October 9, 2009 | Travel Feature
Cesare’s Tuscany Without Brakes
Photographs by Steven Richter
Cesare sells cheese filled chocolates from Giraudi “I wouldn’t compete with Jacques Torres,” he says.
Caesare Casella was planning a fast jaunt to Tuscany and Parma. He would visit wineries and cheese factories, gourmand groceries and favorite restaurants to capture the essence of how Italians eat and the passion for handmade products to inspire his staff. Or maybe it was how Tuscans eat. Casella being a consummate Tuscan and only coincidently, Italian. Of course I asked to go along. He agreed. As far as I can see Cesare never says no. He is always smiling. He loves people seemingly without a critical synapse. And everyone loves him.
Or so it seems as our car races from a thrilling food show starring many of his personal pals in a onetime train station in Florence, through one hill village to another, from panini shop to salumi factories to handmade noodle ateliers and finally…home to Lucca to see Mama. So many hugs and embraces and back slaps. So many “How is your mama?”
Ginori has designed a plate for each exhibitor at Firenze’s food show Taste.
We meet the entourage in Firenze at breakfast, awaiting Casella’s arrival from the U.S on a commuter hop from Rome: his personal assistant, Nastassia Lopez, and Meridith Fuller, the sous chef at Salumeria Rosi – his gastronomica cum café in partnership with the Rosi meat-curring family behind Parmacotta. It’s become a once-a-week hangout for my and me guy, photographer Steven Richter – around the corner from my office. And I can’t stop raving on my web site about the platters piled with smoky and spicy meats and the savory small plates.
Sous chef Meridith Fuller, Cesare and his assistant, Nastassia Lopez.
“The chef, she got the trip because she help me lose 22 pounds in three weeks eating vegetables and beans,” Cesare explains, beaming. “I can eat 20,000 calories a week, so I am borrowing 9,000 extra for this week from next week.” Indeed, he looks amazingly trim dragging his bags up the steps to the lobby. “I want they should understand about the products we are selling.” He glances at his watch. “No time to sleep,” he says, stopping only to shower, then setting off to deliver a speech at the food show Taste. How will he stay awake? I wonder. “I hold my pen and if it drops out of the hand, it will wake me up,” he says.
Expect improvisation in the schedule, Nastassia warns us, handing out the most recent revised itinerary. Everyone is constantly dangling enticements over his cell phone and Cesare likes to weigh his options. Indeed, we are not going to the big truffle dinner tonight because the host didn’t send a car and driver. Instead we’re getting a crash tour of Taste --“Unusual, says Cesare, because it is a jury’d event. You can’t just pay mney to get in.” He leads us up and down aisles to meet his friends, to taste spicy soppressetta. marvelous just chopped raw Chianina beef, and aged pecorino – while we wait for a special dinner, due to start at 7:30, Italian time, already two hours late. Stuffed and exhausted, we sit in the lounge where Ginori has hung specially designed plates, one for each exhibitor, sipping wine, and trying to be first at the porchetta stand.
Next morning we surrender our passports to enter the Ginori factory. “I guess someone broke something once,” says Cesare explaining the tight security. As a champion of Ginori, he is appalled that upscale Italian restaurateurs in New York buy French or German porcelain. “I tell Ginori they need to do more marketing,” he says. He has promised his pal, Del Posto executive chef Mark Ladner, that he will get Ginori to restore the gold leaf on the pieces Ladner bought on Ebay and innocently washed in the dishwasher.
The padrono at ‘ino, a handsome little sandwich shop not far from the Piazza di Signora is eager to feed Cesare. We perch on tall stools around a barrel table sharing pecorino, young and aged, studded with pistachio, raw and speared with a toothpick or melted on focaccia, with or without mostarda, and olive paste. One wave after another, rich and delicious. Cesare studies the high-priced condiments, sauces, chocolate and pickles lining the shelves around us. “It’s all in the packaging,” he says, picking up a gorgeous box of a dozen cookies for 8 euros.
“Now we go to lunch,” Cesare announces.
No no. Impossible. Wasn’t that lunch?”
Florentines love La Caslinga but we’re disappointed.
“We’ll walk this off and we’ll be hungry again by the time we get there,” he promises, leading us across the Ponte Vecchio. La Casalinga, recommended to Cesare as the best of old style Firenze. is indeed packed at 2, clearly with locals. We grow more and more depressed as we sample: dried out boiled beef, listless white beans, chicken livers of no redeeming social value. “Off the record,” Ceasare says, “we eat better in America.”
