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Just outside the tiny hill town of Panicale in Italy’s Umbria region is a cozy house with what used to be the village oven. Seven years ago, Nancy Silverton, the founder of Los Angeles’s pioneering La Brea Bakery and co-owner of the city’s excellent new Osteria Mozza, bought the villa as a vacation spot. Although the house is no longer a town center, it now serves as a gathering place for another group: Silverton’s American chef friends, like Mario Batali (one of her partners at Mozza) and the Bay Area’s Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone.

One recent guest was Matt Molina, the chef at Mozza. Silverton says Molina was a “class pet” from the start, when he worked with her at L.A.’s Campanile restaurant 11 years ago. Now they think about food with almost the same brain, constantly collaborating on dishes.

“I always say I’m fond of Matt because he cooks like a girl,” Silverton says. “I think women are not afraid to show restraint. His food is simple—it’s unembellished while still being stylish and beautiful.”

Before opening Mozza in 2007, Silverton took Molina to Italy for a month. Now it was his turn to play leader, bringing Joe Marcos, chef at sister restaurant Pizzeria Mozza, and Dahlia Narvaez, pastry chef for both Mozzas, to stay at Silverton’s house, explore her favorite food spots and re-create their discoveries in her kitchen.

On the two-hour drive to Panicale from Rome, the chefs planned to stop at a café along the highway for lunch (“Essentially a glorified gas station,” Narvaez says). But then they remembered that Silverton had recommended a small country inn on the way: La Locanda della Ribollita, in Chiusi. They were so impressed by rosemary-marinated pork chops wrapped in lardo (cured pork fat) and served with a tangy green-peppercorn sauce that they decided to prepare the dish for themselves at Silverton’s house.

Villa

© Marie Hennechart

Cooking in the simple, rustic kitchen—“There wasn’t even a food processor,” Molina recalls—helped the chefs immerse themselves in the homey nature of classic Italian food. Pans and knives hung on the wall within easy reach, and the appliances included a dishwasher and a full-size Smeg fridge—rare in rural Italy. “It’s the kind of kitchen that makes me want to open a tiny restaurant in the Mediterranean countryside,” Molina says.

He was eager to try local seafood dishes, and one of the best meals of the trip was at the white-tablecloth restaurant La Buca in Cesenatico, which overlooks the Adriatic Sea. There, Molina tasted some of the freshest shrimp of his life; they were baked in salt to enhance the flavor, then served with extra-virgin olive oil for dipping.

On another day, the group went to Chieti, a hill town in Abruzzo, for lunch. What looked like a three- or four-hour drive from Panicale on the map turned out to be six hours on twisting mountain roads. (Back in L.A., the chefs would joke to one another, “Hey, how about we drive to San Francisco for lunch?”)

Villa

© Marie Hennechart

After that exhausting experience, the chefs stayed in the villa on their last night in Italy and made dinner using some of Silverton’s favorite local ingredients. Molina cooked some of Umbria’s famous lentils, grown on a farm in Castelluccio, about 100 miles away. He slowly added chicken broth until the lentils released their starch and became creamy, like risotto. He also grilled a giant Florentine steak—a three-inch-thick porterhouse-style cut that Silverton buys at Dario Cecchini’s famous Tuscan butcher shop, Antica Macelleria Cecchini—and served it with sweet cipollini onions glazed in sherry vinegar and hunks of charred garlic-rubbed bread for sopping up the juices.

The chefs finished the meal with Narvaez’s buttery, jam-filled half-moon-shaped cookies, based on one of Silverton’s doughs. Then they settled in to play cards by the fire, happy that there was nowhere else to go.

Published March 2009
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