A Chat with Paolo Massobrio
Italy’s leading expert on food and wine
-Francine Segan, food+home editor
Italy’s leading expert on food and wine, Paolo Massobrio, chats with BettyConfidential’s Food Editor, Francine Segan.
Francine Segan: You’ve written dozens of book on food and wine. Tell us a little about your favorite?
Paolo Massobrio: My most famous book, which I update yearly, is The Gourmand (Il Golosario), a 1,000 page guide to Italy’s best restaurants, wine bars, gourmet shops, and artisan products. If it’s delicious and Italian, it’s in there!
FS: What’s the most important thing you’d like to tell us Americans about food?
PM: That’s an easy question! I’d like to remind Americans that Italy has some of the world’s best ingredients. Wines, of course, but so many other products too. What’s fascinating about Italy is that each region has very different foods. This is something that tourists are always fascinated by. Within a few miles distance you can experience totally different dishes. When you visit you really see that there isn’t one style of “Italian food,” but many. There are 20 different regions in Italy, each with its own unique menu.
FS: What advice do you have for the home cook on how to prepare authentic Italian food?
PM: I have to talk about pasta! Pasta must have a little bite in the center and should never be overcooked. We Italians call that center firmness – “al dente.”
To make perfect pasta, use a large pot with lots of salted water. Never put olive oil in the water. Some Americans do because they think that will keep the pasta from sticking. But it’s just a waste of olive oil. Lots of water and a big enough pot is the secret to proper pasta making. Toss the pasta into the water only once the water is rapidly boiling. Then strain it after about 8 minutes. If it’s too hard, Italians cook if for a few minutes more in the pot with the sauce.
FS: What’s your favorite restaurant in Italy?
PM: I have two actually. The best chef in Italy is Gianfranco Vissani. His restaurant, Ristorante Vissani, is in the town of Civitella del Lago, in Umbria.
My second favorite is a pizza shop on a little side street in Verona. It’s called I Tigli, owned by Chef Simone Padoan.
FS: Describe your ideal Italian meal.
PM: I’d start with a plate of Italy’s famed prosciutto crudo di San Daniele served with bread from Ferrara. The first course is risotto with saffron using a type of rice called “Carnaroli.” The second course is a beefsteak from Piedmont, a region of Italy famous for its tender low cholesterol beef. One of my favorite ways to enjoy steak is dipped in egg and coated with fresh breadcrumbs then cooked in butter. For dessert, I’d end with seasonal fresh fruit.
FS: What’s the biggest difference between how Americans and Italians eat?
PM: I notice that Americans snack more than Italians. Here in Italy we like to wait until mealtime to eat. Italians enjoy getting hungry, anticipating and looking forward to a meal, which we think adds to the enjoyment of eating.
FS: What are some must-try dishes for tourists visiting Italy?
PM: No matter what area you visit, I highly recommend that you eat what is locally grown and made in that area. Ask for foods and wines made in the region. I especially recommend that you try the local olive oils, which are totally different from region to region.
FS: What’s your wine advice?
PM: My personal favorite red is Barbera because it’s got the perfect level of acidity that cleans the palate after each sip and goes so well with so many dishes. It really enhances the flavor of food. But, I’ve written several books on wine, so I have lots of favorites, and lots of wine advice! My favorite white is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. It’s got the body of a red and is truly extraordinary wine.
FS: What three things do you always have in your fridge?
PM: Eggs, because you can always cook something or other with them. Cheese, because it can be a meal in itself, and salami because it’s a great starting point to season a dish of pasta.
FS: What’s your favorite Italian olive oil?
PM: I’ve got a special fondness for the extra virgin olive oil of Sicily (Monti Iblei DOP). But there are many, many wonderful olive oils. Ask your gourmet grocer for a taste before you buy!
FS: What’s your favorite American food?
PM: A classic Thanksgiving dinner! By the way, I think your traditional turkey dinner would go great with our Italian red wine Rosso della Valpolicellla, or maybe a good strong Amarone.
FS: What’s one dish that you’d especially like us Americans to try?
PM: If you haven’t already, you must try “Bagna Cauda” – a wonderful warm sauce made with garlic and olive oil seasoned with a touch of anchovy. Served with crusty bread it’s an extraordinary dip for steamed garden vegetables. A fantastic and authentic first-course dish.
Bagna Cauda, a dish from the Piedmont region of Italy, is a warm dip for fresh vegetables and crusty bread. Usually served as an appetizer, but it’s also great as a light summer main course.
3/4 cup olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
Assorted raw vegetables such as fennel, carrots, celery, radishes and bell peppers.
Pour the olive oil into a frying pan and heat over medium-high flame. When the oil starts to warm up, add garlic and turn the heat down. Add the anchovies. Slowly cook the anchovies in the garlic oil until the garlic becomes brown and the anchovies dissolve.
Serve warm as a dip for veggies.
Paolo Massobrio, Italian TV personality and author of dozens of Italy’s best-selling food and wine guides, is editor of the wildly popular foodie magazine, Papillon. His latest book – The Days of Wine, will be published in September 2009 by Einaudi.
Photo courtesy Giuseppe Perrone.