Showing posts with label Chefs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chefs. Show all posts

6 May 2024

Massimiliano Alajmo – Michelin-starred chef

Innovative cook is carrying on a family tradition 

Massimiliano Alajmo has been working at Le Calandre since 1993
Massimiliano Alajmo has been
working at Le Calandre since 1993
Massimiliano “Max” Alajmo, who at 28 years old became the youngest chef in history to be awarded a Michelin star, was born on this day in 1974 in Padua.

Along with his brother, Raffaele, and his sister, Laura, Alajmo is part of the fifth generation of his family to become a chefs and restaurateurs and he now helps them run a group of 14 restaurants, mainly situated in the Veneto region of Italy, as well as in Paris and Marrakech.

Alajmo is renowned for a culinary philosophy that emphasizes lightness and depth of flavour, often illustrated in innovative takes on Italian classics. Some of the more distinctive dishes on his menu include: crispy buffalo’s milk ricotta and mozzarella cannelloni with tomato sauce, saffron risotto with liquorice powder, and hand-chopped Piemontese beef with black truffle. One of his most famous dishes is risotto with capers and espresso.

After attending a hotel management school, Alajmo furthered his culinary education in the kitchens of Alfredo Chiocchetti of Ja Navalge in the comune - municipality - of Moena, which is in the heart of the Dolomites in Trentino Alto Adige.

He then moved on to work with Marc Veyrat and Michel Guerard at restaurants in Veyrier du Lac d'Annecy and Eugénie les Bains in France. . 

In 1993 he began working at Le Calandre in Sarmeola di Rubano in Padua with his mother, the chef Rita Chimetto, who had earned the restaurant its first Michelin star.  Rubano has always been the family’s base.

Saffron risotto sprinkled with powdered liquorice is one of the signature dishes on Alajmo menus
Saffron risotto sprinkled with powdered liquorice
is one of the signature dishes on Alajmo menus
Alajmo was later appointed executive chef of Le Calandre. The restaurant was awarded a second Michelin star in 1997 and in 2002 it received its third, thanks to Massimiliano.

In 2006, Alajmo and his family self-published their first cookbook, In.gredienti. It won Best Cookbook of the Year at the 2007 Gourmand International World Cookbook Awards.

After remodelling the dining room of Le Calandre in 2010, the family launched Alajmo Design, a line of glassware, tableware, and cutlery produced by Italian craftsmen.

In 2011, the Alajmo family then took on the management of Quadri, the famous café in St Mark’s Square in Venice. Unlike its rival, Caffè Florian, Quadri has its own restaurant, the only one on the square. 

Since 2013, Alajmo has been on the board of directors of Master della Cucina Italiana, a culinary school developed to shape a new generation of Italian chefs.

Alajmo is also involved with Il Gusto della Ricerca, a non-profit organisation founded in 2004 to raise funds to support research into childhood illnesses.

Le Calandre, the headquarters of the Alajmo Group, was originally opened in 1981 by Erminio Alajmo and Rita Chimetto. When the restaurant earned its third Michelin star in 2003, it made Massimiliano, at the age of 28, the youngest chef in the world to have received this recognition. 

The restaurant has also remained on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for more than ten years.

Le Calandre is the Alajmo family's original base and main restaurant in Sarmeola di Rubano
Le Calandre is the Alajmo family's original base
and main restaurant in Sarmeola di Rubano
Travel tip:

Rubano, home of the Alajmo family’s flagship restaurant, Le Calandre, is a municipality of 16,631 inhabitants about 5km (three miles) west of the city centre of Padua in the Veneto. It consists of three villages: Bosco di Rubano, Sarmeola and Villaguattera.  Padua itself is one of the most important centres for art in Italy and home to the country’s second oldest university. It has become acknowledged as the birthplace of modern art because of the Scrovegni Chapel, the inside of which is covered with frescoes by Giotto, an artistic genius who was the first to paint people with realistic facial expressions showing emotion. His scenes depicting the lives of Mary and Joseph, painted between 1303 and 1305, are considered his greatest achievement and one of the world’s most important works of art. At Palazzo Bo, where Padua’s university was founded in 1222, you can still see the original lectern used by Galileo and the world’s first anatomy theatre, where dissections were secretly carried out from 1594.

The town of Moena nestles in Val di Fossa in the Trentino region of northern Italy
The town of Moena nestles in Val di Fossa
in the Trentino region of northern Italy
Travel tip:

Moena, where Alajmo worked in the kitchens of Alfredo Chiocchetti of Ja Navalge, is sometimes known as the “Fairy of the Dolomites”, a charming town in Val di Fassa celebrated for the enchanting pink light that bathes the mountain tops at sunrise and sunset, offering breathtaking views. A major ski resort during the winter, when visitors can enjoy a network of ski lifts and slopes suitable for all levels, during the summer months, the town offers picturesque walks in the countryside, mountain hiking and cycling. Its local cuisine includes Puzzone di Moena DOP cheese, while among its cultural highlights are the church of San Vigilio, which has a Gothic bell tower and 18th-century paintings by Valentino Rovisi, and the ancient church of San Volfango, featuring 15th-century frescoes and a Baroque ceiling.  The area is notable for its high number of residents who speak the Ladin dialect, based on an ancient language derived from Latin.

