to harvest our own about four years ago that my enjoyment turned to obsession. Asparagus is one of those vegetables that is so different when freshly harvested that I’d rather go without for 11 months of the year than settle for the old, pale imitation one finds in the store. There aren’t many vegetables I feel that strongly about, but asparagus is one.

When it’s grown in fertile soil, freshly harvested, and cooked with care, asparagus has such a clean, fresh flavor; the opposite of the store-bought, strong-tasting, slimy asparagus that must be peeled and cooked with great care to make it delicious.

Much of the advice about selecting and prepping asparagus is all wrong, at least for freshly-harvested asparagus. Everyone says to look for the slender, delicate spears. But in my experience, it’s the biggest, fattest, meatiest ones (the kind you never see in the store) that provide the most pleasure. Most people say to partially peel the asparagus, especially on larger spears, but it’s completely unnecessary when the asparagus is fresh. I’ve seen moist cooking (steaming, boiling) times of 4 to 6 minutes, but even the thickest spears for me are ready in 2 minutes. Most say to trim off the woody bottom end, but that’s only necessary with asparagus which has begun to dry out or which was harvested too low to the ground instead of snapped where it’s naturally tender. Some people even buy the extraneous kitchen device known as an asparagus pot, where the spears cook upright in boiling water with only their tips out of the water so they don’t overcook. Good grief. No wonder some people find cooking asparagus intimidating!

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Big, fat ones are the best!

I always encourage people to grow it if they can, but it’s a vegetable that requires patience and skill. The plants need about three years to establish themselves during which time they can’t be harvested much at all, but once established they continue to produce for up to 20 years! It’s the ultimate test of commitment, a long-term relationship second only to marriage. And like a marriage, inadequate preparation of the plot reduces chances of success. Soil must be fertile, high in organic matter, and weed-free. Keeping on top of weeds is the hardest part, and also like a marriage, small problems left unaddressed can fester into catastrophic failure!

But all the hard work is worth it once the asparagus is in the kitchen. I trim them all to a uniform 8 to 10 inches (depending on the size of my pan) and roughly sort them by size. I only cook them one way: briefly boiled and sautéed in something savory. There are surely other ways to do it, but sometimes when one way works it’s all you need or want!

Asparagus season is almost over here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but there’s still a week or so to go if you know someone who grows it or someone who sells it fresh. Maybe  you’ll even be inspired to add it to your own garden! Just make sure to do the prep work. You’ll be in it for the long haul!

Sautéed Asparagus with Pancetta

  1. Begin by trimming the asparagus to uniform lengths which just fit in your pot when laid horizontally. I trim to 8 inches and use a high-sided sauté pan. You could also use a soup pot of some kind, but whatever I use I only fill it with enough water to cover the asparagus by an inch or so.
  2. In a separate pan I brown a little pancetta, or bacon, or guanciale in a little high-quality olive oil. The amount of meat, of course, is at your discretion. It can be a small flavoring or a major component of the finished dish. It will render fat perfect for sautéeing the asparagus, but if there’s way too much, pour off some of it.
  3. When the meat has been lightly browned, remove from heat. To cook the asparagus, bring the water to a vigorous boil and salt it like pasta water (1 to 2 tablespoons for every 4 quarts). In my sauté pan I use 2 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon salt. Add the asparagus spears. They can be crowded in the water, but they do need a little room to move around and they should come back to a boil within 30 seconds or so when covered. In my pan I can cook up to 12 thick spears at a time.
  4. Even my thickest spears cook in 2 minutes. When lifted from the pan, a spear should just slightly bend or droop. Just slightly. They’ll continue cooking while they cool. For me it’s always 2 minutes, but every kitchen is different.
  5. Remove the asparagus to a cutting board and slice in half to yield 4 inch pieces. This is not necessary, of course, but they fit a little better on little plates this way. Immediately return them to the pan with the browned pancetta and toss quickly (just 15 seconds or so). It’s done off heat so it’s not really a sauté I guess, but it’s the closest description I can think of!
  6. Even though cooked in salted water, the cooking time is so short that the asparagus will probably need a little more seasoning. I rarely salt any dish just before serving, but in this case I do, using coarse flakes of Maldon Salt.
  7. Finish with a little drizzle of high-quality olive oil and freshly grated black pepper. Or perhaps go in a different direction with a little hot pepper and/or grated lemon zest.

ASparagus