TRAVEL

Window Seat: Quadri in Venice

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Venice in its inkiest hours is my favorite time to walk through La Serenissima, and perhaps the only time to peruse St. Mark’s Square. The arcades are lit with a warm glow, reflecting in the basalt pavement and setting the square on fire. Foot traffic is different. It’s not rushed, it’s not crowded. People quietly cross the piazzas to get from here to there. Stragglers are trying to snap a Basilica night shot, while others are hiding behind columns to catch some bars of Brahms or Mozart from the small ensemble orchestras at Quadri and Florians. A St. Mark’s evening is decadent, romantic and slightly heartbreaking, like a fading memory that won’t disappear.

Me? Time and time over, I chose to stay. St. Mark’s is an old friend, and so are its cafes. The square comes at a premium, even with knowing a few secrets on how to enjoy an aperitif at the most expensive bars in Italy. And I am willing to pay for the experience if it is unforgettable. Quadri is more than just one of the epic cafes in the square with a live orchestra and front row seats to Basilica San Marco. It is a gastro-cultural experience. In 2011, the Alajmo brothers took over the more than 200-year-old property, with the intent of creating the very best pastry and coffee bar, along with opening up the first floor to an experiment restaurant. If you know the Alajmo brothers you know that they are full immersion- they idealize, create and personally execute every detail from concept, mentality, and dishes to vibe and design down to the glasses in your hand. At the beginning of 2018, the Alajmos brought in expert conservation artists to restore the Grand Caffe Quadri, original hub to writers and artists of the Grand Tour, and asked their friend and constant collaborator Philippe Starck to come back to the Michelin-starred Ristorante Quadri for a design upgrade.

Flavour Hunter in Condè Traveller, September 2018

This grand cafè opened in 1775 on St. Mark’s Square and over the years gained a list of regulars than included Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas and Marcel Proust. But the romantic veneer of the square diminished amid the relentless commercialism that swept over venice at the end of the 20th century (along with pigeon photographers and gondolier hats), and Quadri was no longer the place to be seen.  Then, in 2011, chef Massimiliano Alajmo and his brother Raffaele arrived, a duo with three Michelin starts at Le Calandre in Padua, and it wasn’t long before Quadri earnt one of its own.  The Max and Raf menus highlight each of the brothers’ personalties; Max is the innovative one, Raf the more traditional. But the tasting menu- 16 courses for two- is a combination of oth, with dishes such as cappuccino di laguna, a mix of lagoon seafood and moeche, a soft-shell crab only found in the Venetian islands served with green fronds of samphire-like agretti. 

Yet it is only this year that the restaurant’s 250-year-old interior caught up with the kitchen’s contemporary attitude.  Philippe Starck, the man responsible for projects as diverse as the Mama Shelter hotels, Steve Job’s yacht and the interiors for a new space station, set to launch in 2020, has uncovered the palace’s original stuccowork from beneath layer upon layer of paint. Old-fashioned wall coverings have been replaces with earthy tones modelled on a 16th-century silk brocade - but look closely as there are rockets and satellites as well as portraits of Massimiliano and Raffaele within the fabric.  And on shelves above the doors, whimsical taxidermy rabbits and foxes are ready to take flight, a nod to the winged lion that guards the city.  Reserve a table by the window on the first floor for a front-row view over the square, high above the crowds - because this is once again the most-coveted spot in Venice.a

Peep the Alajmo brothers’ portraits in the brocade. Photo credit: Quadri.

Quattro Atti. Photo credit: Quadri.

Have I eaten at Quadri? Twice over the past two years at Ristorante Quadri and both times (a lunch and a dinner), I have not only relished the view, but loved the dishes. Massimiliano is a genius, fact. He is clever, he is instinctive, he is innovative. His dishes are heart-warming, reminiscent of past lives and history. And most of all they are unexpected. But let’s be serious- I love Quadri for its location, especially the window seat in the evening where I have the glowing piazza below me.

Mornings, I am at Grand Caffe Quadrino as much as I can. I frame myself below the beautifully restored walls and mirror next to the elderly German man who sits in the corner every morning. On a brisk and clear morning, I will sit outside, but usually before the orchestra starts so that I can read. Tip: For the experience with less of a price tag, you can also get stand up service at the bar.

Me enjoying Quadrino, the ground floor Grande Caffe Quadri.

Fashion Find: Gucci Garden, Florence

This Store Rejects Labels

Gucci Garden by Florence's Palazzo della Signoria. Courtesy of Gucci.

This article originally appeared in American Way Magazine, April 2018.

Gucci transforms a palazzo into a multifaceted retail fantasy

Gucci has fun blurring the lines between fashion, food, history and art with its latest enterprise, Gucci Garden. The space, which recently opened in the 14th-century Palazzo della Mercanzia in Florence, explores the Italian brand’s past and future, and rocks a trattoria with a menu by three-Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura (pictured right).

While an on-site boutique sells items only available at the Gucci Garden, creative director Alessandro Michele insists the project is less about creating a retail environment and more about dreaming up a fantasy world— with the Gucci brand at its center. “The Garden is real,” he says, “but it belongs above all to the mind.”


Read the April issue of American Way magazine here.

Boutique. Courtesy of Gucci.

Massimo Bottura's Gucci Osteria. Courtesy of Gucci.