Also on this day:

1527: Rome sacked by soldiers of Holy Roman Empire

1895: The birth of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino

1905: The birth of architect and polymath Carlo Mollino

1963: The birth of ballerina Alessandra Ferri


22 October 2023

Ettore Boiardi - entrepreneur

Emilian immigrant who founded canned pasta brand

Boiardi wowed diners with his signature pasta sauce
Boiardi wowed diners with
his signature pasta sauce
Ettore Boiardi, the former New York chef whose name lives on in the Chef Boyardee canned pasta products brand, was born on this day in 1897 in Piacenza, now part of the Emilia-Romagna region.

Boiardi, whose culinary skills first gained popularity when he was working in the kitchens of the iconic Plaza Hotel in New York, hit upon the idea of selling cook-at-home Italian food after opening his first restaurant while still in his 20s.

He and his brother, Paolo, built a company that employed 5,000 staff and filled 250,000 cans per day at its peak, making the Chef Boyardee brand a familiar sight in grocery stores across America. 

They eventually sold the business for $6 million dollars in 1948 but the Chef Boyardee brand never went away. Today, Chef Boyardee products, which still carry Ettore Boiardi’s image on their packaging, are made and marketed by Chicago-based Conagra Brands.

Ettore and Paolo grew up in Piacenza.  Their parents, Giuseppe and Maria, inspired them to be interested in food from an early age and Ettore was working in a local restaurant, La Croce Bianca, by the time he was 11. Although his tasks were limited to peeling potatoes, emptying waste bins and other menial duties, he performed them while observing how the head chef created dishes to serve to his customers.

Like many young Italians of his time, Ettore believed he would need to go abroad if he was to make something of his life. As a teenager, he made his way to Paris and London, taking work where he could to gain experience. 

Ettore (centre) with brothers Mario (left) and Paolo pictured at their factory in Milton
Ettore (centre) with brothers Mario (left) and
Paolo pictured at their factory in Milton
Paolo, meanwhile, had emigrated to New York, his waiting skills enabling him to climb quickly to the role of Maître d’hôtel at the Plaza. Ettore managed to join him there in 1914 after crossing the Atlantic on a French-registered ship, La Lorraine, and with his brother’s help became a sous chef in the hotel’s kitchen. Allowed to cook some of the Emilian recipes he knew from home, Ettore quickly acquired a following among the hotel’s well-heeled clients.

Indeed, such was his popularity that word quickly spread about his culinary talents and he enjoyed a meteoric rise. Within a year of disembarking at Ellis Island, he had been hired as head chef by the Barbetta restaurant on 46th Street and was soon also headhunted by the exclusive Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

It was there, at the age of just 17, that Boiardi is said to have been put in charge of catering at the wedding reception of the US President, Woodrow Wilson, and his second wife, Edith. Wilson was so impressed he asked Boiardi to supervise a homecoming meal for 2,000 soldiers returning from service in World War One.

An offer to be head of the kitchen at the prestigious Hotel Winton took him next to Cleveland, Ohio, where he met and married his wife, Helen, who encouraged him to open his own restaurant, the Giardino d’Italia, in 1926.  It was something of a gamble. While Italian restaurants were rapidly gaining popularity in the cities of the east and west coasts, there were still comparatively few inland.

Ettore's image still figures on the packaging labels of Chef Boyardee products today
Ettore's image still figures on the packaging
labels of Chef Boyardee products today
Yet the rarity factor worked in Boiardi’s favour. Word soon spread among Cleveland diners that the young chef’s signature sauce, served with spaghetti and sprinkled with grated hard cheese, was something special. Not only did the Giardino d’Italia frequently have queues of people waiting for a table, its customers, once they had tried the sauce, began asking for an extra portion to take home. 

Boiardi obliged by filling sterilised milk bottles with the sauce. This was noticed by two of his regular customers, Maurice and Eva Weiner, who were the owners of a nationwide chain of grocery stores. They suggested he should consider canning the sauce, which they could sell in their shops.

So it was that Helen and Ettore - now known by his anglicised name of Hector - were joined by Paolo and another brother, Mario, in launching the Chef Boiardi Food Company, in 1928, selling the sauce together with packs of spaghetti and tubs of grated parmesan cheese as a ready-to-heat meal kit.

