TRAVEL

{Podcast} Rome's King of Carbonara Luciano Monosilio

Catching up with the King of Carbonara, Luciano Monosilio at his restaurant Luciano Cucina. Photo: Darius Arya

LOOK, MA, I’VE LAUNCHED A PODCAST!

My mom has always told me I’m a fabulous talker, but really I am an incredibly curious listener who loves a good story. And I’m lucky- part of my job is meeting people and listening to what they have to say. Over the past 15 years, I’ve met incredible people doing incredible things that are changing Italy’s cultural landscape and updating the trite travel stereotypes of quaint trattorias and lots of mamma mias into something more realistic, cool and contemporary. Sometimes these conversations become great articles, other times they are edited to a sound bite and more often, they don’t make their way anywhere except to my dinner table. I’ve decided to remedy that by launching Ciao Bella, my intrepid travel and cultural podcast.

Me and Chef Luciano Monosilio, aka the only man who has ever made me cry…. for carbonara. Photo: Darius Arya

EPISODE ONE: THE KING OF CARBONARA

Luciano Monosilio is Italy’s reigning King of Carbonara and currently chef/owner of Luciano Cucina. From Albano Laziale to Michelin starred chef, in just a few years, Luciano put my favorite dish, carbonara, in the center of the table and in conversation all over Italy. And then he decided to step out of the box and literally turn the tables by going solo with his eponymous Luciano Cucina, a new gen trattoria subtly spreading the culinary renaissance all over Italy. I’m proud to have him as my first guest on Ciao Bella, and I’m even happier to know that his restaurant Luciano Cucina is just around the corner ffrom my home in Campo de’ Fiori. Join me as we talk carbonara, guanciale, Roma and Italy.

Chef Luciano Monosilio. Photo: Erica Firpo

Carbonara’s key ingredients. Photo: Erica Firpo

TUNE IN

…and keep listening as I sit down at the table with innovators, creators, artists, and more who are revolutionizing travel and culture in Italy and around the Mediterranean. New episodes drop every Monday with a light blog post and link to my Patreon page. What’s that? Patreon is a way for you to be a part of Ciao Bella, support the podcast and be surprised with behind-the-scenes, for-your-eyes-only content. Like I said, I love listening so if there is someone you think I should interview, let me know. No matter what, I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please rate, review and share Ciao Bella.

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There's Something About Florence

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A version of the article appeared in Forbes Travel, October 2017.

There’s something about Florence.  Birthplace of the Renaissance, Dante’s hometown, font of the Italian language, and constant ranking in the top three places to visit on the Grand Tour, or better yet, the Bucket List.  Florence has had it going on for centuries, and it relishes in its rep as the Cradle of Modern Culture for nurturing homegrown artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as earning the title as the fifth fashion capitol thanks to bi-annual Pitti Uomo and several pioneering tech meets fashion/luxury summits. Maybe it's the proud Roman in me, but for years, I've written off Florence as a "mausoleum" or "cute tourist town", a necessary stop on your whirlwind Italy tour and a great place for a photo op, giving it only a bit of cred for its awesome art collection. Lately, however, I''m thinking otherwise-  Florence is fabulous. 

What changed my mind? Well, a little bit of handholding by local champions Georgette Jupe-Pradier, GirlInFlorence and Coral Sisk, CuriousAppetite, and here I am,  celebrating the town the Medicis built because of its, here we go, 21st century incarnation.  To the visible eye, nothing has changed in Florence but what is makes the city so invigorating is its community of artists, makers, creators and entrepreneurs who are putting a new perspective on a charming town.  According to Jupe-Pradier, who dedicates her blog GirlInFlorence  to the city’s contemporary stories and makers, there is a palpable city revival the “celebrates the past with a willingness to evolve and inspire especially in new contemporary spaces and artisans”.  Is it a 21st century Renaissance? I don't know but I'm liking the vibe.

