01 May 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: Como is for (Food) Lovers

CHIAVARI, Italy - Lake Como is not the place people usually travel to for the food.

 Villa Balbianello, Lake Como
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, more than fish and risotto.  But in a 13th century stone tower in the medieval heart of the town of Como a small revolution is taking place. It's a culinary revolution led by Chef Stefano Visini and it is no accident that he chose such an old building for his restaurant for the 40 year old Como native is a traditionalist - of sorts.

The morning I went to Como to interview Chef Visini the sun was so bright sparks of light were jumping off the surface of the water. And as large white ferryboats transported locals and tourists up and down the Y shaped lake, Visini and his staff were busy in the restaurant’s tower kitchen prepping food for the mid-day crowd. The Chef was preparing swordfish, sturgeon and salmon that would appear on the lunch menu as a trio of smoked fish with a sauce of raspberry purée and fresh ginger. His assistant was busy shelling fresh fava beans and toasting pancetta that would be used later, along with pecorino cheese di fossa, in a fresh pasta dish.

 Chef Visini
 “I use the classics as a starting point much the same way architects use basic construction principles,” he says, “but then my creativity kicks in and I’m off and running, or off and cooking actually. I totally enjoy what I do, and what I enjoy most is coming up with new and unexpected tastes for my clientele.”

It was at a private celebration at the legendary Villa Balbianello that Chef Visini had the opportunity to flex his creative culinary muscles. Often cited as the most magical residence in all of Italy, the villa was featured in the classic film ‘A Month by the Lake’ starring Uma Thurman and Vanessa Redgrave. Built at the end of the 16th century by an important Renaissance Cardinal, the loggias, terraces and buildings that cascade down the slopes of a lush, dark green promontory to the lake provided the perfect setting for the Chef to create his culinary magic.
Guests and food arrived by boat
 “It was every chef’s dream,” says Visini, “a private party for 150 guests set in one of the most beautiful places in the world with the added bonus of an unlimited budget.” 

The guests were ferried from Como on a private yacht, and as they climbed the torch lit stone stairway to the villa’s terrace, which is slightly larger than a tennis court, they were handed flutes of ice cold champagne ‘Pol Roger Brut Reserve. Waiters dressed as sea captains then offered a selection of appetizers. Marinated salmon with spicy caramelized pineapple; a salad of shrimp, asparagus and tiny new fava beans; and a tomato gelee’ with mussels and spring onion are only three of the eight appetizers that were served, each on their own individual sterling silver spoon.

When the guests were called to table, the multi-course menu started with an antipasto of sea bass filets flavored with Martini Dry, served on a bed of braised red onions and accompanied by river shrimp and a sauce of raspberries and fresh ginger. The two primi piatti were shrimp and lobster ravioli in a lobster sauce, followed by a creamy fish risotto served with tiny candied tomatoes and a puree of fresh peas. The secondo, or main course, was a rosette of veal wrapped in paper-thin slices of lardo di Colonnata, served with Chanterelle mushrooms, and fresh asparagus spears drizzled with a delicate Madeira sauce.
 The snazzy waiters
As the golden moon moved across the star lit summer sky, waiters began serving the caravan of deserts, one more sumptuous than the other. A dense chocolate cream with orange sauce came first, followed by an eggcup of wild strawberries marinated in 80-year-old balsamic vinegar, served with a vanilla and bourbon sauce and a miniature aspic of linden honey. Next came a mousse of fresh mangos, served on a bed of tropical fruits and garnished with fresh coconut curls. Crème caramel topped flaky little butter cookies, and that was followed by seven more delights plus an assortment of delicate miniature pastries.

"I used several classic Italian recipes in the Villa Balbianello menu,” says Visini, “for example, strawberries marinated in aged balsamic vinegar have been part of our cuisine since the dish was first served to Italian princes during the Renaissance. I added the bourbon, vanilla sauce and honey aspic just to give the dish an extra kick. And the candied cherry tomatoes are my version of a centuries old Sicilian tradition of serving tiny tomatoes with honey.” 
 The word of the day was "elegance"
As impressive as the menu was, I was even more impressed that all the food for the party was prepared in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen and transported to the villa by boat. But Visini assures me that it is normal operating procedure, and that he is used to working in tight spaces. “However, it can get a little tricky sometimes,” he admitted as he looked around his shiny second floor workspace.

An amazing amount of food is produced in that small kitchen. Not only does it serve as the main kitchen for Ristorante Visini, but it is also the headquarters of Visini's catering operation and the heart of the rosticceria, which sells food to take out, plus the pasticceria or pastryshop. Corrado Visini, the chef's brother, is the wine steward and keeps the operation stocked with a large assortment of really good wine.

Later that afternoon the Chef and I sat at an outdoor table in front of the restaurant and talked about food.
 Ristorante Visini, Como, Italy
 “Travelers don’t really think about food when they are in Como,” said the Chef, “they come to Como for the beauty of the lake and the charm of the town and don't complain about eating pretty ordinary stuff.  But I want to change that. I want people to go home with more than just wonderful visual memories of their visit; I want them to have wonderful taste memories as well. And years from now, when they are reminiscing about the great time they had in Como, I want them to say, “. . . . . and remember that meal we had at the Ristorante Visini, now that was really something special.”

Ristorante Visini
Antica Torre dei Mercanti
Via Ballerini 9 (Around the corner from Coin dept. store)
22110 Como
Tel. +39 031 242 760+39 031 242 760
Email: info@visini.it http://www.visini.it/

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