Artist Jayde Fish's whimsical murals. Courtesy of Gucci.

Did I mention there is a cinema? Courtesy of Gucci.

The Layover: Welcome to T3 at Rome's FCO

Question:   You are stuck in an airport for a few hours.  Do you:

a) complain about the delay with non-stop texts and tweets?

b) go gallivanting on an airport exploration?

I am definitely 'b'.  Ever since I became a solo flyer, I act as if am some kind of aviation hub Shackleton who needs to discover all charted and uncharted nooks and crannies in every airport.  Back in the day, layovers were drawn out and boring, entertainment for me was shoe shines and finding discarded New York Times (I'm looking at you CTL).  Now, I find myself hanging out in the free tech hubs, chatting up pet owners in the animal recreation areas, enjoying some me time in the meditation zones and 10-minute manicure station, and even photographing the haze rise in those crazy glassed in smokers' areas.  But this is old news, airports have gotten not just better, but have become award-winning destinations unto themselves.

This brings me to Fiumicino, Rome's FCO, aka Leonardo da Vinci, and it's new Terminal 3. First and foremost, thanks to a history of baggage issues, strikes, and indefinitely "under construction" areas  FCO never ranks near the top 100 hundred of the World's Best Airports, nor does it come remotely close Europe's Top Ten (and yes, Munich is that awesome).   I'll admit I'm very partial to my hometown airport, probably because I always rumpled FCO tag on my bag and, yes, it's always my final destination.  It's got a worn charm - the bad and the good,  especially Terminal 1 and its bumper crop of shops-  Gallo and Fabriano are excellent for last minute "Rome" gifts, good coffees spots and great pharmacy, and random souvenirs.  It's always had a Look at Me, I'm Not Trying vibe that I find endearing because it's Roman through and through.

Nostalgia aside, FCO has long been in need of both a makeover and a reboot that makes passengers not just happy to have landed in Rome, but happy to hangout.  As Italy's main airport and one of the busiest portal airport to cities throughout Europe and Mediterranean basin destinations, FCO has an incredible amount of of in transit traffic.   And many of them are US passengers heading to destinations around the basin area, whose first and possibly only glimpse of Rome is FCO's Terminal 5.  Now it's not just a great cappuccino that gives reason to enjoy the layover.   Say hello to your next airport hangout, the newly-opened Terminal 3.

Welcome to T3 Gate E, an uber-modern terminal for out-of-Schengen flights.  Departing for London?  In transit to Kiev, Cairo, Dubai?  This is your domed-in 90,000 square foot playground.  Bored? Walk around.  Inspired by Rome's via dei Condotti and Piazza di Spagna, the ground level is a last-minute shopper's (or window-shopper's fantasy).  A 21st century duty-free Piazza di Spagna with Hermes, Versace, Fendi, Moncler, Bulgari, Gucci, Ferragamo, Dolce and Gabbana, and more, along with more affordable brands like Furla, Sunglass Hut, Unieuro and Benetton which means you’ll save the 22 percent VAT.  And of course, there are the Duty-Free shops, an atrium center with the expected make up, liquor and cigarettes and a devoted Italian and Made-in-Italy section- treats like olive oils, liqueurs, candies and chocolate, as well as an easy (yes, very easy) Tax-Free counter with an Essie display in the check out line.  I know, I know Essie has been in Rome for a while but never the color Chinchilly - found at T3! If shopping isn't your bag, there are lounges, finally, a lot of seats, free WiFi, and a series of classical music concerts organized by Rome's oratory Santa Cecilia.

Hungry? The Upper Level is Food Court v 2, a stylized lounge and dining area hyping Italian delicacies at Bongustare and Chef markets , and three Italian menu restaurants and 2 caffes and Cristina Bowerman's eno-fab/Autogrill collab Assaggio Taste of Wine on the ground level. That's a lot right? For a change of taste, there's Beercode - a beer-centric,  burger bar restaurant, and Ajisen Ramen, the Japanese insta-soup chain.  But most importantly, there is Attimi, Michelin star chef Heinz Beck's venture into "fast food".

Attimi is clever, next gen and very Beckian, in particular his interpretations of sustainable haute cuisine, and in this case, transit.  The menu is made of "moments" (attimi in Italian), smaller dishes that highlight Beck's elemental style and fusion background, and pay attention to the temporal concerns of the traveler.   Fast food? Kind of.  In addition to a la carte - for table and to go service, Attimi has  three timed menus - 30, 45 and 60 minutes (yes, he is holding an hour glass in the photo).   A gimmick?  No, more like a call to arms to both himself and other Michelin chefs who are definitely longing for a new gastro-challenge to hit the tables.

Travelers, remember all U.S. carriers serving FCO use T5 for check-in, and move to other terminals (including 3), as do the super-connectors such as Lufthansa.  Once inside, passengers have the opportunity to travel within and around the FCO gates but it's always a good idea to check first both for timing and logistics.  With the opening of T3, I'm hoping that FCO is also opening its eyes to user experience -  in short, how quality, service and experience will keep us interested as we wait for our next flight.

Spending Two Perfect Days in Athens

The article originally appeared in Forbes Travel.

Photo courtesy of Starwood Hotels Worldwide.

Athens is called the “Cradle of Western Civilization” for good reason. This city has more than 2,500 years of history under its belt. In its heyday, the Greek metropolis spawned cities, democracies, philosophies, art movements and much more.

