In my first blog post, I mentioned an aged country ham from southern Virginia. I was referring to the sublime Surryano Ham by Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. The name is a pun on the Serrano hams of Spain and the smokehouse’s location in Surry, Virginia, only a stone’s throw from the origin of the famed (and now mass-produced) Smithfield Hams.
This hickory-smoked ham is designed to be sliced thin and eaten raw like prosciutto or jamón. But the Surryano is even smokier even than the Südtiroler Speck (Speck Alto Adige) that we carry regularly. Despite the reputation that American cured meats are inferior to their European counterparts, chefs across the nation agree that this ham rivals any other prosciutto. Furthermore, Edwards Virginia Smokehouse embodies what we so value about Italian cuisine: attention to locality and quality. Edwards uses locally raised heritage breed hogs, as Italians have done for centuries, to create products that Americans have been making for centuries.
Now comes the sad part: in mid-January, Edwards Virginia Smokehouse burned down, losing all of its inventory. The Surryano Ham, which must be aged for two years, will not return for a while.
Here at Via Umbria, I originally wanted to carry an American ham as a point of comparison to our Italian prosciutto crudos. I began digging thorugh laods of ham literature, so looking for a ham that could live up to Surryano’s legacy. I found a few promising producers and reached out for samples. The first, Colonel Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams, responded the same day with a personal call from the owner, Nancy Newsom Mahaffey. The Newsom family has been making country hams commercially for several generations, and the family tradition goes even further back.
I decided on two hams, both of which are now in our case at Via Umbria. The BBQ Ham is a cooked ham which Nancy calls a “Preacher Ham,” because you only want the best for the preacher on Sundays! It’s a smoky deli ham that’s great solo and would send you to the moon in a sandwich. We also stocked up on prosciutto. This is a dry cured country ham, cold-smoked, and aged breathing the open air of Kentucky! Its not quite as in-your-face smoky as the Surryano, but still amazing. We’re talking a complex balance of sweet and salty, of smoky and porky. It’s a testament to what American curing traditions can achieve—and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The “Preacher Ham” is the first (and only) American ham on display in Spain’s Museo del Jamón. Nancy was the first American and the first woman to be invited to the World Congress of Dry Cured Hams. This “prosciutto” is really something to behold, and I’m really excited to work directly with a producer with such high attention to tradition and quality.
Acclaimed chef Jennifer McIlvaine has lead a whirlwind of dinners and cooking classes this week at Via Umbria as part of ourTerre Margaritelli Takeover. Today, we sat down to chat about camp grills, eno-gastronomic tours, and her transcontinental culinary journey.
How did you get your start as a chef?
Like most people, I started out working in French-based restaurants. Eventually, I worked at an Italian restaurant in Seattle, and then opened a street food business called Bruschettina. This was way before all of the food trucks. I was one of the first people doing street food in Seattle.
What made you decide to do that?
People would go to these hip, chic farmer’s markets all over Seattle to buy organic produce, but there was nothing to eat at the markets except hotdogs and crepes. So I had this idea to cook at farmer’s markets. I would get vegetables from the farmers, bread from the organic bread guys, and then I’d make toppings. I had camp grills, so I would toast the bread and then list the toppings on a little chalkboard saying where I got all the ingredients. It was huge, actually.
How did you get from Seattle to Italy?
While I was doing Bruschettina, I won an internship through the women’s chef association to work on an agriturismo in Tuscany. While I was there I would cook private dinners, which is how I met my husband, Federico. Like any good Umbrian, he was like, “No, you can’t be in Tuscany! Come to Umbria!” So on the weekend I would visit him and meet various producers. Then he worked a lot in Seattle after I went back, and eventually we moved to Umbria.
And that’s when you started working at Il Bacco Felice in Foglino.
Right. I worked for a very well-known chef Salvatore Denaro. It was a crazy learning experience. I had to jump into the Italian way of cooking, which is completely different. Half the time, Salvatore would lay out ingredients and I just had to magically know what to do with them. And I didn’t know! I had no idea. And I didn’t speak the language. But that’s also where I learned how to work a fire grill. We don’t have those in the States unless you’re camping! It was great. After working there on and off for about a year, I opened up my own restaurant, Trattoria Basiliko.
