09 August 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Lakeside Wizardry

SARONNO, Italy - Lake Como, in Italy’s northern Lake District, is not the place most people travel to for the food. The lure of the sapphire blue water, seductive picture perfect landscapes and the heady scent of jasmine and honeysuckle in the air tend to conjure up thoughts of love and romance, not fish and risotto. But for years now my fantasy has been to throw an outdoor dinner party at one of the posh villas that ring the lake.

Villa Balbianello, Lake Como

In my mind the menu would reflect the summer cuisine of the lake. Freshly caught seafood and fish and the richly colored fruits and vegetables piled high on the outdoor market stalls in Como would be transformed into platters of Mediterranean magic by a talented culinary wizard. But who would that be?

I found my wizard in Maurizio Marfoglia, a Saronno native who, the last I heard, was the executive chef slash owner of Tutto il Giorno in Sag Harbor, New York. As Marfoglio grew up in Saronno, and Saronno is in the Lake District just 40 minutes from Lake Como, he was the perfect person to talk to.

“The cuisine of the Italian lake district is one of Italy’s best kept secrets”, Marfoglia tells me. “It is uncomplicated, countrified cooking made from fresh, local ingredients. In the winter restaurants serve a variety of hearty mountain food, roast rabbit, wild boar and venison stews and unique polenta dishes only found in this region. But in the summer the food is as light and delicate as the cool breezes blowing off of the lake. The trick is to take advantage of what is in season, to move the material prima from market stall to table as quickly possible and do as little damage as possible along the way.”

Chef Maurizio Marfolgio

For my fantasy dinner party, which he teasingly calls my ‘magnificence’ after the staged spectacular fetes Catherine de Medici used to hold in 16th century France, he suggests greeting my guests with ice cold flutes of Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine, and a selection of cold antipasti that are easy to eat.

“It’s an outdoor party so you want your guests to relax and the courses to unfold at a friendly, leisurely pace,” he says. “Then, when everyone is at the table, grilled fresh-water shrimp served with bite size pieces of cool watermelon and paper thin slices of cucumber will keep the conversation going.” The combination is startling, but who can argue with the sheer joy of cool sweet melon, refreshing crisp cucumber and sweet grilled shrimp, especially on a warm summer night.

Moving from the innovative and unusual to the classic, Marfoglia suggests a typical Comasco dish for the main course: fried lake perch and buttered white rice. The fish and rice combination is the quintessential dish of Lake Como, and has been on the menu since the days of the ancient Romans. But instead of the traditional treatment, which is to fry the fish in butter and sage and serve it on a bed of rice, he recommends another approach that is inexplicably satisfying beyond the measure of the ingredients.

Branzino alla Marfolgio

“Cook the filets in a small amount of olive oil and serve them on a bed of watercress that you have lightly sautéed with a garlic clove and a finely chopped scallion,” he says, “and then drizzle a little piquant lemon caper sauce over the fish.”

Following the traditions of the Italian table, salad is served after the main course. Here Marfoglia’s non-stop creativity spins a new version of an Italian classic, coming up with a combination that would win him a thumbs up in any century. In his hands, the ordinary spinach salad takes on a fashionable ‘Made in Italy’ quality when the spinach leaves are tiny and tender and paired with slices of wild strawberries and a tangy poppy seed dressing. It is enough to make a purists head spin.

I ask him if he stays up nights thinking about food. “Actually, I do,” he says, “my wife complains about it all the time.” With his blonde hair and blue eyes, Marfoglia looks more like a mid-western stock broker than a top Italian chef, but he’s been cooking since the summer of 1986 when he was hired as the chef’s helper by the La Dolce Vita restaurant in Venice.

“What I didn’t know,” he says, “is that chef’s helper is just another way of saying galley slave.”

It was his first restaurant job and he says he has never worked so hard in his life. The La Dolce Vita kitchen was as noisy and chaotic as Times Square on New Year’s eve; the heat, the pressure, the chef always shouting at the top of his lungs, and yet through it all the raw and unpeeled were transformed into wonderful, even beautiful dishes.

“I loved it,” he says. “It was a mind numbing job, but there was something about the high level of chaos and creativity that was fascinating. They hired me again the next summer and the next three summers after that. It didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted to cook full time so at the end of the fourth summer I went home and got a job at a restaurant in Milan. I’ve been at it ever since.”

Villa for Rent on Lake Como

Marfoglia moved to New York about 15 years ago and has made a name for himself, cooking at notable New York restaurants like the Tribeca Grill, Mad 61, Le Madri, 7 MoMa, Tuscan Square and Coco Pazza, not to mention his stint as private chef to the Italian Ambassador to the United Nations.

“The key to successful entertaining, especially in the summer, is to keep things simple,” he says with the confidence of someone who is secure in his talent. Perhaps it is his culinary culture and respect for classic cuisine that gives him the courage to bend the rules and treat tradition with a bit of irreverence. Growing up in Italy certainly helped form his vision of how food should taste, but I still can’t help thinking there must be a bit of wizardry in there someplace.

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