Today, Athens is the kind of place where you could spend days soaking in its antiquity or enjoy an afternoon getting lost in its contemporary culture. Whichever direction you’re pulled in, we have the itinerary to ensure a 48-hour experience worthy of the history books.

Day One
Drop your bags at Hotel Grande Bretagne, an elegant 142-year-old property in the heart of the city. Once you’ve changed into comfortable walking shoes, make the 15-minute journey past Syntagma Square until you’ve reached the archaeological area. You’ll be at the base of the Acropolis, history’s most epic mount.

You’re going to want to do it all during your stay, of course, so purchase the multi-attraction pass ticket, which gives access to the Parthenon, Temple of Olympian Zeus and all of Athens’ archaeological sites for five consecutive days

After all of the walking, you’ll have worked up an appetite worthy of the gods. Head down the Acropolis and back toward Syntagma for an outside table at Tzitzikas & Mermigas. This laid-back modern taverna has an outstanding appetizer lineup of tzatziki, soutzoukakia (meatballs in tomato sauce) and more, so fill up.

When you put down the saganaki (fried cheese), it’s back to Hotel Grand Bretagne for a timeout at the GB Spa, a spot offering a classic delight of saunas, Turkish baths, a pool and treatment rooms.

Hotel Grand Bretagne courtsey of Starwood.

Once you’ve rested up, put on the finest resort-chic outfit you’ve packed and grab a cab to the Acropolis Museum for a night visit. The gorgeous, all-glass building sits face-to-face with the Acropolis, reflecting the glowing Parthenon in its glass panels.

But beyond its physical majesty, the landmark also holds a substantial Greek art and sculpture collection. Not to be missed are level one’s Caryatids, six female figures that held up the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, and level three’s Parthenon Gallery, a beautiful display of the frieze marbles and casts. The entire floor is built to the exact dimensions and orientation of the Parthenon’s cella.

Before leaving, make sure to get a drink on level two’s terrace, which has a front-row vista of the Acropolis.

For dinner, take a cab to Piraeus, Athens’ port city for fish. Like many major ports, Piraeus is a charming chaos of restaurants, nightclubs and fast-food shops. Have the hotel concierge book you a table at Varoulko, a chic dockside restaurant in the Mikrolimano marina, the smaller and slightly less chaotic port in Piraeus.

The maître d’ at Varoulko will call you a taxi. Try to get back to Syntagma Square just a few minutes before the hour to watch the Evzones, the changing of the Presidential Guard, a five-minute display of pageantry. (Tip: Though this changing happens every hour daily, a special ceremony, with official uniforms, occurs on Sundays at 11 a.m.)

Day Two
Say good morning to Greece from Hotel Grande Bretagne’s rooftop. There, you’ll find the most beautiful Acropolis morning view as well as a delectable breakfast buffet. Feast up, as you’re in for another walk through history.

This time, you’ll start out at the National Archaeological Museum, which sits just two metro stops from Syntagma Square. This attraction features the country’s finest collection of antiquities — most notably, a larger-than-life bronze Zeus.

From the museum, head to Ancient Agora, a sprawling site that was the city’s original meeting square. You can walk around temples and trek in the Stoa of Attalos, a monumental, two-level building that stretches roughly 380 feet.

For lunch, enjoy a bite at Quick Pitta, a relaxed gyro spot, just outside of the archaeological site in the Monastiraki neighborhood.

After lunch, be sure to stop by EMST, Athens’ new national museum of contemporary art. To be frank, the space can be walked through relatively quickly, but a visit gives you an idea of what is going on in creative Greek and international circles.

Stroll back in the hotel’s general direction to the nearby Kolonaki neighborhood, a vibrant area filled with boutiques and cafés. Our favorite right now is i-D, a store that curates a dynamic collection of clothing and accessories by Greek designers.

Stick around after you’ve finished shopping. By 9 p.m., Kolonaki square transforms to a bustling center of cocktail bars, shops and eateries. Pedestrian street Tsakalof is a standing-room-only thoroughfare that has everyone vying for an outdoor table or stool. But, at some point, even those eating wind up at Minnie the Moocher for a cocktail closer to the evening.

Hot Pockets: Matthias Schmidberger, The Chef Who Warms the Alpine Chills

Hot Pocketsis my series of chef interviews for this blog and other publications.  My interview with Matthias Schmidberger of Ca' D'Oro originally appeared in Fathom in March 2015.

What drives a fair-weather-loving foodie to the snowy peaks of St. Moritz? A Michelin-star meal and a hunky, clever chef. Our Rome-based contributing editor Erica Firpo reports from the Swiss Alps.

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland – Schokoladenpretzel and vermicelles. Fladen and mailänderli and nusstorte. These are a few of my favorite things. Swiss pastries alone are the key to enduring our yearly settimana bianca, a ritual "white week" of early mornings, layered clothing, and snow.

I have to be honest: I don't believe in cold weather. I am not genetically nor environmentally inclined to head to a mountain at any time of the year. But I do so for love. Not because my husband Darius is an avid off-piste skier and we live in Rome, Italy (aka a train ride to anywhere!), but for love of a fork and knife.