What was that like?
My partner was a woman who had a restaurant around the corner in Foglino. I was in the kitchen and she was in the front of the house. We ran that for about two years. but we both got pregnant at about the same time, so that was the end of that.
How did you get into leading eno-gastronomic tours?
It started very organically. About a year after my daughter was born, somebody was visiting and asked me to to take them to a farm, because when I had my restaurant I was one of the few people who actually went to the farms to buy the meat and produce. Then somebody else asked me to do a cooking class. It started slowly, through word of mouth, and just kind of took off. When people rent villas, especially Bill and Suzy’shouse, I cook for them and teach cooking classes. I also do food and wine tours of the area. Lots of cycling, hiking, horseback riding. It’s active stuff, but there’s always food and wine involved. So maybe after cycling, there’s a picnic lunch in the middle of the valley, or after horseback riding we have lunch at Federico’s winery.
How do you like to cook at home?
We live in the center of an old medieval town, so we have a fireplace in the middle of our kitchen. In the winter, it’s going all the time. I do a lot of cooking on the fireplace … meat, fish … I’ve done pasta over the fire. It’s not easy, but it’s great if you have time.
Learn the tricks of the trade from Jennifer before she leaves town at our Hands On Pizza Partythis Sunday! And if you’d like to meet her in Umbria, you’re always welcome to stay at the Via Umbria villa.
Nestled in the verdant, rolling hills of Umbria, the Terre Margaritelli estate was founded in 1950 by Fernando Margaritelli. The Torgiano vineyard simply produced grapes until 2005, when Fernando’s grandson met winemaker Federico Bibi. Soon, they were working to transform Terre Margaritelli into one of Umbria’s premiere organic wineries.
“The idea,” Federico explains, “is to produce innovative wines without losing the tradition and the history.”
Umbria is a farming region known as the green heart of Italy. “Fifty, seventy years ago we were very poor,” Federico says. “The wine was not just a drink — it was actually a big part of the meal. Wine was the easiest and cheapest way to add calories to a meal, which would often be lentil soup, or chickpeas, and sometimes bread.” The region’s naturally sharp, acidic wines, Federico notes, were also used to disinfect drinking water.
As winemaker, Federico makes sure that Terre Margaritelli’s selection is both accessible and in keeping with Umbrian tradition. “We have very interesting blends. All of our wines are easy to drink, no matter the structure. I say I love to make complex wines, not complicated wines, because I love to finish the bottle.”
The grechetto, a Terre Margaritelli specialty, is the traditional white grape of Umbria. It’s an acidic, alcoholic grape without many perfumes. “Many people ask me, ‘then why do you use it?'” laughs Federico. “It’s considered indigenous, and in Umbria you will find it everywhere. Its beauty is in its strength.”
The grechetto is used to make Terre Margaritelli’s Greco di Renabianca, a rich, full-bodied white which ages for 3 months in oak barrels, called barriques, and then at least a year longer in the bottle, which balances the wood with the strength of the grape. In turn, the wood gives the wine a hint of perfume.
To develop the barriques, “we went to twenty different forests in France and tried out the wood from each one,” Federico recalls. “And now we have barrels made of French oakfrom the forest of Bertrange. It’s a very old forest, and a very light wood.” The oak barrels help to mitigate, but never dilute, the strength of the grape. They also allow the wine to maintain a low level of oxidation and remain fresh.
From start to finish, the Terre Margaritelli process is marked by a tireless commitment to vision. The vineyard’s organic farming methodologies are developed with extensive research. “We don’t fertilize the soil. We will grow fava beans to replenish nutrients and rest the fields, but we don’t need to add anything to the ground. It’s already there. We start from the vines. It’s just about the grape.”
Nestled in the verdant, rolling hills of Umbria, the Terre Margaritelli estate was founded in 1950 by Fernando Margaritelli. The Torgiano vineyard simply produced grapes until 2005, when Fernando's ...
