Lunch With Star Italian Chefs


Photo by Faith Willinger

It's a tradition that started a few years ago with lots of chef friends in town for the presentation of the Espresso restaurant and wine guides. Raffaele Alajmo reserved two places at my table, brought magnums of champagne, and invited a few friends. I made lunch, and everyone had a good time. This year was a bit more chaotic than usual.

All produce came from the Innocenti brothers' organic farm outside Florence, meat from Dario Cecchini, extra virgins from Castello di Ama in Tuscany and Tenuta Rocchetta in Sicily.

Massiliano Alajmo (19.5 of 20 Espresso vote, 3 Michelin stars), Giancarlo Saran, Cavaliere delle Calandre, noted gastronomer, and Romina Savi, PR for Le Calandre were the first to turn up. When Pino Cuttaia (17.5 Espresso, 1 star) arrived we popped a magnum of Ca' del Bosco and started with the appetizers, soon joined by Massimo Bottura (19.5 Espresso, 2 stars), Gennaro Esposito (18 Espresso, 2 stars), and (unexpected) Mauro Uliassi (18 Espresso, 2 stars). They were agitated about the Gambero Rosso guide which comes out in two weeks--there's a new director with a new perspective, big changes, and lots of lowered ratings among superstar chefs.

My guests were wild about the tomato and grape salad--they thought the tiny wine grapes were olives and were pleasantly surprised.

My guests were wild about the tomato and grape salad--they thought the tiny wine grapes were olives and were pleasantly surprised. I served chickpea soup, without the pasta I'd planned--I expected pasta lord Giovanni Assanti and he was supposed to finish the dish. I opened a magnum of Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 2003. Then Massimo, Gennaro, and Mauro rushed off to a meeting of chefs about the guidebook turmoil. Their places at the table were taken by Giovanni Assanti, at last, who arrived with Tonino Melito (17 Espresso, 1 Michelin star) and an Espresso restaurant reviewer from Campania.


Photo by Faith Willinger

They had soup; I served the pork shank and vegetables. Massimiliano Alajmo sprayed the green beans with his mint essenza. Romina and I cleared the table and served the olive oil grape tart and chocolate cupcakes (presentation inspired by Corby's cupcake post), and used a siphon to top each with unsweetened whipped cream. New wave gelato maker Simone Bonini from Carapina arrived with a gelato tasting--pistachio, Vin Santo custard, and bittersweet chocolate. Illy espresso, grappa and nucillo, and chocolates to conclude. Here's the menu, and the recipe for the tomato grape salad:


    • Fettunta with Castello di Ama extra virgin
    • Crostini with Chianti Butter (creamy lard with rosemary)
    • Raw beef and Chianti Butter meatballs rolled in crispy breadcrumbs, with Dario's pepper-apple mostarda
    • Tomato salad with onions, basil, grapes, croutons, and extra virgin
    • Baked San Marzano tomatoes with Sicilian oregano and bread crumbs
    • Chickpea soup drizzled with extra virgin
    • Slow-braised (10 hours) pork shanks with red onions
    • Green beans with extra virgin
    • Cauliflower with fennel pollen and extra virgin
    • Chocolate cupcakes, siphoned whipped cream
    • Olive oil and grape cake
    • Gelato from Carapina
    • Nucillo e' curti
    • Illy espresso
    • Amadei chocolates

Recipe: Fall Tomato Salad with Grapes

    • 4 ripe heirloom tomatoes
    • 1 medium red onion, split, sliced, marinated with 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
    • 2 tablespoons minced basil
    • 1/2 to 3/4 cup red wine grapes
    • 4 tablespoons extra virgin (Castello di Ama)
    • Sea salt
    • 1 cup croutons (stale bread cubed, sautéed with minimal extra virgin in a cast iron pan)

Cut tomatoes in half, remove core, and squeeze juice and seeds in a sieve over a bowl. Smash seeds in sieve to remove all juice, then discard seeds. Cut tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and place in a serving bowl. Add tomato juice, onion and vinegar, basil, grapes, extra virgin, and salt. Marinate as long as you want. Add croutons before serving.

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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

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