In time, the name was changed to Chef Boyardee, which the brothers reasoned wa easier for Americans to pronounce, and production shifted to a bigger plant in Milton, Pennsylvania, which Boairdi chose for its fertile soil so that he could use locally-produced tomatoes, the key ingredient of his sauces, which eventually required him to produced 20,000 tons every year.

The Second World War created problems for the company, despite being handed a contract to produce ration packs for American servicemen. By the end of the war, maintaining 24-hour production and employing 5,000 staff in their factories became too much for the brothers, who decided to sell up to American Home Foods.

By the time Ettore died in 1985, at the age of 87, Chef Boyardee lines were grossing $500 million a year as one of the best-known tinned pasta brands in America.

The Palazzo Comunale in Piacenza, flanked by Francesco Mochi's equestrian statues
The Palazzo Comunale in Piacenza, flanked by
Francesco Mochi's equestrian statues 
Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Ettore Boiardi was born, is a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The main square in Piacenza is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi.  The square is dominated by the Palazzo Comunale, also known as il Gotico, was built in 1281 as the town hall. With its pink marble and brick facade, notable for its five arcades, it is an excellent example of civil architecture in Lombard Gothic style.  The city is situated between the River Po and the Apennines, between Bologna and Milan. It has many fine churches and old palaces. Piacenza Cathedral was built in 1122 and is a good example of northern Italian Romanesque architecture.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is one of many food products from Emilia-Romagna
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is one of many
food products from Emilia-Romagna
Travel tip: 

The Emilia-Romagna region is widely regarded as one of the food capitals of  Europe. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar from Modena and Prosciutto di Parma cured ham all originated in Emilia-Romagna, while ragù bolognese meat sauce originates in the region capital of Bologna, although it would be served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti in Italy. The stuffed pasta dish tortellini in brodo - cushions of pasta filled with mortadella, prosciutto and pork loin served in a clear chicken broth - is another local speciality.  Historically, it was the cities of Emilia - Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Ferrara - whose cuisines were dominated by pork and pork products, although the whole region is renowned as a meat-eater’s paradise. 

Also on this day:

1885: The birth of tenor Giovanni Martinelli

1946: The birth of singer Roberto Loreti

1965: The birth of actress Valeria Golino

1967: The birth of conductor Salvatore Di Vittorio

1968: Soave wine awarded DOC status


19 March 2023

Festa del Papà - Father’s Day

Italian celebration this year coincides with Mothering Sunday in UK

While today marks Mothering Sunday - or Mother’s Day - in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the Italian tradition is that celebrations on this day in the religious calendar are for Father’s Day.

La Festa del Papà in Italy owes its history to La Festa di San Giuseppe - St Joseph’s Day - the annual celebration that has been held since the Middle Ages to recognise the role of Joseph, the husband of Mary, as the legal if not the biological father of Jesus Christ.

In Catholic tradition, Saint Joseph is the embodiment of the ideal father, a strong, pious character perfectly suited to fulfil his role as protector of and provider for his family. 

For many years, the Festa di San Giuseppe - which always falls on March 19, regardless of whether it is a weekday or a weekend - remained a largely religious celebration. But, thanks to the growth of commercialism around family celebration days, it has taken a lead from Father’s Days around the world, and in particular the United States, and expanded into something bigger.

So nowadays, in common with Father’s Days around the world, La Festa del Papà is an occasion for children to show their appreciation and affection for their own fathers by making cards and giving treats and gifts.

Schools will often devote time in the week leading to March 19 by setting aside craft lesson time to making cards and gifts, with students encouraged to fill the card with their own verses.

And naturally, being Italy, gifts often take the form of food, with a number of different cakes and pastries becoming traditional on Father’s Day.

An example of Zeppole di San Giuseppe, one of Italy's traditional Father's Day treats
An example of Zeppole di San Giuseppe, one of
Italy's traditional Father's Day treats
This is thought to originate in a story in the Gospel of St Matthew in which Joseph and Mary were visited by an angel and warned to flee to Egypt so that their baby son would be kept out of the clutches of King Herod.

When they arrived, Joseph is said to have helped support the family by making and selling sweet pancakes.

The classic Italian Father’s Day pastries are Bignè di San Giuseppe, fried cream puffs filled with custard and dusted in icing sugar. Although Bignè di San Giuseppe are available throughout Italy all year round, they are made in particular quantities around Father’s Day.

In the south of Italy, the equivalent is the Zeppole di San Giuseppe, a similar concoction to Bignè, made with puff pastry, custard and icing sugar, topped with a glazed cherry.

A recipe for these zeppole appeared in Cucina teorico-pratica, a 19th century cookery guide compiled by Ippolito Cavalcanti, a food-loving aristocrat who went under the title Duke of Buonvicino, first published in 1837 and still being reprinted today. The book is considered something of a bible of Neapolitan cuisine.