In late 2015, scandal rocked the Italian olive oil industry. An anti-fraud investigation found that several major olive oil companies were passing off low-quality oil as extra virgin, and charging customers accordingly. Wondering what all the fuss is about? We sat down with visiting olive oil expert Federico Bibi of Trampetti Olio to figure out the difference between extra virgin and everything else.
“Extra virgin olive oil is mechanically extracted olive oil. There are no chemicals involved in the process,” Federico explains. “It’s very simple.” Farmers harvest the olives and bring them to a mill, where they’re pitted and smashed. The resulting pulp is processed first in a centrifuge that divides solids and liquids, and then again in another centrifuge that separates water from oil.
“If chemicals are involved in any part of this process … like, to make the oil easier to extract, or if there is heat involved … it’s not extra virgin olive oil,” Federico clarifies.
Trampetti, Federico’s small olive oil company, has done things the extra virgin way since the beginning. In 1999, while studying at university, Federico and his friend Massimo wanted to get into the food and wine industry. But wine was tricky. “Growing the vines … it’s complicated,” Federico says. “For olive oil, it’s much easier. You need olive trees, then you process the olives, and you get the oil.”
The flip side? “Earning money from olive oil … it’s really, really hard. The process is very expensive. Sixty percent of the production cost of olive oil is just about harvest,” he laughs.
Growers have several options when it comes to harvesting their crop, but not all are methods are created equal. “Basically, you can decide to pick the olives at peak harvest,” Federico elaborates. “You can do that when olives are still green, but harder to harvest, or you can wait till they are more mature, which is much easier. The same person in the same season can harvest almost double the quantity in one day just because the olives are more mature.” This route cuts production costs in half.
Even more cost-effective is the popular approach of stretching nets under the trees and waiting for the olives to fall. “That costs nothing,” Federico smiles. “But here is an example I use all the time when I do olive oil tastings: would you prefer to eat an apple straight from the tree when it’s nice and perfectly mature, or from the tree when it’s overly mature, or from the ground?”
Trampetti does things the hard way, and harvests olives at their freshest. “Our focus is to make an olive oil with the maximum amount of antioxidants,” Federico notes. This makes Trampetti olive oil healthier, and gives it a longer shelf life.
“The flavor is damaged by oxidation, so a high level of antioxidants means the flavor will stay.” With Trampetti olive oil, “whatever you get in January will be the same in June, or September.” But that’s not common among other brands. “Too often, people will buy oil that stays good for 3, 4, maybe 6 months, then loses its flavor and starts to become sweet.”
Trampetti’s product, of course, costs more than the average $7.00 bottle at the supermarket. “It’s very important to explain to people why there is such a big difference in price for different olive oils,” Federico adds. At Trampetti, quality isn’t compromised to slash retail prices.
But all this is just the tip of the olive branch. Learn more on Wednesday, February 24th at 7 pm for a guided olive oil tastingwith Federico himself. See you then!
Summer is upon us and with it the summer travel season. And I just love it.
I was one of those kids who was “shipped away” to summer camp every year just weeks after school ended. And I loved it. Well at least after a few weeks of homesickness. It helped to have my older brothers at camp around me, if only that first year.
And as I grew older, being the youngest in the household afforded me the opportunity to travel the world with my parents. Just me and mom and dad. On those trips I learned how fascinating the world outside your backyard can be. And I learned too that spending every waking hour (and in the case of my parents, every sleeping hour, too) with the same people, sitting around small dining tables together (at least) three times a day, crammed together in a small rental car trying to pretend you were not lost or that you really didn’t care too much if you were, can induce a certain amount of stress. But by the time our plane landed back home and the bags were loaded in the car we would be reminiscing about the good times and planning our next trip.
Travel – seeing that world beyond your back yard, challenging the assumptions that color every one of your everyday activities, hearing strange sounds, smelling intoxicating smells, tasting flavors and combinations your mouth has never known before and feeling the warmth of strangers who go out of the way to lend you, the true stranger (the Italians call foreigners stranieri) – a helping hand when you are lost or tired or just don’t know how things work – is a powerful reminder of how connected we are to each other and to our world. And I love it. Especially because we lose sight of those connections so easily in our day to day lives.
