In Italy, a Chef Extravaganza

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Photo by waldekj/Wikimedia


The Vico Party, an annual chef encounter in the seaside village of Vico Equense on the Sorrento peninsula, has been likened to a bumble-bee: improbable aerodynamically, but it flies. What all chefs have in common is that they're friends of Gennaro Esposito, chef-owner of Torre del Saracino, who came up with the idea of a two-day party for chefs from all over Italy. I always attend.

This year's theme: "Mamma...ovvero "ogni scarrafaone e bello 'a mamma soja", (Mamma, or "each cockroach is handsome for its mother," in Neapolitan dialect). Chefs (100!) would prepare dishes inspired by their mothers' cooking, and even bring mom along if possible. Guests attending the big evenings would pay 100 euros, donated to rebuild the Scuola Alberghiera Leonardo da Vinci in Aquila, destroyed by the earthquake in Abruzzo this year.

There were far fewer foams and gels this year, less foie gras, more rustic ingredients, many personal takes on regional classics.

Chefs, journalists, artisans, winemakers and gastronomers begin to congregate on Sunday evening, at Gennaro's father-in-law's trattoria, 'O Saracino, on the beach of Marino di Seiano. Artisanal foods are served by their producers, including exceptional local cheese from the shop La Tradizione. The Sicilian winery Duca di Salaparuta pours their latest wines. Everyone mingles on the terrace overlooking the sea, catching up, tasting at stands, then dining at tables, with soups by 'e Curti and Giovanni Assante (he owns Gerardo di Nola, my favorite local pasta), pizza, spaghetti with seafood, gelato for dessert.

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Photo of Gennaro Esposito by Franco Mozzillo

On Monday morning there's an excursion, this year a boat ride to Capri for an aperitivo on a terrace with a view of the bay of Naples and Vesuvius, followed by a perfectly prepared lunch at the Capri Palace, surely one of the most beautiful spots, and most beautiful hotels (especially for contemporary art-lovers) on the island. A few regional winemakers presented their wines--I fell head over heels for Guido Marsella's Fiano di Avellino.

Back to Vico, for the evening's event at the beach resort Bikini, 41 rising star chefs with a desire to impress. There were far fewer foams and gels this year, less foie gras, more rustic ingredients, many personal takes on regional classics--eggplant parmigiana by chef Pietro Parisi of Ristorante Era Ora, steamed in a tiny jar; Mattias Perdomo of Al Pont de Ferr with a caramelized baby eggplant filled with caponata.

Gioi' della Bruna's Locanda Carafilia squash greens soup with anchovy crostino. Two dishes from the Abruzzo region, Valerio Centofanti's L'Angolo del Abruzzo mutton with wild chicory, and William Zonfa's lamb with artichokes and mint (his restaurant, Vinalia, in Aquila, was destroyed in the earthquake and will probably open in the fall) made me promise to visit.

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Photo by Faith Willinger

I sat next to a pal, chef Accursio Craparo of La Gazza Ladra during the press conference. Major Italian guidebook writers spoke; Genaro thanked everyone. Accursio was heading to the kitchen after lunch to make arancine, I asked if he could use a hand, and spent the afternoon with him and his assistant Raf, making 280 eggplant cream and three-mint rice balls, stuffed with sheep's milk curd, eggplant, tomato and pistachio basil puree, breaded (all levain breadcrumbs) and chilled, to be deep-fried later.

The final event, held at the hotel beach resort L'Axidia, would feature 58 star chefs and Gennaro's mother Carmela. Chefs arrive in the afternoon to check out kitchen facilities, ingredients, positions, and logistics, not always a strong point in Italy. The huge outdoor kitchen bustles, and guests begin arriving at 7, although the event isn't scheduled to open until 8. Rent a glass, head for tastings at winery and artisan stands, or continue to the main event, by the sea, an endless table in front of the open kitchen, where servers and chefs offer their dishes, almost all with decidedly traditional flavors this year.

Highlights for me included buttoned-up anchovies by Stefano Mazzone of Quisisana Hotel, pancotto by Andy Luotto of Il D'angeli, beans and escarole by Ilario Vinciguerra of Antica Trattoria Monte Costone, passatelli in broth by Massimo Bottura and his daughter Alexa of Osteria Francescana, meatballs in three-tomato ragu by Antonella Ricci, pasta alla gricia, pork jowl and pecorino, by Anna Dente of Osteria di San Cesario. Of course I adored "Accursio's" super-Sicilian ethereal eggplant arancine. Gennaro's mom also made arancine, Neapolitan-style, tasty but heavy.

Chefs from the south dominated desserts, with cornucopia cannolo by Pino Cuttaia of La Madia, sfogliatelle by Ernesto Iaccarino of Don Alfonso, bichinotto, pastry stuffed with custard and sour cherry by Peppe Aversa Il Buco. I tasted the rest of Guido Marsella's production--terrific Falanghina and Greco di Tufo as well as the fantastic Fiano. I collected a deck of business cards. And now have some big travel and dining plans for the future.

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Faith Willinger is a chef, author, and born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and has spent over 30 years searching for the best food from the Alps to Sicily. More

Faith Heller Willinger is a born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and was seduced by Italian regional cooking. Faith has spent more than 30 years searching for the best food and wine, as well as the world beyond the table from the Alps to Sicily. She has no regrets about mileage or calories. Faith was awarded the prestigious San Pellegrino award for outstanding work as an ambassador of Italian cooking. She lives full-time in Florence with her Tuscan husband, Massimo. Her son Max lives in Milan. She's the author of the bestselling (9th printing) guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White & Greens, and the narrative recipe book Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Faith teaches in her kitchen in Florence on Wednesdays, supplied with freshly picked produce from her favorite farmers. Check out her web site at www.faithwillinger.com.

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