I’m in Puglia. It’s November and I’ve dined on ciceri e tria at a family run trattoria with beaded curtains at the door and geraniums still somehow in bloom outside the window. This Apulian pasta dish with chickpeas has me almost crying with happiness, as does the chef who comes to tell me it’s his nonna’s recipe, which in turn, came from her nonna. Wholesome, warm and in a cozy, familiar setting, (for the Trattoria is ubiquitous and what you expect from it is a sort of universal feeling of being hugged by a buxom Italian Mamma), I’m in my idea of food heaven. Then, a few hours later at dinner, I am not.
I’ve been promised that Bros’ in the Baroque town of Lecce is the one place every visiting foodie should try. Having been blindfolded, given a plaster cast of the chef’s lips to ‘kiss’ some unidentifiable jelly from, presented with a series of small plates that look elegant but taste unspeakably sour and presented with five single strands of spaghetti al pomodoro (the best thing on offer here), I’m seriously questioning my friendships. Bro’s is the anti-Trattoria. An avant-garde dining concept that has already been done and tired of in cities like London and New York, in which diners are invited to ‘interact’ with their food beyond simply plunging head first into a bowl of pasta. At the end of my eye-wateringly expensive meal, the chefs have the arrogance to come out, give me a balloon with the restaurant’s name on it, take a polaroid photo with me then send me away with it. “It’s our gift to you” they say, and I promptly slam dunk it into the nearest bin.
Why am I so upset, beyond the 500 euro bill? Bro’s has shaken something. Toyed with my idea of what eating in Italy should be. Taken away tradition that originated in Nonna’s kitchen and replaced it with a gimmick that the modern gastronome is already over.
“Bros is the perfect bridge between Michelin and a young, opinionated crowd with spending power, taste and a sense of adventure,” says journalist Laura Lazzaroni, in her new book, The New Cucina Italiana. “Their technique is sound and their obsession with capturing the ancient flavors of Salento in a contemporary way is interesting, fascinating even. The issue is their attitude: in their attempt to be cool they end up being brash, at times inadvertently ridiculous and excessively theatrical. But they’re as much a part of modern Puglia as the foraging brothers of Mezza Pagnotta.” As she writes in the book, with them it’s love or hate, no in between. It’s a book exploring contemporary Italian gastronomy that’s written to enlighten purists like me. Following a contemporary food scene across Italy, Lazzaroni has made a culinary map of the changing face of Italian cuisine in her book.
When we meet and discuss Bros in person, I see she has a point. People from all over the world are now visiting Salento in southern Italy because of the hype around the restaurant. It is offering an opportunity to taste something different in a land packed with traditional Trattorie.
Lazzaroni’s book, published by Rizzoli, is a gorgeous, two fingers up to ‘culinary purists’ who believe Italian food should only ever be ‘like Mamma used to make’ because as she puts it when we meet for dinner, “it’s about fucking time that someone told the story that we’re not just you know, spaghetti with meatballs and pizza and heavy lasagna. There’s more to Italy than tortellini!”
With that in mind, she’s promised to redeem my sour experience at Bros by taking me out for lunch and dinner in Milano. Our first stop is Trippa, to visit tattooed chef Diego Rossi, flexing his muscles as he serves up tripe and heart to a packed trattoria. As I’m with Lazzaroni, I know that in spite of the restaurant’s cozy feel with its upbeat honey-toned decor, I’m not in a traditional spot. The kitchen is open for all to see and we perch at the bar as if in the front row of the theatre.
“People think that the recipe for a successful Trattoria is just a recreating a stereotypical “Moms and Pops” rustic family place that’s slightly nostalgic, but it’s not,” says Lazzaroni, who explains the trattoria should be a place that gives the diner a feeling of “uncomplicated nourishment of the body and soul.”
I’m so not an offal girl but it’s Rossi’s thing and he’s keen to have my try his famous tripe. Not one to shy from a challenge, I say “go for it” and within half an hour, I’m eating crispy strips of tripe seasoned with salt, pepper and rosemary and I can’t help but go back for more. Not dense or chewy or gelatinous as I would expect.
“It’s nice and light, using great materia prima. He wanted to make something that can be snacked on, that you can just pop into your mouth like potato wedges,” says Lazzaroni, signalling to a smiling Rossi that the non-offal eater is now finished with her bowl of stomach lining.
“It’s not a groundbreaking, super technological discovery but all these small adjustments that you make to tradition add up to make a contemporary experience of Italian cuisine,” says Lazzaroni. Her point is that the new guarde of Italian chefs isn’t completely doing away with the notion of comfort that they found in their Nonna’s kitchens. They’re tweaking it to make it better.
In this time, Lazzaroni waxes lyrical about new types of rice in Italy, flour production (she’s a big fan of sourdough and has published a book about that too) and “materia prima” – great produce. She doesn’t pause to take a breath between bites she’s so enthusiastic about this new cucina Italiana. Much to my surprise, she doesn’t mind pineapple on the pizza (I thought all Italians cowered in horror at the suggestions) “as long as the ingredients are the best.”
While we’re on the subject, a note on pizza (picked up from experimental pizzaiolo Franco Pepe): “you can improve on pizza by improving the kind of flour that you use and the kind of fermentation the dough goes through, as well as the quality of the toppings.” She explains that typically, the cucina povera that made Italian food so tasty was also less nutritious than it could be. Large amounts of fats were used in the cooking process and the produce was sometimes cooked in a way that it lost its nutritional value. Now, chefs like Pepe and Rossi are improving on heavy, traditional fare with lighter, traditional fare. No-one’s taking pizza off the menu, they’re just making it easier to digest.
I’m reminded of an incredible risotto by Giorgia Goggi at Masseria Moroseta in Puglia. The lightest risotto I have ever eaten, infused with the flavour of tomatoes cooked three ways: sun dried, roasted and stirred fresh into a sugo. It was not the usual cream-dense dish I have come to expect, but it still felt like a reassuring hug in a bowl and I could get back on my bike and cycle through the olive grove after it.
“People think you’re pulling the rug from under their feet when you talk about new ways of doing things, that you’re taking away comfort, but it’s not the case,” says Lazzaroni the next day at Erba Brusca, where we’re devouring a well needed salad. Chef Alice Delcourt, also featured in Lazzaroni’s book has served up greens fresh from her on-site garden, with ever so fine slices of radish, and a sprinkling of seeds. In Italy when I ask for a salad, I am used to careless shreds of iceberg lettuce and a couple of cherry tomatoes, sans dressing. Such care and attention has gone into this salad, both in textural and flavour balances that I want to cry.
If the new Cucina Italiana means a lighter way of experiencing some of Italy’s finest produce and flavours, I am all for it. As it’s lighter, I can also eat more of it, right?