With so many distractions and enticements around us as we motor through our daily lives, we can find ourselves alienated from our very selves, too easily running off here and there instead of enjoying the moment and what the moment affords us. This alienation can happen when we travel, too, but for most of us it doesn’t. And I have yet to meet anyone who has traveled to Umbria who hasn’t felt that he or she reconnected with something inside him or herself and with others in that magical place.
So just what is so special about Umbria? Umbria by its very nature encourages you not to visit but to experience.
Umbria has that natural ease, that comfort of an old pair of jeans or a favorite old shirt. It may be a little frayed around the cuff here or there, but you wouldn’t trade it in for anything.
Approachable. Accessible. Authentic.
That is Umbria.
Loaded with history. With culture. With tradition. With every step you take, with every glance at its rolling landscape, you could write a semester-long curriculum. Here is where Hannibal defeated the Roman legions. And there is where struggling medieval tradesmen took a middle eastern art form – majolica (ceramics) – and made it their own. Over there is an arch from the Etruscans, inscribed with a tribute to the Roman emperor Augustus. History piled atop history serving as a fascinating foundation for a modern world.
The rolling hills burn orange and red in the fall, blanketed by gnarled vines issuing forth grape varieties that were first introduced hundreds of years ago, when Vannucci (better known as il Perugino) was training his pupil Raffaelo, and even today those wines – wines that are as much a part of this place as Lake Trasimeno or Monte Subassio – are served with the same rustic fare that was created a millennium ago by peasant farmers who were poor in material wealth yet rich in lifestyle, grace be to the even richer soil of this place. Towering mountains and rolling green hills thrust their peaks into the sparkling clear sky as cool streams and rivers tumble over stones and boulders on their way to Rome. Il cuore verde d’Italia. Umbria truly is Italy’s green heart.
Umbria is known as the land of saints, boasting more native born saints than any other region, including Saint Claire and Santa Rita, Saint Valentine and Scholastica, Europe’s patron saint Benedict and the granddaddy of them all, Saint Francis. Is there something mystical and sacred in Umbria that has spawned all of these saints, or were they simply inspired to greatness by this place? In the end the answer really doesn’t matter. But to be in Umbria, finding yourself under a carpet of stars blazing in a sea of blackness on a perfectly quiet night, is to be powerless to resist pondering that very question.
Even today you feel it in Umbria, that sense of the sacred, of the possible. You hear it on the wings of the birds that flutter from cypress to cypress. You feel it on your skin during a steamy summer sunset or a crisp spring noon. You smell and see it on a foggy autumn morning.
But most of all you see it in the faces of the Umbrians themselves. Faces that look unflinchingly toward the future with confidence and hopefulness but who never fear to pause and make eye contact with the present. Who open their doors and their hearts to their families, friends and to strangers alike. Whose roots run deep into the soil and reach all the way to their glorious past. Gaining nourishment from it and keeping it alive and fresh and relevant.
I have long tinkered with the idea of writing a guidebook to our Umbria. And I am sure that it would be a long and interesting guidebook indeed. But in my opinion it would be a far, far better thing to visit Umbria yourself – to experience Umbria – and to inscribe that book in your mind and in your heart. And when you do, I will be the first one to invite you to give a private reading.
Thinking of traveling Umbria? Don’t plan your trip without talking to us first. It could the difference between visiting Umbria and experiencing Umbria.
And be sure to check out our blog – Dolce Vita – for stories about our experiences in il cuore verde d’Italia.
The classic Aperol spritz is one of our go-to drinks before dinner. In Italy, around 5 PM, the piazzas and patios fill up with beautiful orange colored glasses full of the refreshing and palate-exciting cocktail.
We decided to add a bit of whisky, rosemary from the garden, and wildflower honey syrup (which the taste-testers agreed was the key to binding all of the flavors together) for this smashing take on the classic.
This updated version just might be our new go-to before dinner. As stimulating as the original Spritz, but with more depth of flavor, it is a drink we will reach for again soon.
But your perfect aperitivo drink needs some food, of course! The abundance of zucchini has us slicing some very thin pieces, then drizzling them with olive oil and and pinch of truffle salt. A three minute luxury well-deserved at the end of a long workday. We’re taking some olives and artichokes to nibble on as well, and heading outside to enjoy the long hours of summer.
