La Dolce Vita

The trip was sudden. My father called from Rome to say a friend, Aída, was planning a dinner to draw attention, and hopefully, investments, in Nicaragua. The dinner would take place at Ca’ del Bosco, a winery in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy. The chef planning the dinner was Michelin-starred  Vittorio Fusari, currently  owner of Dispensa Pani e Vini, a lovely, modern restaurant with glass-walled kitchen, where local, and often, neglected, ingredients are showcased. Aída asked if I would plan the menu with Vittorio—I balked, to say the least. “I’m not a chef,” I explained, but, she pressed and coaxed, and, a day or two later, I was packing my bags.

Padenghe  sul Garda, about a 2-hour drive from the Milan airports, is breathtaking. Lake Garda is encircled by the picturesque town, complete with terracotta-hued lakeside villas and cafés, bobbing sailboats, and snowcapped mountains in the distance. I could see the gently rolling waves from my bedroom, where I found a personalized chef’s jacket laid out on the bed.

The glint of  chef Vittorio’s Michelin stars kept me up that night. In the morning, I was driven to Torino, where Salone del Gusto was taking place. Vittorio, with an abundant mane of silver hair and matching beard, met me at the gates of Salone. We talked about traditional foods of Nicaragua, and within a few minutes, had outlined a  menu that would combine Italian and Nicaraguan ingredients and methods of preparation. Then, it was on to a tour of Salone—I must have eaten at least 5 kilos worth of regional cheeses, prosciuttos, breads, olives, and more cheeses. It was a dream version of a street fair. I love a street fair.

The day of the dinner, I went to Dispensa, with my father’s housekeeper, doña María del Carmen, in tow.  Chef Vittorio wanted to serve tortillas at the dinner, and doña María del Carmen came, mercifully, to help—about 200 tortillas needed to be shaped and cooked right before the dinner. At the restaurant, I was very graciously absorbed into the staff—all boys—and helped prep for the dinner. Halfway through the day, Vittorio sat me down for an incredible lunch. I’m not a food critic, but I can say that every bite tasted of the changing foliage, the earthy breeze, and the surrounding vineyards.

Later that afternoon we moved the operation to the Ca’ del Bosco kitchens and started readying for service. Among the appetizers were beef tartare polpettini dusted with pinol, a blend of ground toasted corn kernels, cacao, and spices normally used as a beverage base or as a coating for fried fish.  A first course of risotto with black beans paid homage to Nicaragua’s gallopinto while seared filet of beef was served with a delicately spiced cream sauce that also had pinol. It was inspiring to see how our humble pinol can be made to sing (expect to see a version of the recipe here soon). The hectic pace of plating course after course for 100+ guests was nerve-wracking, but I think I slipped into the groove easily and…dare I say it? Did I experience a tinge of nostalgia? Did I suddenly want to be a line cook?

In all, the visit was dreamy. My gracious hostess Aída plied me with local fare and fabulous sparkling wine, chef Vittorio and his staff welcomed me into his kitchen, and the Ca’ del Bosco folks Ivo and Alfonso let me roam around the vineyard and winery. Grazie mille a tutti!