In Sicily, meanwhile, the Sfincia di San Giuseppe is filled with sweet ricotta, candied fruit and chopped pistachio nuts, while shops in the north of Italy might have Ravioli di San Giuseppe - ravioli made with shortcrust pastry and filled with jam.

The Festa di San Giuseppe in Sicily is also celebrated in some households with the preparation of a soup called maccu di San Giuseppe, made with crushed fava beans, also known as broad beans.

Another part of the gift-giving element of the Festa del Papà is thought to come from Saint Joseph’s role as the patron saint of carpenters. Originally, wooden toys and trinkets were exchanged between all relatives on Festa di San Giuseppe, the practice evolving into one in which children gave wooden gifts to their father. 

An overhead view of Zaha Hadid's extraordinarily  futuristic Stazione Napoli-Afragola
An overhead view of Zaha Hadid's extraordinarily 
futuristic Stazione Napoli-Afragola 
Travel tip:

Ippolito Cavalcanti, the aristocratic gourmet who described Zeppole di San Giuseppe in his cookery guide Cucina teorico-pratica, was born in Afragola, a city today of almost 65,000 people but subsumed into the sprawl of greater Naples. Situated around 10km (6 miles) northeast from Piazza del Plebiscito, Afragola’s history is thought to date back to around 300BC when it was settled by a tribe called the Samnites, although remains dated as of Bronze Age vintage, thought to have been buried in an eruption of Vesuvius, were found in 2005.  Today’s Afragola, sadly, is an area of social problems, high unemployment and high crime rate, yet it is home to one of Italy’s most futuristic railway stations, the extraordinary Napoli-Afragola station designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid and opened in 2017 for a new high speed line from northern to southern Italy.

Iginio Massari's Pasticceria Veneto is consistently recognised as one of Italy's best pastry shops
Iginio Massari's Pasticceria Veneto is consistently
recognised as one of Italy's best pastry shops
Travel tip:

The best pastry shop in all Italy - and there is plenty of competition - is generally reckoned to be the multiple award-winning Pasticceria Veneto in Via Salvo D'Acquisto in the northern city of Brescia. Opened in 1971 by the Brescia-born pastry chef Iginio Massari, Pasticceria Veneto has dominated the pasticcerie section of the annual Gambero Rosso awards since 2011, receiving the coveted Tre Torte mark from the food magazine every year.  The store, often described as a pastry laboratory rather than simply a bakery thanks to 80-year-old Massari’s constant innovation, has been stocking a number of treats in anticipation of Father’s Day. The chef’s own creation for the occasion is a caramelized millefeuille.

Also on this day:

1661: The birth of musician Francesco Gasparini

1816: The death of physician and businessman Filippo Mazzei

1914: The death of seismologist Guiseppe Mercalli

1923: The birth of cartoonist Benito Jacovitti

1943: The birth of technocrat PM Mario Monti


27 April 2020

Cesare Bianchi - head chef

From shores of Lake Como to London’s Café Royal

The Art Deco memorial in Hampstead Cemetery, built by Bianchi for his widow, Martha
The Art Deco memorial in Hampstead Cemetery,
built by Bianchi for his widow, Martha
Cesare Bianchi, who rose from humble beginnings to become head chef at London’s prestigious Café Royal in the 1930s, was born on this day in 1897 in Cernobbio, a village on Lake Como in northern Italy.

He moved to England when he was only 16, hoping to build a career in catering and soon found work doing odd jobs in a London kitchen. However, he had been in the city barely a year when the outbreak of the First World War meant he had to return to his homeland for national service.  In his case, it was with the Alpini, Italy’s mountain brigades, with whom he was an interpreter.

Eager to resume his career in England, once the war was over Cesare took a job at the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen.  It was there he met Martha Gall, the woman who would become his wife.

They were married in 1921 and Martha soon gave birth to their daughter, Patricia.  Ambitious, Cesare persuaded his wife to leave Scotland behind so that he could make another attempt to establish himself in London.

His culinary talents took him a long way as he worked his way up from modest beginnings to land a place in the kitchen at the Café Royal in Regent Street, which at the turn of the century had become one of the capital’s most fashionable restaurants, the place to be seen for society figures.

The Café Royal had a heady reputation but Bianchi was quite at home, soon winning many compliments for his culinary skills.  Ultimately, he was promoted to head chef. He and Martha and their daughter set up home in Hampstead, in Lawn Road.

Cesare Bianchi's position counted for nothing when he was declared an alien
Cesare Bianchi's position counted for
nothing when he was declared an alien
However, his life was turned upside down in 1936 when Martha died giving birth to their second child.  The baby, a boy given the name Robert, survived.  Martha was buried in Hampstead Cemetery, where Bianchi commissioned an enormous monument, an Art Deco extravagance topped with a Futurist angel, arms outstretched, between two columns and standing on a plinth bearing the name of Bianchi.