Food, you say? Yes, I am an excellent eater, what Italians call the proverbial buona forchetta — a good fork. And I have come to the conclusion that I have no problem wearing extra layers if the gastronomical returns are, well, astronomical. For the past two years, I have been spending ski week in Switzerland — for pastry shops and Michelin stars.

Dining Room

The dining room at Cà d'Oro. Photo courtesy of Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains.

We head to St. Moritz, a bizarre gastro-Blade Runner with everything from fondue to fine dining (and apparently — or so they tell me — skiing). While Darius skis with his merry band of off-duty instructors, I eat. My favorite place is Cà d'Oro, the one-Michelin-star restaurant at Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains.

Kempinski is a super-modern renovation of a historic St. Moritz hotel. (Imagine the huge entrance hall. That's what it's like.) The design is simple, modern, muted, and high-quality, but not opulent or boutique-y. Everyone knows who you are, and they're all very friendly. I loved our room, which had a kitchen and a balcony. You can ski in and out and recover in the enormous spa. The pool has a two-story ceiling and the services are incredible. But let's get back to the food: I have never had a better hotel breakfast than the one I did here. It was the cornucopia of mornings.

I don't know if my real St. Moritz gastro-epiphany happened when I met 32-year-old Matthias Schmidberger, the Macklemore-loving Cà d'Oro kitchen rock star who (besides being typically chef-cute) has an incredible instinct for food pairing and creativity. Or if I saw the light while playing flatware chess with Matthias' waitstaff whose utensil and beverage knowledge was complete grandmaster level. It was probably both. I have never been so happily surprised as when I meditated on my fork and placed that first bite of astice marino in my mouth. And the rest is history.

Cà d'Oro is a seasonal restaurant, open for the winter season, usually from the end of November until March. Matthias is in St. Moritz from September to April. He spends the off-season sourcing products and fine-tuning his menu; I spend it trying to figure out when I can get back to St. Moritz. When the heat turns on and Matthias is back in the kitchen, he has a work hard/play hard mentality. I asked him to tell me more about it.

Creativity at Ca d'Oro

We have to be ready the moment the hotel opens. My experiences are extremely valuable to guarantee a great quality from the beginning until the closing period. I take the summer to come up with new inspirations, but they have to fit into our concept, which means there will only be small changes to our menu. I love to play with amouse bouches, with the small pre-dessert, and with sweet delicacies.

Mountain

Muottas Muragl. Photo courtesy of Romantik Hotel Muottas Muragl.

Best Way to Start My Day

I love Muottas Muragl, a gorgeous mountain with an astonishing view. I start with a good, strong black coffee and end with a fast sledge down.

Favorite Late-Night Bar

As a chef, it is a good idea to love the evening. My favorite spots are the Cà d'Oro kitchen (insert smile) and the usual places in St. Moritz: La Barraca, Stübli, Vivai, and, for special occasions, the King's Club.

Where to Ski

My favorite slope is Piz Nair, Corviglia.

Where to Go to Escape St. Moritz

There is a German saying: "the carrot which is hanging in front of you will be in your hands after every season." During the season, there is no need to escape. It is a wonderful place with a lot of opportunities for me to relax: biking, swimming, sitting in a piazza with ice cream, skiing in winter, hiking, and celebrating with my team.

FIND IT

Cà D'Oro Via Mezdi 27 St. Moritz, Switzerland 7500 +41-81-838-30-81 info.stmoritz@kempinski.com

Hot Pockets: Conversation with Massimo Bottura, Superstar Intellectual Italian Chef

Hot Pocketsis a series of chef interviews that appear on my blog or for other publications. This article was originally written for Fathomand published on Friday 21st November 2014.  

Our continuing adventures during Chefs Travel week takes us to Italy for a converation between contributing editor Erica Firpo and Massimo Bottura, the chef whose flagship, Osteria Francescana, has three Michelin stars and sits at #3 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list — about his new cookbook, about food and art, about the importance of Playboy to the young boy's mind.

MODENA, Italy – Every time I think about the time I had lunch at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura's three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, I smile. Who else would create a transcendental dish dedicated to parmesan and call it The Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano? And who would sit you in a restaurant decorated with his personal art collection which includes pieces by Vezzoli and Cattelan?

To make a long story short, a few years ago I treated myself to Bottura's tasting menu at his restaurant in Emilia-Romana. The next thing I knew, I was driving around Modena with Bottura to meet his wife Lara Gilmore and to say hello to pieces by Maurizio Cattelan, David Salle, the Chapman brothers, and Marcel Dzama, among others. I told them I loved every piece and therefore I loved them. They told me they were writing a book.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is his new conceptual cookbook, a beautiful tome that looks gorgeous on the coffee table. It's filled with Bottura's stories — transporting tales through head, heart, and stomach. As a reader, you take the journey with him. Bottura is a creator: His dishes are edible, personal stories that traverse travel, tradition, perspective, and, to some, patience. They are as much about art and word play as they are about culinary experimentation. We recently had a chat about all of the above.

Osteria Francescana

A kitchen scene, as appears in Bottura's cookbook. Photo by Stefano Grazieri.

What was the first piece of art you purchased?

