I never thought I’d be grateful for Italy’s tiny cars, but it was just because there was no room for me in one of them that I got to ride to Friuli with Carlo Petrini. The five-hour ride would culminate at a meeting of the International Slow Food President’s Committee, where we would meet up with my colleagues from the International Office.
Not only would I get to spend the five-hour trip with the brilliant and fascinating founder of Slow Food, but our car would be stopping at Ristorante Gualtiero Marchesi, a two Michelin star restaurant in the Franciacorta district of Lombardy. We haven’t even pulled out of the courtyard of our offices when Signore Petrini’s cell phone rings, which it continues to do all the way to the Azienda Agricola Russiz Superiore, a lovely winery and bed and breakfast in Capriva del Friuli (an Italian town on the border with Slovenia) that hosted the meeting.
Apparently I am not the only one interested in talking with him. During a short respite from the phone, Signor Petrini asks me to pass him a newspaper (a stack of five or six keep me company in the back seat). “Which one?” I ask. “Oh, all of them,” he answers casually, as if everyone reads that many each day. I am happy to pass the morning listening to an occasional outburst of indignation at something that’s going on in the world – hard to say what, as Signore Petrini uses the Piedmontese dialect as often as he does proper Italian. I am excited to be privy to his candid conversation on current events with our chauffeur, Membership Service Center director, Fabrizio Dellapiana – even if I do have troubling deciphering it.
We arrive at Relais & Chateaux L’Albereta, the posh and elegant hotel that houses Ristorante Gualtiero Marchesi, as well as the headquarters of the Bellavista Winery. Members of the Moretti family, owners of the winery and hotel, are waiting for us with a bottle of Franciacorta Bellavista Gran Cuvée Pas Operé. The sparkling wine is straw-yellow in color, with an elegance and complexity I never imagined bubbly wines could have: flowers, vanilla, wood, spice.
Franciacorta produces Italy’s best sparkling wines, even rivaling the Champagnes of France. The principal grapes used are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc, the same varieties found in the great French sparkling wines. We move to the breathtaking dining room. The ceiling is adorned with thick wood beams, and a whole wall is made of windows that overlook the panorama of soft green hills covered in vineyards.
We sit down to eat, and I note that there are more toque-clad chefs in the kitchen – a dozen or so – than guests in the dining room! The array of perfectly executed, labor-intensive dishes that follow explain this anomaly. The maitre d’ proposes a four-course menu to us while waiters buzz around the table: one offers both still and sparkling water, a second refills wine and a third makes the rounds with an enormous basket of freshly baked rolls, grissini and flat breads.
The first plate to come from the kitchen, a small wonton-esque creation, does not resemble the scallop appetizer mentioned by the maitre d’. I begin to realize that this meal will surely involve more than the four courses mentioned. The wonton turns out to be a gnocco with rice and plum sauce, a delicious little bite, the first in a series of amuse-bouches.
Colorful bites continue to stream out of the kitchen: rounds of flat bread with little green onions and stracchino cheese; miniature cannellini filled with chickpea puree; fluffy green fritters made with bianchetti, a tiny whitebait; puff pastry circles with baby spinach, tapenade, black olives and raw anchovies; and a perfect, miniature baby drumstick, glazed with honey and ginger. The scallops arrive rare and covered in shaved raw black truffles, a luxury entirely wasted on me.
While white truffles are always served raw and prized for their heady aroma, I like my black truffles cooked, raising scrambled eggs to heavenly heights, or mixed with cream for an intoxicating fettuccine sauce. The second appetizer consisted of river shrimps, slender and striped bright red and white, beautifully dressed with long curls of asparagus and pink shrimp essence.
Our main course is a lamb chop carefully wrapped in steamed greens, perfectly red inside, accompanied by roasted garlic puree. I was particularly delighted with dessert, immediately recognizable to anyone who knows about classic French cooking as a playful version of Floating Island, meringue ‘islands’ in a sea of custard. This interpretation rested in a martini glass garnished with a lollipop of chopped hazelnuts and simple sugar syrup.
The various textures played off one another exquisitely and I chuckled silently at the chef’s ingenuity. Not to be shown up by the savory part of the meal, dessert was followed by a dozen varieties of miniature chocolates, cannoli, bugie (the classic Carnival fritter) and bite-size tarts.
The legendary Gualtiero Marchesi, the first non-French chef to receive three Michelin stars, came out to chat with Signor Petrini, who invited him to this year’s Salone del Gusto in Turin. “Nobody is going to eat the rest of these?” He questions, a bit disappointed, as he surveys the half empty trays of sweet treats. Easy for him to say, he didn’t eat the other 10 courses!
Sarah Weiner, a graduate of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, lives in Italy, where she is a member of the editorial staff of www.slowfood.com