The grave, which now has Grade II listed status, is set in a triangular plot. Either side of the angel are two reliefs, one showing Cesare with Martha, who is cradling the baby she never lived to see, sitting on a park bench.  He had hoped one day that he would be buried alongside her.

Martha’s sister, Mary, helped Cesare bring up his children and he was able to return to work in Regent Street.

When peace in Europe was shattered again in 1939, Bianchi’s life took another unwelcome turn.  Although he had been resident in England for much of his adult life and had fought on the side of the Allies when Italy opposed the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey) in World War I, Bianchi found himself classed as an alien in World War II after Italy entered an alliance with Germany.

His status in London counted for nothing. He, along with many other Italians and Germans, were taken to Liverpool, set to board the Arandora Star, a ship that would take them to internment in Newfoundland in Canada.

Smithfield Market, where Bianchi worked, was destroyed by a German V2 flying bomb
Smithfield Market, where Bianchi worked, was
destroyed by a German V2 flying bomb
The boat set sail on 2 July, 1940 with 1,300 prisoners on board but had barely hit the open sea of the Atlantic beyond Ireland when it was spotted by a German U-boat.  The enemy submarine was on its way back to base to reload its weapons batteries but had one torpedo left, which its commander  fired at the Arandora Star.

The device hit the side of the Arandora Star. The resulting explosion killed everyone in the ship’s engine room and caused the ship to start sinking rapidly. Bianchi was one of more than 700 Italian prisoners being contained in cramped dormitories - along with almost 600 Germans. Two thirds of the Italians drowned but Bianchi somehow survived and was picked up by a rescue ship.

He was still interned as planned but instead of Canada - or Australia, where others were shipped - was taken to a camp much closer to home on the Isle of Man, where he would remain until the end of 1942. At that point it was considered safe for him to return to London, even though it was not until the autumn of the following year that Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and itself declared war on Germany.

Bianchi rejoined Mary Gall and his children in Hampstead and found a new job in Smithfield Market, with which he hoped to rebuild his career.

The winged angel that sits above the grave of Martha Gall-Bianchi in Hampstead Cemetery
The winged angel that sits above the grave of
Martha Gall-Bianchi in Hampstead Cemetery
After his ordeal on the Arandora Star, he might have hoped that the war would hold no more drama for him but, tragically, that was not the case.

On 8 March, 1945, in one of the last attacks that Germany would launch against Britain, Smithfield Market was struck by a V2, one of the second generation of flying bombs used by the Nazis and the forerunner of the inter-continental ballistic missile.

The explosion caused by the rocket destroyed the market and killed 110 people who were inside at the time, including both Cesare Bianchi and Mary Gall, whose presence there may have been because she was one of a large number of women shopping on that day.

In the circumstances, it was not possible for Bianchi to be buried alongside Martha. Along with the other victims of the bomb, he was laid to rest at the London Cemetery in Manor Park in the borough of Newham in the east of the city.

The Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como near Cernobbio, where Cesare Bianchi was born
The Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como near
Cernobbio, where Cesare Bianchi was born
Travel tip:

Bianchi’s hometown of Cernobbio is notable for the Villa d’Este, the vast complex built as a 16th century summer residence for the Cardinal of Como, and one of many fine villas fronting the water. The town once attracted large crowds hoping to catch a sight of movie star George Clooney, who had a house at nearby Laglio and would occasionally be spotted at a cafe in Cernobbio. Scenes from the movie Ocean’s 12, in which Clooney starred, were filmed locally. The town generally has more locals than tourists. On summer evenings and weekends when the main piazza is full of families and couples.

The 15th century facade of the Duomo in the centre of the lakeside town of Como
The 15th century facade of the Duomo
in the centre of the lakeside town of Como
Travel tip:

Cernobbio is just a few kilometres from Como, the town at the southern tip of the eastern branch of Lake Como. It is a pleasant town with an impressive cathedral in the historical centre, the construction of which spanned almost 350 years, which is why it combines features from different architectural areas, including Gothic and Renaissance. The façade was built in 1457, its characteristic rose window and a portal flanked by Renaissance statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, both of whom were from Como. This Duomo replaced the earlier 10th-century cathedral, San Fedele.

Also on this day:

1912: The birth of singer-songwriter and actor Renato Rascel

1937: The death of Communist leader Antonio Gramsci

1942: The birth of disgraced entrepreneur Vittorio Cecchi Gori

2014: Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints


7 October 2018

Gabriele Corcos - celebrity cook

YouTube recipe blog led to TV fame in US

Gabriele Corcos and his wife, the actress Debi Mazar, in a scene from their TV show
Gabriele Corcos and his wife, the actress Debi
Mazar, in a scene from their TV show
The TV cook and author Gabriele Corcos, whose show Extra Virgin on the Cooking Channel has given him celebrity status in the United States, was born on this day in 1972 in Fiesole, a town in the Tuscan hills just outside Florence.