Here’s how to recreate the Whisky Spritz and our Truffled Zucchini Bruschetta.
For the Drink:
Place 3 long sprigs of fresh rosemary, and ice, in a glass.
Pour one part whisky and two parts Aperol into the glass, stir.
Take 1 tablespoon of highly flavored wildflower honey, drizzle into a canning jar. Heat water until almost boiling, and pour a bit into the glass. Mix well until you have a syrup.
Pour the honey syrup into the glass and stir.
Top with prosecco, garnish with a grapefruit slice. Enjoy!
For the Antipasto:
Slice your bread thinly, and your zucchini even more thinly. Drizzle high-quality olive oil over the zucchini (we used Mancinofor its slightly spicy flavor) and top with a generous sprinkle of truffle salt.
It has been a long, and I mean long, week since I last wrote to you. Easter in fact, when we were soaking in the rain in Duomo square in Florence, shoulder to shoulder with devout Christians and non-believers alike, their common faith in and fascination with the power of explosives being the common theme. Then a train north to Venice followed by a couple of days back in New York before red-eying it back to Rome. That’s 4,530 miles as the crow files. That’s a pretty tired crow.
So after a day in Rome to try to re-orient ourselves we greeted at Fiumicino airport our arriving guests who will be with us for the next week. And with that our first April Food and Wine tour begins.
The day begins with a brief visit to Orvieto, a fascinating Etruscan town roughly along the route from Rome to the villa. The highlight here is always the duomo, or cathedral, in the main square. It is a massive gothic cathedral with a façade of stripes in travertine and basalt, which has led us to nickname it the cathedral in pajamas. It is raining, lightly but steadily, so after a short visit we seek refuge across the square at a local enoteca, to introduce our group to Umbrian salumi, cheeses, porchetta and wines. It is not a bad way to start out the trip. But the real treat, what has kept us going the past week through trains and flights and sinus infections and jetlag is the evening’s program. The Gelso Throwdown finale.
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For those who are not regular readers, I point you to our April 5 posting (“There’s a New Chef in Town”). There we described a memorable dinner at the villa prepared by our friend Paolo as part of a Bobby Flay-type “throwdown,” where Paolo was to match his culinary prowess against that of his friend-cum-competitor, Giuliano. Paolo’s dinner had been a surprise masterpiece, putting the heavily favored and supremely confident Giuliano seemingly a little on the defensive. As the date of Giuliano’s dinner approached, however, he had been unleashing a stream of trash-talking emails that would make an NBA star blush. His swagger was back. He was predicting victory.
And tonight we would see if Giuliano’s walk would match his talk. Whether his bark was bigger than his bite. Whether. Well, you get the point.
* * *
Giuliano arrived at an empty villa late in the afternoon. It was not so much empty as its inhabitants, all of whom, other than Suzy, had flown in from the U.S. that morning or the day before, were sleeping in their rooms, trying to bank a little rest in anticipation of a late evening. It was to prove a wise decision indeed.
Giuliano, who owns a food service business but who is a businessman rather than a chef, was all business. Just outside the kitchen he parked one of his refrigerated delivery trucks into which had been loaded an assortment of fresh seafoods, the evening’s wines and assorted other ingredients for the evening’s meal. When I arose from my power nap I popped my head into the kitchen and Giuliano and his companion Sonia were already hard at it, shelling and cleaning scampi and various other shrimp-like crustaceans for some of the numerous antipasta he had planned as well as his signature risotto with scampi. When Giuliano finally noticed me, a broad grin swept across his face. He had much to show off to me about the evening’s meal, from the ingredients, which were laid out everywhere in the kitchen, to the menu, which he had printed out on special parchment and tied in ribbon. The top of the menu read, in English, “The Gilocchi Show Presents . . .” Tonight’s meal was indeed going to be a production.
Reading through the menu I began to realize just what an evening we were in store for. Ten or twelve dishes, it was impossible to keep track of them all, and each one featuring fishes and shellfishes we hadn’t even heard of. In fact, the kitchen resembled a high end aquarium, every corner filled with strange, unknown species. We have marveled in the past that, like the Eskimos who reputedly have 40 different words for snow, the Italians seem to have dozens of words for shrimp. And tonight Giuliano was planning on giving us a complete vocabulary lesson.
