Why This Man is My Favorite Chef in Italy

willinger apr29 bestchef.jpg

Photo by Renato Vettorato

Alajmo, right, runs a restaurant with his brother, left.

Massimiliano Alajmo, of the formal restaurant Le Calandre and casual dining space Il Calandrino, in Sarmeola di Rubano, outside Padova, is my favorite chef in Italy. His brother Raffaele is my favorite host, running the restaurants with style and a sense of fun. Massimiliano utilizes new-wave techniques and instruments--sous vide, chill-blaster, liquid nitrogen, siphon, pakojet, and foreign ingredients like exceptional soy sauce, pepper from Sarawak, star anise, and tonka beans.

Yet he maintains an enormous respect for traditional cooking methods and flavors learned at the side of his mother, chef Rita--wooden spoon, terra cotta pots, all-natural yeast, wild oregano, Sicilian capers, special pasta, his own blends of extra virgin. He's scrupulous about his ingredients, tasting, analyzing the finest products he can get his hands on, using them with respect, reinforcing flavors in traditional combinations.

He has the enthusiasm and curiosity of a food-crazed kid let loose in the kitchen. He was the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars. I translated his cookbook In.gredienti so I could learn about his culinary philosophy and blend of old-fashioned and new wave techniques. I spent lots of time in his kitchen. And still do. He calls me "Maddre", his Sicilian mother, since I frequently bring him interesting ingredients from my Sicilian travels.

He poured this delicious vermouth over ice, and then sprayed it with a hit of ginger essence. It was simply fantastic.

Massimiliano's got a series of new products, "le essenze", pure essences that result from his collaboration with master perfumer Lorenzo Dante Ferro. Ferro uses an exclusive patented extraction system and the result is totally unlike food flavorings. I had to check them out. Massimiliano uses the essences like perfume, as an additional culinary detail, sprayed before serving. I smelled them all--dill, star anise, bergamot, cinnamon, cardamom, lemon, mandarin orange, mint, vanilla, and ginger and was impressed by the true, intense scents.

Then Massimiliano made me a cocktail with Carpano Antica Formula, a limited quantity "classic" vermouth made with Carpano's original, secret recipe from 1787. He poured this delicious vermouth over ice, and then sprayed it with a hit of ginger essence. It was simply fantastic.

Other suggestions--spray dill on salmon, or salad, star anise on chicken broth or fried artichokes, bergamot in tea, on steamed fish, cinnamon and vanilla on hot chocolate, mint on roast lamb, lemon on grilled chicken. You get the idea. "Le essenze" are on sale at Le Calandre's shop In.gredienti and eventually will be sold on their Web site.