He was invited to produce and host the show - the first original cookery programme to go out on the network when it launched in 2010 - after his YouTube channel, in which he prepared traditional Tuscan dishes, attracted a large following of devoted fans.

The Cooking Channel show was so successful it ran for five seasons, with 68 episodes, spawning a best-selling book of Tuscan recipes and a further show, Extra Virgin Americana, in which he starred with his wife, the actress Debi Mazar.

Corcos became a star of the kitchen without ever intending it to be his career.

His parents - his father was a surgeon, his mother a schoolteacher - wanted him to achieve his academic potential, while he was eager to find paid employment. He found a compromise by joining the army with the intention of qualifying as a medic, only to realise that the reward for graduating was to be posted to Kosovo, Somalia or Iraq.

Corcos, Mazar and one of their daughters in action in their TV kitchen
Corcos, Mazar and one of their daughters
in action in their TV kitchen
Horrified at the prospect of active service, he abandoned his studies and decided instead to devote himself to his great love, music. Raising money by selling his treasured Ducati motorcycle, he decided to go to Brazil to learn to play the drums.

Everything changed again when, during a trip home, he met his future wife, who at the time was working with the pop megastar Madonna on make-up and dramatic presentation during a tour of Italy.   Within a short time, he had decided to travel back with Debi  to Los Angeles to start a new life in America. They married the following year, in 2002.

It was when he was forced to consider how he might make a living that he realised the thing he knew most about was cooking, having been brought up in the family farmhouse in the Tuscan hills, where the stove was always lit. His grandmother was preparing food almost constantly for the farmers and hunters and members of their families who would drop in most days.

Gabriele learned the basics of cooking when he was only six or seven years old and by the time he left home knew how to cook scores of Italian dishes. Noting how few Italian restaurants in the Los Angeles area served Italian food as he knew it, and struck upon the idea of demonstrating the recipes he had grown up with on his own YouTube channel, with his wife, Debi, as his companion in the kitchen.

Gabriele Corcos is active in helping food charities
Gabriele Corcos is active in helping food charities
Corcos boosted his knowledge while in Los Angeles by working in the kitchens of noted chefs such as Gino Angelini.

He never imagined his YouTube channel would be popular but soon the couple were receiving hundreds of emails congratulating them on their project and were encouraged to continue. The channel eventually ran for about five years.

Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Corcos has participated in both the Food Network New York City and Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festivals since 2011 as a celebrity chef.

He has become involved too with food charities. While making an appearance on Food Network channel's Chopped in April 2013, he competed on behalf of the charity Feeding America and in 2013, Corcos and his family participated in the Live Below the Line Challenge, in which the family tried to feed themselves on $1.50 each per day, which is the equivalent of the poverty line in America.

In 2014, Corcos became a council member of the Food Bank For New York City and hosted a pop-up dinner series in 2014 where a large portion of the proceeds benefited the Food Bank.

Although married to an American and with two daughters born in the United States, Corcos still hankers after a return to Fiesole and the family farm, surrounded by vines and olive trees and hopes that the Food Network’s availability on Italian television may lead to opportunities to work in Italy.

Fiesole offers panoramic views across Florence
Fiesole offers panoramic views across Florence
Travel tip:

Fiesole, a town of about 14,000 inhabitants situated in an elevated position about 8km (5 miles) northeast of Florence, has since the 14th century been a popular place to live for wealthy Florentines and even to this day remains the richest municipality in Florence.  Formerly an important Etruscan settlement, it was also a Roman town of note, of which the remains of a theatre and baths are still visible.  Fiesole's cathedral, built in the 11th century, is supposedly built over the site of the martyrdom of St. Romulus. In the middle ages, Fiesole was as powerful as Florence until it was conquered by the latter in 1125 after a series of wars.

A typical landscape in Tuscany's Chianti region
A typical landscape in Tuscany's Chianti region
Travel tip:

The Tuscany countryside tends to be associated with Chianti country, the wine-growing area known and appreciated by visitors from across the world. It by no means occupies the whole of the region, although it is a large area.  The borders are not clearly defined but in general it extends over the provinces of Florence and Siena, covering all of the area in between, extending to the east toward the Valdarno and to the west to the Val d'Elsa. It is further defined as Chianti Fiorentino, which includes towns such as Barberino Val d’Elsa, Greve in Chianti, San Casciano in Val di Pesa and Tavarnelle in Val di Pesa, and Chianti Sienese, which includes Radda, Gaiole, Castellina and Castelnuovo Berardenga.