Over the next couple of hours, before our guests began rising from their power naps and the outside guests began to arrive, I would occasionally check in to see how Giuliano and Sonia were doing. Each time Giuliano would smile that broad smile of his and excitedly grab me and lead me into another room where he would show me another ingredient he was now working on. He was particularly proud of the whole fish that were in repose on ice in the dishroom in enormous styrofoam boxes – whole branzino and whole spigola that would be featured in the evening’s secondi.
Around seven o’clock the guests began arriving. The room that serves as the villa’s dining room and living room had been re-arranged to accommodate a larger table for the 20 guests that would be dining that evening. That required furniture to be moved and the living room area compacted, so as the crowd grew they were funneled into a smaller than usual space. But with a roaring fire on one side and an exceptionally beautiful table on the other the room seemed to open up and accommodate everyone comfortably and welcomingly. In contrast to the non-stop activity in the kitchen next door, the living room was a picture of calm comfort.
Closer to eight o’clock the outside guests began arriving – our associates Corrado, Paolo and Luigi, an Italian version of Moe, Larry and Curly, then Giuliano’s associate Fabio with his wife Valentina and Giuliano’s son Francesco. For the next hour or so this mob of Italians and Americans made each others’ acquaintance in front of the fireplace, outside by the outdoor oven and in front of the house sharing a cigarette. English, Italian, Spanish and the occasional French word were floating in the air, as this eclectic group worked to find enough commonality of language to communicate with one another. The effort was seamless and, judging by the smiles and laughter that were coming from all quarters, surprisingly effective.
Meanwhile, Giuliano and Sonia soldiered on, their preparations becoming more grandiose, more complex and more saliva inducing. Everywhere you looked another dish was laid out, ready for cooking, the whole resembling a multicar pileup on the highway, a jam of platters stretching throughout the kitchen and all the way back to the dishroom. Yet unlike a traffic snarl, Giuliano’s kitchen was completely in order, each platter and skillet in perfect readiness, clean, well ordered, cool and collected. Just like Giuliano. He was a general on the eve of battle, confident of his battle plan, liking his chances and confident of victory, a fact he crowed about to anyone walking through the kitchen.
And then, after Fabio ceremonially opened the first of many magnums of prosecco, it began, the “Gilocchi Show.” It began as we stood in front of the fire, continuing our multilingual conversations as a delizia di frittura was passed around. Small cones made from rough paper had been filled with an assortment of bite sized sea creatures, delightfully fried and still hot, crispy, salty and sweet. A small plastic fork was provided but nearly everyone picked the morsels from the cone with their fingers or simply poured them into their mouths. And the cones had been decorated with little American and Italian flags (and an assortment of Norwegian ones as well, perhaps playing up the Nobel angle or perhaps because that’s how they were packaged). Our American guests were overwhelmed by the simplicity and explosion of tastes from this simple appetizer. But so, too, were our Italian guests, whose eyes were wide and who were already buzzing about how special the dinner already was. And we were only through the first dish of a menu that promised at least twelve courses.
Then we were seated, introductions were made and the rules recited. As with the previous dinner, we were using “Modified Iron Chef” rules – up to 20 points could be awarded by the three judges for each of the 3 courses. Five points could be awarded for presentation, five points for originality and up to ten points for taste. Giuliano, in contrast to Paolo who had prepared one dish per course, had decided to offer multiple dishes per course and the rules were interpreted to allow up to 20 points for the course overall, not for each dish. This would prove to be both helpful and a negative for Giuliano, as the best dish in each course was to be weighed down by the lesser dishes.
And then the antipasti course began. It was to be a steady stream of four dishes – cocktail di scampi, insalata di polpo, gratin Royal and soute di vongole – but the stream was more of a rushing river, carrying our appetites downstream, out of control as we gorged on each succulent shrimp, the creamy mayonnaise of the scampi cocktail, each razor clam, mussel, scallop and canocchie until our stomachs crashed on the rocks below. In all, the first course, our antipasti, our “appetizer,” lasted well over an hour and tipped the calorimeter at the thousands. But looking around the table, no one seemed concerned that we would not make it to the finish line which was to occur hours later.