One of the first contemporary works we bought was Turisti by Maurizio Cattelan. We saw the taxidermy pigeons at the Venice Biennale in 1997. By December, once the exhibition was dismounted, ten were in our apartment in Modena. We didn't dare put them in the restaurant at the time, but today some of the pigeons are hanging from the rafters of Osteria Francescana. We installed them after a renovation in 2012. The rest of them sit quietly on a bookshelf in our living room, observing us from above.

What was the last? What's next? What else do you collect?

I just bought, after years of desiring and hunting, two Joseph Beuys pieces. The first is his classic felt suit — one of the most important works in his career — and a material that became a signature for him, the way Parmigiano-Reggiano and traditional balsamic vinegar are for me. The second is a La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, a print that shows Beuys walking with his determined gait, iconic hat, and safari vest, a comment on the many social sculptures initiated in Italy in the 1980s.

The first film we ever made for OF was an attempt to describe our creative process through the close examination of two different recipes. We called it We Are the Revolution after Beuys' conceptual premise. We still don't know if these new works will be hung at home or at the restaurant. We always say, "We don't find the art. It finds us." And in that same breath we add, "The art knows where it needs to go."

How would you define your creative process?

My inspiration comes from living in the present and from not getting too caught up in the day-to-day. I daydream a lot. I probably would have been put into the category of ADD when I was a kid. Thank goodness no one noticed or corrected this trait. I let my mind wander as often as I can and I travel through my memories, my experiences allowing my eagerness to taste life guide me. Whenever I find myself in a new place, I eat locally and seek out simple authentic food. That is how I understand a place, through my palate. When I was in China, I learned the technique of making dumplings. In Sri Lanka, curry, and in Thailand how to balance spices. All these experiences are added to my cultural baggage. They become part of me and part of my kitchen. They tell stories about my travels and experiences. I am very interested in personal cooking; not in national or regional cooking. I want to feel that the chef is there, somewhere, in that recipe, speaking to me, asking me to change my point of view.

I always suggest that young chefs read, travel, and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Then and only then can they discover their true motivations, passions, and inspirations. This is what I have done over my 28-year career.

So, to answer your question, my creative process begins with the world around me, who I am, and where I come from, but everything I have read, listened to, watched, cried over, tasted, and dreamt. I often say, "learn everything, then forget everything." It is so important to fill one's suitcase with culture, books, music, literature, and art, travels, and then kitchen experience. Cooking is not manual labor but a thinking man's job. I mean, creativity is creativity. It's not throwing a piece of meat into a skillet. That is cooking. What we are trying to do requires jumping into that pan with your soul. One of the most valuable ingredients or tools in the kitchen, and one too often left behind, is the mind. If you really think about it, the only zero kilometer cooking is that which is taking place in our minds. I can dream anything or traverse continents without leaving the kitchen.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

Your dishes are conceptual and playful in nature and in name. They're Duchampian — inspired by art and experience. Would you elaborate on that?

I am actually reading a fantastic biography of Duchamp and I love the Calvin Thomas book Afternoons with Duchamp. He had his finger on the pulse long before many others. The language and the titles of my recipes are intrinsic to the ideas and stories behind them. There is Duchamp in there, but also Boetti. Words play such a big part of our world today, and maybe have since the bible, since Gutenberg's printing press. Many artists have used words as visual signifiers for other things — culture, consumerism, and identity. If you call a poached turbot with faux grilled marks "Is this a grilled turbot?" you not only create a curiosity among the diners but you begin to address other issues: How should turbot be cooked? Why is it always grilled on the Adriatic Riviera? Isn't it time we question that?

Food is nourishment not only for the body but also for the mind. Stimulate the appetite, but feed the hungry soul. Language has played a role in my kitchen since the first savory potato and onion Cappuccino, then Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, and so on. A little bit of irony goes a long way, especially if you think about how serious and set in stone the Italian kitchen can be, which is an oxymoron in itself because the Italian kitchen is based on improvisation, yet everyone wants to write down the absolute truth. Well, it just doesn't exist. Bollito, not boiled. There you go.

What's your favorite name of one of your dishes? And your favorite name for a piece of art?

I love the way Alghiero Boetti's mind works. "Immagine e somiglianza" is the title for a series of works by the artist, but the expression also refers to most of Western art. As for my recipes, it's hard to pick just one. They have become companions over the years. Oops! I dropped the lemon tart talks about imperfection and Millefoglie di foglie addresses the importance of finding poetry in the everyday. I love the recipes because I love the ideas behind them as well as the flavors, not just the word play.

You mention Notari "Come to Italy with Me" and "tearing up the pages of the Silver Spoon." You're an Emilian chef who both throttles Italian cooking traditions for not encouraging creativity and grabs hold of other regions to shake them up. What does tradition mean to you?

Tradition is everything. It is our geography — every bell tower and church dotting the countryside. Tradition is an accumulation of human gestures. And when it comes to traditional food, then one is also addressing agriculture, artisans, territory, and identity. I do not deny traditions but work through them, never assuming they are right but always trying to respect their origins. My kitchen is probably (and ironically) the most traditional in Italy today, even if it doesn't look that way. The only way to safeguard our traditions is to let them breathe and grow and move out of the comfort zone. When they become comfort food, then there is the inevitable decline. The critical (and constructive) mind is distracted by sentiments and nostalgia, and consequently the ragu looses something magical in the process. It just becomes another routine instead of a solution to a question, an active gesture, an attempt to revive not just repeat.

