In the old world, everybody cooked. There was always somebody who cooked. But it’s a myth that everybody cooked well. Only a few people cook really well. It is a form of craft. Very few people carve a piece of furniture by hand really well. It’s not because others don’t know how it’s done; it’s because there’s an interval, a space, between the hand and the tool and the object, or the hand and the pot and the skillet. It takes time to go from the hand to the making. Within that pause, something happens that is not scientifically explainable. Something happens that makes the cooking of a few people, like Marcella, spellbinding, extraordinary.
– Victor Hazan
Last year, the highlight of my whole trip to Italy were two meals at Osteria alle Testiere in Venice. I had the incredibly good fortune to receive the recommendation from Victor Hazan, husband of the late Marcella Hazan, both of whom lived in Venice for 20 years. And thank God I did. Eating well in Venice is notoriously difficult, and though I don’t have enough experience in Venice to claim that alle Testiere is the best the city has to offer, I can say that the cooking of Venetian native Bruno Gavagnin is as inspired as any cooking I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy.
I arrived for my reservation with giddy expectation after a disappointing meal the night before (even though it was a restaurant Bruno himself has extolled). I was deeply craving the comfort of careful cooking and I was not disappointed.
I began the meal with perhaps my very favorite Venetian classic: grilled razor clams. These clams are tiny (about the thickness of a pen), tender, and succulent. Their flavor and texture haunt me. In Bruno’s hands, they were also perfectly seasoned and just impossibly fresh and perfect.
Last year, when I returned from Venice I was delighted to find razor clams on my wholesale fishmonger’s price list. I promptly ordered a bunch but was dismayed and horrified when I found them to be not the thickness of a pen, but thicker than a Crayola marker! They were tough and worthless and quickly found their way into the trash.
For my first principal course, I ordered clams again: spaghetti with clams. Although the repetition of clams might not be the best choice on paper, I am so in love with Italian clams that I had no choice. Like the razor clams, these baby clams are tiny, about the size of a fingernail, and like the razor clams they are smaller, more tasty, and more tender than any clam one can find in America.
For the second principal course, I ordered grilled sole. I think in this photo the moistness of the fish comes through. Just absolutely perfect in texture and seasoning. In order for fish to reach its potential it has got to be absolutely fresh (rare in US supermarkets where it sits for days) and perfectly cooked. Notice the lack of fuss and adornment. What we have here is simply grilled fish, perfectly cooked and served.
In Italy, a second piatto is usually accompanied by a contorno, or vegetable side dish. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the meal was this rather plain-looking dish of grilled radicchio.
Keep in mind that good Italian cooking cares about flavor first and presentation second. Radicchio can often be bitter in flavor, and though Italians don’t shy away from bitter flavors, this radicchio was the most perfectly integrated (a balance of bitter and sweet and earthy) which I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. The main reason is the expert hand of Bruno Gavagnin and the high quality of the radicchio. I suspect the other is the type of radicchio, radicchio tardivo, which will be the theme of a separate post.
Finally, there was a perfect pear tart followed by coffee and grappa from müller thurgau, which is perhaps Italy’s most aromatic grape. Grappa can be so poor that it is something one orders carefully from a trustworthy source. It is certainly an acquired taste and not for everyone, but it is a classic after-dinner digestivo and a perfect conclusion to a perfect meal.
This year, I had the pleasure of saying hello to Mr. Gavagnin, shaking his hand, and thanking him for such magical cooking. People often see our farmhouse kitchen and wonder how we cook for sixteen in it. I can assure you that Mr. Gavagnin’s kitchen is half the size.
And though Mr. Gavagnin has one helper in the kitchen (not sure if it’s just a dishwasher or a cook), there is no doubt in my mind that the magic of the cooking is a direct result of Mr. Gavagnin’s immeasurable talent. He is one of the few that Victor Hazan references above who simply has a gift. If he decided to manage the kitchen but let others do the work, I have no doubt the cooking would still be good, but would not have the same magic.
After the meal I also spoke to Mr. Gavagnin’s business partner Luca di Vita, who manages the front of the house with one additional server. When I pushed him on what makes the cooking at alle Testiere so unique in Venice, he explained that it was not really like a traditional restaurant at all, but more like the French concept of an atelier. He explained that good cooking just can’t be done on a large scale, which is why alle Testiere seats a maximum of 22 people. Mr. di Vita explained that the cooking is personal, with only the very highest standard of ingredients.
Although our commitment at Old Tioga Farm to locally-sourced ingredients means that we seldom cook fish, there is no doubt that Mr. Gavagnin and Mr. di Luca’s impossibly perfect osteria is our model of what good cooking and a good restaurant can be.