Window Shopping

It took me a while to learn that Florence is far more than Via Tornabuoni and the Ponte Vecchio.  Jupe-Pradier's favorite area of the city is her backyard-  the Oltrarno, the river Arno’s left bank.  Ever since she started her blog, she encouraged exploration of the literal “other side” and her Oltrarno love concentrates around San Frediano which she brought to the pages of Lonely Planet as one of the world's coolest neighborhoods. I tagged along as she made afternoon rounds, stopping in to personally talk with every shop owner and artisan in the area.  Favorites include & Company a beautifully curated boutique for design lovers where you can find vintage furniture, hand-crafted stationery, Blackwing pencils and original creations by calligrapher and co-owner Betty Soldi.  Officine Nora, a working studio for a collective of jewelry makers where I picked up a handmade silver necklace by Valentina Carpini whose filigree work is divine,  Il Torchio- bookbinder studio and shop filled with luscious handcrafted books, restorer Jane Harman's  eponymous boutique Jane H where she features her original wood designs , and Albrici, a decades-old antiques shop with wing devoted to vintage clothing and accessories.

Earthly Delights

Catherine de' Medici, the woman who upgraded French cuisine by introducing Italian, in particular Florentine,  recipes and the fork to France, would be proud of her native city.   A collection of sturdy stalwarts, including  Cibreo and the century-old Trattorio Sergio Gozzi, are stewed in Florentine tradition, as long as you can get a table.  Perennially positive Jupe-Pradier loves the family Trattoria Sabatino in San Frediano, Oltrarno for its sixty-year-long dedication to serving seasonal, local dishes. .

Tradition aside,  intrepid food writer and culinary guide Sisk says “the city is responding to a demand for a more dynamic food scene”.  Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo ranks high on her list of Florentine eateries for its strong ethos on ingredient sourcing and traditions. And she loves modern bistrot-bar Zeb Gastronomia for its daily home made pastas and cool modern design, while her contemporary/creative dining picks are Michelin starred Ora d'Aria and Cibleo, Cibreo's Asian-Tuscan fusion.

For a taste of Florentine luxury, Il Locale is the spot- a restaurant and bar in a Renaissance palazzo designed as a modern Medici court with decoupage walls and velvet damask, sandstone columns in sandstone, vintage design pieces and contemporary sculptures. (Note:  I had great drinks but service was delayed, so I opted out of dining.) Charming Bar e Cucina is modern retro.  Designed by Paolo Capezzuoli, (aka Zero T, who collaborated the  Rock Steady Crew!), the vibe is a Golden age diner meets Florentine caffè, the perfect pit stop during those days at Pitti Uomo.

Just desserts at Trattoria Sabatino.

Eye Candy

Along with the usual suspects (we’re looking at you, David), Florence likes to keep you entertained with exhbitions and museums that traipse between traditional and unexpected.  Opened in 2005, Palazzo Strozzi, a fabulous example of 15th century palazzo architecture is a dynamic cultural foundation whose exhibition line up includes the ongoing Radical Utopias (design and architecture movement from the late 1960s), as well as previous blockbuster ringers like Bill Viola, Ai Wei Wei.  A blast from the past and my personal meditation is Museo di San Marco, a former Dominican convent now museum with the most extensive collection of in situ Fra Angelico frescos, and Jupe-Pradier loves the Museo del Novecento, a museum dedicated to 20th century Italian art.

Radical Utopias, courtesy of Palazzo Strozzi.

View from the Hotel Savoy.

Pillow Talk

Where you rest your head in Florence is just as important as what you do. For a stunning Renaissance-meets-modern stay, head to Four Seasons Hotel Firenze. This gorgeous urban resort complex features two refurbished buildings in which you can drift off to sleep — the 15th-century Palazzo Della Gherardesca or the former 16th-century convent, the Conventino.  For center stage its Hotel Savoy is Florence’s grande dame, whose timeless elegance yet au courant chicness redefines the meaning of “historic.” Savoy’s enviable Piazza della Repubblica location puts in the very center of everything.  Hotel Brunelleschi captures the best of Florentine architecture in a labyrinth of Renaissance-era palaces and medieval towers. And if it’s good enough for an overnight stay for Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s prolific The Da Vinci Code protagonist, it should be an adventure.

The Great Italian Chef Shines on the Big Screen

A new film chronicles the life and work of one of Italy's best and most influential chefs.  This article originally appeared in Fathom, September 2017.