Massimo Bottura

The dish "Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart." Photo by Carlo Benvenuto.

You've made the Emilia Burger for Shake Shack. What are you saying about Italian food and your cuisine to Americans?

If you make an Emilia burger at home, then you will know what I am saying about American food. Good idea, but poor followthrough. What is the great weakness of any hamburger? The patty is always dry. That is why we added ground cotechino and Parmigiano-Reggiano: flavor, gelatin, and texture. Try it and see what happens to your hamburger. By adding a dollop of salsa verde instead of insipid lettuce or a pickle, we've added acidity and chlorophyll in concentration. The touch of balsamic mayonnaise rounds out the flavors and lends depth to the palate. I love America. And I love street food. Eating a hamburger in a park is one of the great joys of being in a city like New York, but if you add a little Italian zing, then wow! Wise contamination is a good thing.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is wonderful — a hybrid coffee table/family history/cookbook that focuses on three-dimensionalization of an idea. It's not just a cookbook or a culinary history. Where do you want to see this book?

I'd love to see the book leave the shelves and migrate to elementary schools and libraries and museums, or find a secret community under the beds of a teenage boys, like the once-coveted issues of Playboy we all collected as kids.

Many of your dishes, like Pollution, have a message. What is your overall message?

I honestly see each recipe in the context of what I learned from it or what we as a restaurant learned from making it. So recipes are little life lessons for chefs and for restaurants. I am still making them up, so I probably won't know the final message until it is too late. The career of a chef is like a puzzle. Over time the pieces fall into place and you begin to see a picture, but often it is not what you thought it would be. I began wanting desperately to be avant-garde, to break the rules and live dangerously. The more I grow and learn, the more our kitchen whispers rather than shouts. I like this reversal because I'd rather engage an audience in an idea, a flavor, a string of thoughts than shock them. Our kitchen leads you inward like a labyrinth to a place called flavor — which at times can be familiar and at times alarming. We hope unforgettable and enduring. That is what we aim for. But the real message of the book is directed at the next generation: Be like a tree. Grow slowly.

Hot Pockets: Enrico Cerea, The Best Italian Meal You'll Ever Have is in Switzerland

Hot Pockets is my series of chef interviews for this blog and other publications.  My interview with Enrico Cerea of Da Vittorio originally appeared in Fathom in October 2014.

When we think of St. Moritz, we think of luxurious lodges, flashy furs, and snowy finery. We don't often think of Italian food. The Cerea family, owners of Michelin-starred restaurant Da Vittorio in Bergamo, Italy, is changing all that. Fathom contributing editor Erica Firpo fills us in on the restaurant's new Alpine satellite, which is helping turn an ostentatious ski town into a hidden food paradise.

ST. MORITZ – According to my husband, Darius Arya, there is only one reason to go to St. Moritz. Food. Don't get me wrong, he's an avid skier (off-piste, I might add), but lately his obsession with the tiny Engadin valley town is its restaurants, pastry shops, and pubs.

St. Moritz is home to some 90 restaurants, of which at least four are Michelin-starred, as well as an annual four-day Gourmet Food Festival where top chefs take a break from their own restaurants to show off some flare. Mark your calendar for January 26 - 31: The 2015 festival will star some of Britain's top chefs to celebrate their discovery of the Swiss winter getaway.

Bottom line, from fondue to foam, St. Moritz is a foodie enclave.

When Darius proposed a ski vacation, I laughed. I don't relax in less than 70-degree ambient temperature, and the kind of sports I like give an overall tan. But when he mentioned that St. Moritz is a snowballing supernova of ski and cuisine, I thought it was about time I dusted off my earmuffs, hopped that fabulous red train that runs through the Bernina Valley, and make my way to Da Vittorio.

If St. Moritz is an exploding galaxy of amazing food spots, Da Vittorio is its Red Giant star. The outpost of historic Da Vittorio in Bergamo, one of Italy's eight Michelin three-star restaurants, opened at the Carlton Hotel in December 2012 and captured a Michelin star in November 2013. Not too shabby for a seasonal restaurant.

But Da Vittorio isn't simply a restaurant — it's a family empire. The Cerea siblings — brothers Enrico, Francesco, and Roberto and sisters Barbara and Rosella — have taken their father's Bergamo restaurant and expanded into an all-encompassing philosophy, institution, and school, or, better yet, a cult where food is God and God is good.

I met up with Enrico and the St. Moritz team to talk about the Cerea food philosophy and what to expect in St. Moritz.

What is Da Vittorio?

Da Vittorio is a family restaurant started by my father, Vittorio Cerea, in 1966 in Bergamo. He was more than just a buona forchetta (literally a "good fork"). He was a self-taught chef who just wanted to share his passion. In 1970, he received his first Michelin star, in 1996 his second, and in 2010 his third. My siblings and I continue his legacy and love for cooking by overseeing a large, family-style team of approximately 140 people who work together at our restaurant, pastry shop, and catering company at the Dimora Boutique Hotel in Bergamo, and now at Da Vittorio's new location in St. Moritz.

So what is Da Vittorio St. Moritz?