More reading:

How Gino D'Acampo rebuilt his life to become a star cook and TV presenter

The chef from Riccione and his American dream

Gennaro Contaldo's passion for Amalfi

Also on this day:

The Feast of Saint Giustina of Padua

1675: The birth of famed Venetian portrait painter Rosalba Carriera


17 July 2018

Michele Casadei Massari - chef and restaurateur

American dream from small beginnings

Michele Casadei Massari began his New York business with a coffee kiosk in Union Square
Michele Casadei Massari began his New York
business with a coffee kiosk in Union Square
The chef and businessman Michele Casadei Massari, who is the owner and founder of the Piccolo Cafe and the Lucciola restaurant in New York City, was born on this day in 1975 in Riccione, on the Adriatic coast of Emilia-Romagna.

Massari had planned to become a doctor but abandoned his studies in order to pursue his dream of cooking in his own restaurant.

After working as general manager and executive chef of a restaurant at a holiday resort in Sardinia, Massari and an old school friend decided to go it alone and chose to start a business in New York.

They began by selling coffee from a kiosk on Union Square in Manhattan before graduating to a cafe selling traditional Italian food as well as salads, panini and egg dishes.

Massari and his partner opened their first Piccolo Cafe in Third Avenue, a couple of blocks from Union Square in 2010. Now they have four branches of Piccolo Cafe and a restaurant, Lucciola, that specialises in the cuisine of Bologna and Emilia-Romagna.

The Piccolo Cafe in West 40th Street is one of four opened by Massari and his partners
The Piccolo Cafe in West 40th Street is one of four
opened by Massari and his partners
Only six years old when he saw the inside of a restaurant kitchen for the first time, Massari acquired his love of cooking from his grandfather, ‘Nonno Gigi’, a chef who had acquired an inventive flair during the Second World War, when ingredients were often scarce.

His education included foraging in the countryside around the family home and learning how even the simplest ingredients, properly prepared, could be turned into tasty and nutritious dishes.

He says he inherited his salesmanship skills from his mother, who had been a door-to-door saleswoman in the 1970s, persuading would-be clients to buy machines for heating hair curlers.

While studying at college, Massari worked in restaurants in Bologna but soon realised he was much more interested in food that becoming a doctor. He and school friend Alberto Ghezzi decided to move to Sardinia, where Alberto managed the restaurant while he worked in the kitchen. Soon they were joined by another friend from Bologna, chef Gianluca Capozzi.

The three still work together today, having teamed up again when Massari, craving a chance to ‘do something different’, came up with his idea of going to New York, even though he had only a few thousand euros to start a business.

Michele also has a dedicated  Bolognese restaurant in New York
Michele also has a dedicated
Bolognese restaurant in New York
To obtain a special visa for businesses and investors, he had to present a business plan. His coffee kiosk idea was rejected initially because he had no water supply but once he had solved that problem he was accepted.

The kiosk took off quickly, selling 70,000 cups of coffee alone in the first 30 days. They had been there little more than four weeks when a customer told them about an empty business premises on Third Street that would be ideal for opening a cafe.

Six months later, with the Piccolo Cafe booming, another client urged them to look at an empty premises opposite the New York Times building on West 40th Street. That became the second branch. Two more Piccolos have opened since, one on Madison Avenue, another not far from Central Park in the Upper West Side, which is where Lucciola is located.

Michele also runs the BiograFilm Food Academy and manages food and beverage operations for the film festival of the same name that takes place in Bologna each year

Trendy Via Ceccarini in Riccione
Trendy tree-lined Via Ceccarini in Riccione
Travel tip:

Riccione, where Massari was born, is sometimes called the ‘green pearl of the Adriatic’ on account of the elegant, tree-lined boulevards that carry echoes of the town’s tradition as a resort that was a cut above its brasher neighbours. These days, it is no less thronged in the high summer months than its big brother Rimini but the Via Ceccarini, with its elegant boutiques, attractive cafés and trendy night spots, is still one of the most famous streets on the whole Adriatic Riviera. Other attractions are the Museo del Territorio, with exhibits reflecting thousands of years of evolutionary history in the area, and the Castello degli Agolanti, once owned by the most powerful local family, now an exhibition and conference venue.

One corner of Bologna's central Piazza Maggiore
One corner of Bologna's central Piazza Maggiore
Travel tip:

Bologna, which Massari considers to be his home town, boasts what is probably the best maintained and preserved medieval centre in the whole of Italy, a testament in many ways to one of the country’s least corrupt local administrations. The city was for a long time the stronghold of the Italian Communist Party and street names such as Via Stalingrado and Via Lenin say much about the political heroes of some of its former municipal leaders. Yet despite being the cradle of progressive socialism, the city retains one of the best standards of living in Italy and a policy of ‘active preservation’ established in the 1970s, whereby old houses in the city centre were renovated for public housing rather than being demolished, has helped the city maintain its character.