“The Tuscans are just doing what they always did.” he observes. “But Innovation isn’t bad. It’s good to see innovation,” he confides. “You can make a soft boiled in three minutes but McGhee, what’s his name, says you can cook an egg at 61 degrees for 2 hours and it won’t cook more. It’s not molecular. It’s only knowledge.”
Next morning we stuff everything into a van, and head for San Gimignano. Of course we are not actually going to that incredibly beautiful walled medieval town…you can’t eat ancient walls. We are going to the Piacenti meat factory of Cesare’s partner Parmacotta. As we wrap ourselves in tissue paper gowns, hairnets, and elasticized booties. Meridith can hardly contain her excitement. It’s not just the first trip overseas. It’s her first meat processing plant.
Some of Parmacotta’s well-aged haunches will find their way to Salumeria Rosi.
We follow the pig haunches as they arrive, checking out bins of fat that will get mixed into the salami, then whip in and out of cold rooms and colder room and the coldest rooms as the cooked meats are gradually chilled. The protocols for health codes are as rigorous as an intensive care room, designed for American Inspectors who must certify the meat’s entry into the U.S. Stripping our gauze muu muus, we file into the tasting table. Fresh ham, aged ham, speck, the perfect teaser before lunch to come. As we climb down the stairs, I am stopped by a view framed in the window – the towers of San Gimignani.
Cesare’s brain is organized by appetite not geography. Seductive phone calls from friends who’ve heard he’s home and want to feed him inspire instant detours. It doesn’t even occur to him that driving north from Florence, then south to Viareggio for lunch and north again to Parma for dinner is attention-deficit-syndrome on wheels. On the speeding two-hour drive south to Viareggio, we learn more about him. San Domenico in Imola was his first great restaurant. His father took him. Still a teenager and working at his parents’ restaurant Vipore in the hills above Lucca, he would drive off after service Saturday night, sleep in the car in the woods, pour bottled water over his head as a shower and visit great restaurants Sunday for lunch and dinner and Monday if he could find any open – Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Georges Blanc -- then race back to work. That’s how he did the truffle tour of France’s three stars, sharing the driving with a friend. “Bocuse was the best, that wonderful caravan of desserts.” Then his father got the accounting from the bank, two million lire.
He talked about being teased in school, “everyone making fun of my nose” Of the famous painting of Dante in profile in their textbooks -- kids crossed off the name Dante and wrote Cesare. A plastic surgeon customer of Vipore said, “When you are 18, come to me and I will fix your nose for nothing.” “But when I was 18, I decide I like my nose.”
Meanwhile Nastassia fields the business calls from New York organizing a charity event upstate where Cesare supports a school and farm for the educationally-challenged and Inevitably Mama calls, wondering why he’s so close and yet so far.
Franca Checchi has been the chef of Da Romano since she was 14.
It’s nearly 2 p.m. when we park across from Romano in Viareggio for an exuberant welcome from Franceschini and his son Roberto – a graduate of Le Cirque. Cesare stops by the kitchen to hug Mama Franca, still at the range as she has been since she was 16. The two familie have known each other forever. I am bowled over by the family’s expensive makeover: the glossy backlit panels, blown glass intimations of the sea, big colored bubbles, bouquets of yellow-green roses in silver pitchers and Ginori china on every yellow damask-covered table. It has that waiting for Michelin glow. Last time we ate here, it was unself-conscious mom and pop.
Of course we must have the chef’s tasting lunch and of course it takes hours. Tiny little sea creatures, the catch of the season, in various incarnations, poached, raw, grilled, fried and marinated then served in spoons. Midway through lunch comes a fritto misto of zucchini, artichoke and squash flowers, exquisitely fried. It seems someone was dispatched to the market because I mentioned longing for squash blossoms. By the time we’ve exclaimed over exquisite filets of red mullet with black olive and tomato, big fat cannochi, stuffed calamari with orange zest and come to the pasta course, there’s a temptation to just nibble a noodle. But Cesare’s points out how rare it is to see Arselle, the tiny clams that are more thrilling than caviar in these ports. Then comes semifreddo. tangy citrus sorbets in a quartet of small footed glasses and a hug fest with Franca in the kitchen. A mad dash to the van. No, we cannot take time for the beach, not even a two minute glance. We must get all the way back to Parma (1 hour and 45 minutes it says on the itinerary but that doesn’t allow for rush hour traffic.) where we will throw our bags into the hotel room and head for dinner (arranged on Cesare’s cell en route.)