Gualtiero Marchesi the Great Italian chef, in a scene from the upcoming film "The Great Italian."

If you haven't already heard of Gualtiero Marchesi, listen up. He is, by many accounts, The Great Italian, maybe even the Greatest. A larger-than-life, Milan-born chef who has spent more than six decades in the kitchen, Marchesi is the godfather of modern Italian cuisine. From the beginning of his career, his dishes have been multi-sensory works of art, beautiful and revolutionary recipes that inspired legions of students and chefs to define and drive innovation in Italian cuisine. And now you don't even have to go into one of his four restaurants in Milan and Monte Carlo to get a proverbial taste. Marchesi has landed on the big screen.

The Great Italian, a one-hour film celebrating the career of Italy's most famous chef, debuted last summer in a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was one of the wide-eyed viewers in the audience. Mixing a dash of Chef's Table with Paolo Sorrentino panache, the film shares the touchstones in Marchesi's life and career in a non-linear format. We sit at the table as colleagues, friends, and former students — Alain Ducasse, Yannick Alleno, Jean Troisgrois, Massimo Bottura, Davide Oldani, Andrea Berton, and Carlo Cracco among them — tell stories about their experiences with the chef. Marchesi himself brings us into wood-paneled libraries, fresco-covered billiard rooms, and contemporary kitchens to dish about his story, illustrated by enchanting diorama-styled animation from family photos and news clips.

The film, directed by Maurizio Gigola, is delightful and literal eye candy, but what had me at the edge of my seat were the vivid, jaw-dropping, close-ups of Marchesi's signature dishes — Raviolo Aperto, Dripping di Pesce, Seppia in Nero, and Riso Oro e Zafferano — spliced side by side with scenes of Marchesi walking through galleries filled with Pollocks, Stellas, Warhols, Fontanas, and so many others. This art and food lover saw stars.

Raviolo Aperto. Photo courtesy of Gualtiero Marchesi.

Dripping di pesce. Photo courtesy of Gualtiero Marchesi.

Marchesi shooting pool, in a still from the movie

A musician before he became a chef, Marchesi is also a lover of the visual arts. He uses avant-garde ideas — Pollock's drip paintings, Fontana's cut canvas, and Warhol lithographs — as ingredients in his dishes, mixing masterpieces with Italian produce and DOCG products to plate the perfect multi-art trifecta — visual, conceptual, and performance. And he started doing this long before modern Italian cuisine was even a concept.

It makes sense. Born in 1930, Marchesi grew up during the most epic periods of modern art — abstract, Arte Povera, optical, conceptual, performance, pop — experiencing all the genres that redefined the second half of the 20th century and set the foundation for the 21st. These ideas, images, and experiences flowed into Marchesi's sensibilities, inspiring him to play around with tradition, leading him to innovate Italian cuisine for the 21st century. And in turn to do so through his acclaimed protégés and their restaurants, a who's who of Italian gastronomy that includes Andrea Berton (Pisacco), Paola Budel (Venissa), Davide Oldani (D'O), and Carlo Cracco (Cracco).

On the silver screen and at the table, Marchesi comes across as humble and relatable, a chef who loves cooking for its ingredients and for who and what his dishes can inspire. After the screening, I briefly met the chef, surrounded by friends, family, and press. I congratulated him, told him how much the film moved me and how I remembered dining at Hostaria dell'Orso, his Roman restaurant, holed up on the top floor of a medieval palazzo on the edge of Piazza Navona. At the time, I didn't get that Italian food was supposed to be about tradition, not art. He chuckled. Now I get it.

For Marchesi, it wasn't about art at all. It was about love — for the ingredients, for the technique, for the experience, and, yes, maybe also for a little art.

The Great Italian, directed by Maurizio Gigola, will be in theaters in fall 2017. San Pellegrino is a contributor to the film and presented it together with chef Marchesi at the 2017 Festival de Cannes.

Pipero and the art of Carbonara

Carbonara.