More reading:

How daytime TV made chef Simone Rugiati famous

Much-loved celebrity chef and restaurateur Antonio Carluccio

Gennaro Contaldo's passion for the cooking of Amalfi

Also on this day:

1824: The British aristocrat and travel writer Lady Blessington arrives in Naples

1976: The birth of celebrity chef Gino D'Acampo


24 May 2018

Simone Rugiati - celebrity chef

Popular presenter found fame early in career

Simone Rugiati has been a regular participant in TV programmes since he was just 21 years old
Simone Rugiati has been a regular participant in TV
programmes since he was just 21 years old
The chef and TV presenter Simone Rugiati was born on this day in 1981 in Santa Croce sull’ Arno, midway between Pisa and Florence in Tuscany.

He became a famous face on TV in Italy with a seven-year run on the hit cookery show La Prova del Cuoco - the Test of the Cook - a hugely popular daytime programme on Rai Uno based on the BBC show Ready Steady Cook, fronted by Antonella Clerici.

Rugiati has also presented numerous programmes on the satellite TV food channel Gambero Rosso and since 2010 he has been the face of Cuochi e Fiamme  - Cooks and Flames - a cookery contest on the La7 network in which two non-professional chefs cook the same dish and see their efforts marked by a panel of judges.

He has also taken part in reality TV shows, including the 2010 edition of L’Isola dei Famosi, an Italian version of the American show Survivor.

Rugiati reached the semi-final of another reality show, Pechino Express, in which the competitors, paired in couples, complete an epic 7,900km (4,900 miles) journey from Haridwar in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand to Beijing in China, undertaking various challenges along the way.

Rugiati has been a contestant in reality TV shows as well as fronting a series of cookery programmes
Rugiati has been a contestant in reality TV shows as well
as fronting a series of cookery programmes
The show was presented by Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, a nephew of Umberto II, who was the last king of Italy before the constitution of the republic abolished the royal family.

The son of a physical education teacher, Rugiati left school to enrol at a specialist institute for hoteliers and chefs at Montecatini Terme, about 30km (18 miles) from Santa Croce, where he emerged with a diploma.

Soon afterwards, he began working in restaurants in Tuscany as a commis chef, working under a head chef and acquiring all the disciplines required to run a professional kitchen.

His media career began in 2002, when a few months before making his television debut he was appointed resident chef for the magazine La mia cucina at the age of just 21.  He went on to cook for two more magazines, Buon appetito and Mangiar sano.

The cover of Rugiati's latest book,
about home cooking
After becoming a well-known name via La prova del Cuoco, in which he was a regular participant between 2002 and 2009, Rugiati became the face of the new Rai satellite channel Gambero Rosso, fronting shows such as Oggi cucino in ... , SOS Simone and Io, me e Simone.

A regular speaker at fairs and conventions dedicated to food, he is the author of many books full of recipes, including Casa Rugiati, Stories of Brunch and Chef in the City.

Rugiati is a lively personality who has a reputation for being outspoken. Recently, he made the news when he posted a video of himself leaving a sushi restaurant where he claimed the food would have put him in hospital had he consumed it, prompting the owner to threaten to sue him.

A wintry scene in Piazza Garibaldi, the central square in Santa Croce sull'Arno
A wintry scene in Piazza Garibaldi, the central square
in Santa Croce sull'Arno
Travel tip:

Rugiati’s home town of Santa Croce sull’Arno is situated, as the name suggests, on the banks of the Arno river, about 50km (31 miles) downstream from Florence. It is thought to take its name from an oratory in which a wooden cross was found. The present day oratory of the church of San Lorenzo features a wooden Christ on the cross that dates back to the 13th century. The area is surrounded by hills, which are popular with walkers, although the town itself is built on a plain. Santa Croce sull’Arno is best known for its leather industry, with at one time more than 400 workshops and factories squeezed into its 17sq km (11 sq ml) area.

The entrance to the Liberty-style Municipio building in Montecatini
The entrance to the Liberty-style
Municipio building in Montecatini
Travel tip:

Montecatini Terme, where Rugiati began his studies to become a chef, is famous for its thermal waters, which still attract thousands of visitors each year to its spas, many of them wonderful examples of decorative Liberty-style architecture. The town enjoyed great popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when hotels, restaurants, theatres and nightclubs multiplied. It had a great attraction for celebrities from the world of the arts, such as the composers Giuseppe Verdi, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo, the poet Trilussa, the opera singer Beniamino Gigli and the novelist and dramatist Luigi Pirandello, who were all regular visitors.

Also on this day:

1671: The birth of Grand Duke Gian Gastone, the last Medici to rule Florence

1751: The birth of Charles Emmanuel IV - King of Sardinia