“I come here to taste because that’s how you find products,” says Cesare, as we swerve off the highway next morning to visit the Bertozzi parmagiana fief. More booties and smocks take us into a small workshop where each two milkings of the cows, morning and night, will yield about 50 giant rounds of cheese a day. They have waited for us to finish the last batch of the morning, stirring now in the big copper vats. On one side of the road live the Bertozzi family. For 100 years they have raised the cows and sold the cheese churned and stored for aging by the family across the way. As we leave, Carlo Bertozzi gives each of us a shopping bag of his newest products – he is especially proud of the sliced cheese, triangles in heavy plastic wrap and the shards in containers he will sell to Trader Joe’s. We are unanimously ungrateful, plotting to give it away as quickly as possible.
Cesare, Meridith and Natassia suit up for the Parmacotta, booties, hairnets and masks.
Now we are in Parmacotto country, donning smocks and booties once again to tour the company’s home town assembly line, mushroomed from Marco Rosi’s first venture in 1978. Son Alessandro and the plant executive lead our fact-finding mission. Alessandro is tall and thin with a turnup nose, charming, enthusiastic but to me, he looks like a poet or an academic not a meat guy. Sophia Loren is the “company endorser” since 1992 we learn. Five-thousand pork legs come in on a chute already boned, fresh not frozen. Women in white inject them with brine injection and massage the hams. Of course there is the essential sitdown tasting of all the products for us and then we’re off. “See that big huge white building,” says Cesare. “That’s 700,000 sq.ft under construction to consolidate operations,” says Cesare.
As the dean and designer of the Italian Culinary Experience, a 29 week immersion in cooking, culture and language, in cahoots with the French Culinary Institute, Casella wants to visit the Italian outpost at Alma Cooking School. We step into the formal garden, then tour classrooms in the handsome palace built for the duchess of Parma, Napoleon’s second wife. Alas The Institute’s 15 students are off having lunch at Gualtieri Marchesi in the five day break before they fan out to do their kitchen stages. We walk through the student cafeteria to a private dining room for lunch with the brass.
With Stefani Rosi at Sorelle Picchi, the grocery/restaurant that inspired Salumeria Rosi.
We meet Alessando, his sister Stefania, also in marketing and their team from Parmacotto in the back room restaurant of Sorelle Picchi, the famous gastronomica. a recent Rosi purchase. “Here is coming the idea for Salumeria Rosi.” Cesare says. Unlike the Bulgari jewel box look of the Manhattan Shop, this is stodgy and plain, always filled with a savvy local crowd. Huge platters of cured meats surround us…I have reached a salumeria saturation point. I just want pasta. Sadly, the ravioli is so tough, it takes a knife to cut it. I notice the Rosis have discreetly ordered steak.
These long flat crisps are called mother-in-law’s tongues.
We’re on our way to…it isn’t clear. Suddenly the van lurches onto the shoulder of the road. A car is waiting there and a duo of what shall I call them – steerers? Sales reps? They will lead us to small factories and hand made products…first a family bakery of grissini and long, flat oval crisps they call mother-in-law’s tongues. Cesare prefers the mother-in-law’s tongues at our second stop, an even smaller atelier where the crisps are lighter, less salty. Here a handful of men and women are making pasta in a space smaller than a school gym.. “Not many people left can cut tagliolini by hand,” we are told as we watch two women slivering the folded dough.
In the show room we settle in for a tasting beside the house’s prize-winning rainbow tinted pastas – the newest rage.
“Butter and sage is the best way to taste pasta,” says Cesare, as we confront plates piled high : Nowith various noodles. “Just butter,” says the proprietor. But never mind, we are tasting fettucine with rabbit ragu, pappardelle with tuna. I forget I am not eating, only tasting.
Barreling along on the autostrada again, Cesare realizes it’s just a short detour up the moutain to his friend Tonino Verro’s restaurant, La Contea, with its frescoed ceilings and old fireplaces. As we reach the small town of Nieve, in the Langhe. a crowd of well-dressed people are sipping champagne in the square. The wedding party has taken over the restaurant. But never mind. Cesare is here. There are hugs and cries, and the staff is quickly setting up our own private roon. “I just ask for a light tasting,” Ceasare promises. There are long stemmed roses tucked into the “pinafores” the chairs wear and crocheted doilies on the service plates. We toast with the house’s sparkling spumante; then light lunch: vitello tonnata, potato gnocchi with peasant sauce, scrambled eggs with wild herbs, nougat mousse, torrone d’Alba, small pastries, candied orange peel. And suddenly, Tonino’s wife Claudia steps out of a car. Hearing Cesare is there, she has driven 150 kilometers for a hug.
