CHIAVARI, Italy - Lake Como is not the place most people travel to for the food. The lure of the sapphire blue water and romantic landscapes tend to conjure up sweet thoughts of love and romance, not fish and risotto. But every time I went to Lake Como, fish and risotto were very much on my mind as I dreamed of throwing a posh outdoor dinner party at Villa Balbianello.
Villa Balbianello is one of the most beautiful villas on the lake, with the added feature of only being reachable by boat. Now that’s romantic. The outdoor dining space overlooks spectacularly terraced gardens of magnolias and azaleas, with a panoramic view of the water and the mountains that divide Italy and Switzerland. It was built in 1787 for Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini, who must have been quite a player in his day. Why else would he have had the motto Fay ce que Voudras (Do as You Please) written on the pavement of the portico above the small harbor?
I always that that that was a good motto to live by so I never gave up my fantasy dinner party dream. In my fantasy the menu would reflect the casual summer cuisine of the lake. The freshly caught fish and richly colored fruits and vegetables found at the outdoor markets in Como would be transformed into platters of Mediterranean magic by a talented culinary wizard. But who might that be?
“The cuisine of the Italian lake district is one of Italy’s best kept secrets”, Marfoglia told 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 light and delicate. The trick is to take advantage of what is in season, to move the material prima from market stall to table as quickly, and do as little damage as possible along the way.”
For my fantasy dinner party, which he teasingly called my Magnificence after the staged spectacular fetes Catherine de Medici used to hold in 16th century France, he suggested 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 with bite size pieces of cool watermelon and paper thin slices of cucumber will keep the conversation going.” The combination sounds odd, but who can argue with the sheer joy of eating cool sweet watermelon, refreshing crisp cucumber slices 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 ancient Romans first settled in the area. 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 suggested another approach.
“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.” There is something about Marfoglia that reminds me more of 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 at 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.”
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 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 can’t help thinking there has to be a bit of wizardry in there someplace.