No, a sort of hypnotic state seemed to have taken hold of our group of 20. They were under the spell and the complete control of Giuliano and his cooking, this mago nella cucina. Words were lost, the power of speech was lost, manners were lost. During the gratin Royal, a plate of shellfish and bivalves lightly dusted with breadcrumbs and baked in the oven, mussels were torn from their shells by hand and literally sucked from the shell, scampi heads were sucked clean and the canocchie, little transluscent crustaceans that look like a failed laboratory experiment to crossbreed a shrimp and a centipede, were being eaten every whichway by Italians who cherish them and the Americans who developed for their love for them that night. And don’t get me started regarding the soute di vongole – bowls of tiny clams baked in the most delectable broth. My plate of empty shells tells the story.
But the evening’s menu was just beginning. There was the primi to come. And I use the plural primi rather than primo because, of course, there was more than one plate. Giuliano had prepared two primi, his famous “8 hour risotto,” described on the menu as perle di riso agli scampi and pennette pasta with a spicy sauce and small bits of spigola.
On any other table the pennette would be considered a delight. But matched against Giuliano’s signature perle di riso it seemed overmatched. Here is where the judging, which had already taken place for the antipasti, hurt him. Had he simply served the risotto, an absolutely perfect fusion of the flavors of the rice, scampi and a most subtle flavoring made from the stewed heads of the scampi, he would have no doubt received perfect marks. But Giuliano seemed not interested in just winning the contest, but in proving his culinary fitness. I can tell you that it is beyond reproach.
Then on to the secondo, again two dishes described as “tastings” – one of branzino cooked in parchment with mussels and shrimp, the other of spigola cooked in a salt crust. When Giuliano burst from the kitchen with the branzino on a rolling cart, enormous aluminum foil bags were venting a most delectable steam into the room. With a flourish he opened the bags and showed off the contents, the whole sea bass that he would portion out in the kitchen, leaving a trail of perfume that made us want to eat now. A few moments later another cart slammed through the doorway, this one with two enormous mounds of coarse salt resembling freshly dug graves under which the spigola had baked in their moisture. The salt mounds were flaming and Guiliano toured the cart around the room, eliciting oohs and ahhs and assuring high marks from the judges on the presentation factor.
A final vegetable course (not scored) was presented before Sonia took over the show. After serving a palette cleanser of sorbetto, Sonia took to the cart, with a fantasia di dolce, a selection of homemade sweets including fresh ricotta cheese with honey, cinnamon and pine nuts, fried beignets topped with chocolate sauce that she prepared on the cart and “sugar peach,” an absolutely unique dessert that was a sort of chocolate and cream bun dusted with sugar. And garnishing each plate was a small handmade chocolate in the shape of a sea creature, in keeping with the evening’s seafood theme. It was all so good that it almost made us forget of the fruit salad – one that Suzy remarked was the most beautiful fruit arrangement she had ever seen – that was served to cap off the evening, now approaching one o’clock in the morning.
And so the dinner a multicourse, multihour, multimedia extravaganza had come to an end, save for more wine and after dinner drinks. And it was time for the judges to render their decision. Paolo or Giuliano.
And although it was truly a close contest, in the end Giuliano’s relentlessness – relentlessness in besting Paolo, in designing an incomparable menu and, most of all, in preparing an unforgettable dinner, won him the title of Winner of the First Gelso Throwdown. And with much fanfare, pomp and ceremony, and belts let out a notch and pants quite possibly unbuttoned, Giuliano was awarded the coveted Golden Hot Dog Trophy, a trophy heretofore unknown in either America or Umbria, but which from now and into the future will be sought after by amateur chefs from Foligno to Trevi, from Montefalco to Marsciano. And Giuliano Gilocchi, the business executive and all around good guy and bon vivant from Terni will be able to tell contender and pretender alike, “that is my trophy. I won that trophy on a night they called the Gilocchi Show.”