We visit Giraudi chocolates where Cesare buys the gorgonzola, parmesan, and balsamic filled bon bons he sells at Salumeria to watch the Easter production: Giant hollow chocolate eggs flled rabbits and little munchkin ducks. Just time now to stop at a rice monger’s shop for a quick course on the fields of Piedmontproduce the best rice and how the birds DDT killed are coming back.
It is almost dark as we reach our huge old-fashioned bedrooms in the Agiturismo in Vignale Monferrato where all the vendors and their friends have gathered for a braised beef dinner with us, bringing their pasta, their rice, ricotta with orange marmalade, then gelato with more marmeaade and small cream puffs proudly passed by the local baker.
I want desperately to taste another panini or two but I know what’s ahead.
Cesare drags us away from espresso next morning so we can taste the best sandwiches in Italy. We park half on the sidewalk on a narrow street in Alessandria (Piedmont) at Giorgio Pagella's La Tazza D'Oro. Old friends. More hugs. And yes, these lush focaccia sandwiches –-I choose frittata with tomato and tuna oozing mayonnaise -- could be the best in Italy as advertised in clippings on the wall. It’s Cesare’s last day and we are already late for the long drive to Forti dei Marmi, the summer seaside retreat for the rich and powerful of Florence and Rome where Cesare has reserved for lunch at the celebrated Lorenzo. We must be there by one so lunch doesn’t butt into dinner with Mama.
Lorenzo too has taken on upscale airs since we used to spend summers in nearby Pietrasanta. Where once the handsome blue-eyed patron Lorenzo Viani took our order and doled out pasta in rolled up shirtsleeves and worn jeans the blue of his eyes, now he is sleekly suited and there are sculptures on the tables, three foot roses, modish Roman shades hiding the street and whimsical art on the walls. Of course we must have an extended tasting -- tepid sea food salad, slender mullet filets with fava beans, one big Falstaffian scallop on potato puree with summer truffles, two barely cooked red shrimp in a martini glass, a deep deep sea fish called Fechanero on potato thins. Lroenzo himself whisks the mayonnaise tableside with a fork. “He always takes the order. He always makes the mayonnaise,” Cesare observes admiringly.
Last night at dinner and Mama Rosa gets a few hours with her baby.
Now we are speed walking to the car, already overdue in Lucca where Cesare is organizing a family dinner and tying loose ends together. The two of us are parked in a small hotel. He and his staff will stay at Vipore. He had planned to turn it into a bed and breakfast but financial freefall convinced him it was not the moment. Hopefully the heat will be working. He will come for us at 8. Sorry, 8:30. Making that 8:45. Or…Mama, rosy and adorably plump in pink cashmere is already at a long table beside her sister and nephew in the back room at the family-run Antica Locanda di Sesto just outside Lucca. Mama is upset, says Natassia. The sweater she bought didn’t fit Cesare. “You’re too fat,” she scolded him. And indeed, before our very eyes he has regained 22 pounds in just five days. Fortunately the purple and white striped shirt she also chose for her boy is roomy and makes a dapper background for the big sprig of rosemary with purple flowers in the pocket.
It seems to be party night at Sesto, more long tables like ours being served ahead of us. Dinner stretches on from a small blood sausage offering and a single slice of garlic toast, toward the inevitable dinosauer-like steak. The owner is a butcher,” says Cesare leading us into the kitchen to check out his meat locker and watch our beast caramelizing in the open flames. Ah, this is the cow we have longed for. Tender, meaty, full of flavor. Definitely worth the wait and the detours. I am ready for salad or even for sorbet. But no, there is rabbit. Clear the rabbit. Then huge platters of fritto misto. Then cheese. I don’t remember the end. I recall stumbling out into the parking lot. Cesare depositing us on our doorstep then racing off to pack for the early morning flight. Tomorrow the two of us will sleep late, eat gingerly, walk rigorously, exploring Lucca, then skip dinner savoring memories of drama and delicious detours on a loveboat through Tuscany (and Parma) with Cesare Casella.
This article appeared in Food Arts, October 2009.