If there is one plate that I would go to the ends of the earth for, it is carbonara- my kind of comfort food and Rome's emblematic dish of pasta, egg, grated pecorino (and/or parmesan) cheese, and guanciale.  I will go out of my way, leaps and bounds for just a plate so over the years, I've made it my business to eat carbonara in every Roman restaurant I step foot in,  an ongoing culinary quest for that very best until a fateful Saturday, September 21, 2013, when I sat down at Pipero and ate the last forkful of Luciano Monsilio's carbonara.   The only word to describe his carbonara is perfection - aesthetically beautiful- a sunflower-colored knot of pasta in a serving that was neither too much nor too little with the ideal Italian umami thanks to Luciano's preternatural culinary skills for combining grated pecorino and parmesan cheese, pepper-spiced beaten egg yolk, and pan-cooked guanciale in just the perfect amounts, and Alessandro Pipero, owner of his epynymous restaurantknew it.   Heck, he even made a film about it.  

As I walked out of Pipero, I vowed I would never eat carbonara again, unless Luciano was putting a plate of it in front of me or, and there always is an "or", it was vetted as hands-down amazing by a series of carbonara sycophants including Luca Sessa, Katie Parla, my favorite taxi driver Emanuele and my aunt Graziella.   It was easy to hold back from my carbonara fix.  Pipero was getting a lot of press after receiving a much-deserved Michelin star in November of 2012, which meant it was harder to just pop by, and personally I wasn't keen on its location at the Hotel Rex, andthough it is/was somewhat easy to find other great carbonara, my heart belonged to Pipero.   Fast forward to March 2017 when, while casually strolling down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the thoroughfare linking St. Peter's to Piazza Venezia, I noticed that the old and vacant bank across from Chiesa Nuova had curtains.  I took a closer look.  Pipero's moved in.

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Real estate is tough negotiation for a Rome restaurant, and even tougher for a Michelin-starred joint.  Choices are either hotel spaces, which is usually a compromise of interior design and multipurpose like a breakfast buffet, or a private space, sacrificing light for independence.   The new Pipero is neither.  Taking over a former bank in the Piazza Navona/Campo de' Fiori neighborhood, Pipero has location.   And thanks to the architectural demands of said bank, Pipero has light- a luminous space of high ceilings, and full-length windows on two sides of the corner restaurant.  A chic interior, the lounge/restaurant is simply accented with Poltrona Frau chairs, Flos lamps, original parquet floors and absolutely no clocks on the table, a detail Alessandro loved in Pipero's original incarnation but thankfully shelved in 2017.  The ground level area has seven tables, with an open mezzanine hosting three tables, while the subterranean is home to Pipero's wine cellar - a cozy, private dining cave lined with labels hand-picked by Alessandro, who also happens to be a sommelier. 

Let's get serious. Style was the first thing on my mind.  Before sitting down at Pipero's table, my most important concern was the food and whether or not Pipero would uphold or even surpass this crazy idolization I created over the years.  Was it still perfect? On a Tuesday afternoon, I found out by treating myself to a six-course tasting menu.  [Note: I asked to include the carbonara, as Alessandro and Luciano had removed it from the menu, making it available to guests by request.] The restaurant was quiet - just me, a couple, and Achille Sardiello, Alessandro's Numero Uno and maitre d', a man whose dedication to Pipero - owner, restaurant and dishes - is all about poise and professionalism.  Achille charmingly commands the floor.  The mythical carbonara appeared after an incredible duck tartar "panino" of crispy, slim bread with homemade mustard, and a rigatoni with broccoli, sausage and pecorino that playfully innovates tradition and changed my entire life view on broccoli.   It would be an understatement to say I was sated when the carbonara arrived, but I needed to make sure Pipero was still Pipero.  Every bite that afternoon was just as perfect as the first, second and third times I had eaten Luciano's magical carbonara.  Mission accomplished,but to follow was a lambcut which blew my mind with its delicious combination of cottura perfetta (perfectly cooked), anchovies and a raspberry cream.  I could've stopped there, gone home and written a love sonnet to Pipero, but why not make sure? One month later, I organized a private dinner for 30 for the very same six-course tasting menu.  Of course, Alessandro, Luciano and Achille did not disappoint- perfect service, perfect ambience, perfect dishes -- and yep, that carbonara was perfect.

Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 250

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Above:  Tuna tartar with green apple and mustard.  Here: Rigatoni with broccoli, pecorino and sausage