Da Vittorio St. Moritz is slightly different from Bergamo. The clientele is more relaxed. They are on vacation, and that's reflected in the menu, style, and atmosphere. My brother Roberto and I alternate between Italy and St. Moritz, where we have a team of eleven people, including chef Luca Mancini. He's been working with the Cerea family for six years, and in 2012 he was voted Northern Italy's Number One Emerging Chef. Since 2012, he has spent the winter season in St. Moritz and the summer in Bergamo. We bring our more experienced chefs to St. Moritz and introduce and train new chefs in Bergamo.

cerea
cerea

What can we expect at Da Vittorio St. Moritz?

We focus on Italian dishes, such as our paccheri (Da Vittorio's signature dish, a simple pasta elevated to a meteoric level), and we are proud of regional and local traditions and products (like Bergamo's sciur, a very piquant aged blue cheese covered in red fruits). All of our produce, meat, and fish come from Italian suppliers who we have worked with for decades and know personally. We pick and choose what we want, and it is shipped the next day.

Enrico seems to spend most of his time traveling back and forth between St. Moritz and Bergamo to talk with family and a team of more than 100 chefs and local producers. Everything on the table comes from decades-old relationships with Italian-based farmers and fishermen. The St. Moritz team represents practically every region of Italy and is made up of top sous chefs and students from Bergamo. His sommelier is a walking encyclopedia of beverages and chocolate.

And the cuisine? It's almost ironic that I traveled out of Italy to experience what could be considered a basic pasta dish. But it blew me away, as did everything else that was on the table.

The AFAR Guide to Milan

milanafar
milanafar

Everyone knows that I love Milan, even if sometimes I keep it on the down low. Well, I've teamed up with AFAR for a guide to the city that sometimes never sleeps but not on weekends.... Take a peek to my guide to Milan for AFAR.....!

Milan is Italy’s quiet triple threat—capital of fashion, finance, and design. Begin at the heart of the city in the Piazza del Duomo; the rest radiates outward in a mosaic of neighborhoods where history, art, and fashion overlap. Walk around the tony Brera neighborhood and peruse the shops of the Fashion Quadrilateral, literally a rhomboid dedicated to the world’s best designers. Head to Navigli for a cocktail when the sun is about to set. Wander the Isola neighborhood for homegrown designers and unique boutiques. By night, Milan’s marble and modern architecture is incandescent, so between aperitivi, make sure to stop and take it all in.

Spending Two Perfect Days In St. Moritz

This article first appeared in Forbes Travel in May 2014

Spending Two Perfect Days In St. Moritz - Forbes Travel Guide

St. Moritz

Two days in St. Moritz is never enough. Switzerland’s Engadin Valley is a constantly blossoming garden of sporting and cultural activities and gastronomical delights. Beginning as a healing destination for pilgrims, St. Moritz was a summer spot until hotel pioneer Johannes Badrutt invited his British guests there one winter in the mid-1800s. Since then, it has been developed and curated as a luxurious winter getaway. Whether you choose to go in the warm or cold season, here’s what to do:

Day One

Getting in and out of St. Moritz is perhaps the most charming part of your trip and should only be done by train. The Bernina Express is the 74.5-mile railway line that links Italy and Switzerland on a windy, single track, traversing rivers, tunnels and peaks of the Alps. The panoramic train, together with Albula Railway (Chur to St. Moritz), is the highest mountain railway in the Alps and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’re flying into Zurich, take a train to Chur and hop on the Albula.

Upon arrival, drop your bags at Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains, which reopens for the summer season on June 20. Keep in mind, the Kempinski will be your home base over the next two days. The always-smiling staff members seem to know anything and everything you are thinking of doing without any prompting.

Spending Two Perfect Days In St. Moritz - Forbes Travel Guide

Hanselmann

Next, head up to town for a quick morning bite. Hanselmann is probably your best introduction to the city. This delicious pastry shop and coffee house holds court in St. Moritz’s main square. You’ll want to try the nusstorte (nut cake), hot chocolate and pretzels. Afterward, walk off the treats by exploring the entire town on foot — it doesn’t take too long. Traditional Engadin houses, with their sgraffiti design (curlicue etchings) and art nouveau architecture, alternate with high-end boutiques (Hermès, Cartier and Brunello Cucinelli, to name a few). Make sure to stroll over to the Lake St. Moritz lookout, where you can watch kite surfers skim across the glistening lake (though it’s usually frozen December to May) or just enjoy the sun setting behind the mountains.

For dinner, you have a couple options, as the town is known as a hub for high-end restaurants as well as tiny food nuggets. Located just across the street from the Kempinski is La Baracca, a laid-back food shack that’s an institution (it reopens for the season on July 25). Expect fancy-free fare such as polenta, carpaccio and salads. And the crowd is a mix, from ski divas and instructors to late-night top-chef partiers. A second favorite is Pichalain, at Nira Alpina on Corvatsch. Another après-ski hut, Pichalain is a cozy and rustic fondue eatery that doesn’t take reservations and is overwhelmingly charming.

Day Two

Skiing is the main winter attraction, but if you’re not ready to tackle peaks such as Corviglia and Corvatsch, help is available. St. Moritz has two great places to learn: Suvretta Snowsports School, you’ll see the instructors in their royal blue gear, and Switzerland’s oldest, Ski School St. Moritz, where teachers are clad in red jackets. In the summer, low-mountain hiking and/or snowshoeing is the way to go. We snowshoed the Muottas Muragl trail with Christina Salis, a veteran low-mountain guide who knows every inch of the Engadin.

Spending Two Perfect Days In St. Moritz - Forbes Travel Guide

La Terrazza

Lunch is best done from the top. And there is no better place to dine than at Corviglia, where chef Reto Mathis is king of the hill. Reto has a peak empire of six restaurants, cafés and food shops, all at 8,156 feet above sea level. His best-known spots are La Marmite, De Fät Moonk and La Terrazza — the latter is unparalleled in people-watching, whether on the slopes or off, as it sits outside in the snow. You are given wooly coverlets and sunhats, while served Mathis’ delicious creations made from regional produce and meats.

Unfortunately, these mountaintop eateries are only open during the ski season. If you happen to be in St. Moritz in the summer, we suggest trying Piz Nair, where you’ll score postcard-worthy views and classically simple fare, such as veal sausage with roasted potatoes and deer carpaccio (it opens for the summer on June 21).

In the afternoon, make your way to the Segantini Museum, which reopens on May 20. It’s a celebration of turn-of-the-century painter Giovanni Segantini. The last five years of his life, Segantini lived and worked in the Engadin, creating epic monumental paintings of summer and winter landscapes. If you hiked Muottas Muragl, you likely saw his point of view. After your museum visit, take advantage of Kempinski The Spa for its array of treatments and amenities such as the large sunlit indoor swimming pool, women-only area (with chromotherapy), saunas and gym.

Make a day of it and hibernate in the hotel, and have dinner at Restaurant Cà d’Oro. Of all of St. Moritz’s top eateries, Cà d’Oro is the most clever and fun. Hailing from Germany, chef Matthias Schmidberger leads an incredible team in creating and curating an unforgettable gastronomical experience. His menu is anything but run-of-the-mill Italian. On it, you’ll discover magical flairs of fish, meats and foams; a rich cookery background; an obsession with finding the very best in food; and the chef’s penchant for heavy metal. The maître d’ and the rest of the staff are on point with both style and knowledge. And a sommelier places local beers with caviar to start the evening. Cà d’Oro is yet another place that you’ll have to hit during the winter, as it’s closed for the summer.

If you aren’t tired after dinner, Badrutt’s King’s Club is the winter nightspot in St. Moritz. But if those outdoor activities drained you, opt for a quieter evening and get tickets for Cinema Scala, a 1930s movie theater. It’s a relaxing way to wind down your luxurious Swiss stay.

Photos Courtesy of Erica Firpo

Hot Pockets: Roy Caceres, Rising Rome Chef’s Brave New World

Hot Pockets is a series of chef interviews that I write for my blog and/or other publications. My interview with Roy Caceres of Metamorfosi for Forbes Travelwas published in April 2013.  Caceres since gained a Michelin star.  

SB_RoyCaceres_CreditMetamorfosi5
SB_RoyCaceres_CreditMetamorfosi5

It’s a brave new world in Rome’s restaurant scene. Where tradition once unwaveringly reigned supreme, creativity is the novel leader. Heralding the movement is Roy Caceres, chef of Metamorfosi, the latest entry to Rome’s growing list of top-tier restaurants. Likewise, Caceres is being feted as one of Italy’s rising stars.

Born in Colombia, Caceres has been sharpening his skills in Italy’s kitchens for nearly two decades, including Porto Ercole’s Il Pellicano and Bologna’s Locanda Solarola. In fall 2010, Caceres set stakes in Rome’s tony Parioli neighborhood, opening Metamorfosi. With a sly wink to antiquity’s Ovid, the Roman poet who wrote Metamorphoses, Metamorfosi is all about transforming the Roman cuisine stereotype by Caceres’ mosaicked menu of dishes that play on Italian traditions and nouveau cuisine. As Caceres says, “Every dish is an homage, a joke, a play on food, whether traditional or not.”

When Caceres is not playing with tradition, he’s making it, best exemplified by Uovo 65°, an unlikely reinterpretation of carbonara, where taste trumps form as the traditional dish excludes pasta in favor of creamy essence, and the more subtle (but long-titled) Bottoni, burro, parimigiano 36 mesi e tartufo, a delicious, truffle-garnished ravioli served in a parmesan broth as hearty and delectable as any beef stock.

Though the menu meanders around Italian fare traditions, it is also a celebration of culture as the Metamorfosi team of chefs represents Sweden, Colombia and Japan with collective experience in Italy, their respective countries and around the globe. It is this Caceres-described inter-cambia (an engaged interchange) that creates not just a dynamic menu, but collaborative participation in the kitchen and on the table.

But even with the obvious dedication to the restaurant, I was somehow still able to pull chef Caceres away from the stove for a quick chat. Here are the highlights…

What is your favorite dish at Metamorfosi?

Crudo di Fassona (tartar of Piemontese beef). This dish reminds me of my grandfather who used to make me something similar when I was child. It also contains my favorite ingredients including raw beef, mint, spring onion and egg.

What ingredient is a must-have in your kitchen?

Salt is fundamental to me. It jumpstarts tastes and augments it, but it must be used well or else it will cover up natural flavors.

Where do you like to eat in Rome?

On my days off, I like to take my family out of Rome and to the countryside. A favorite restaurant is Le Colline Ciociare in Frosinone. In Rome, I’ll go to Gabriele Bonci’s Pizzarium for take-away pizza.