Inspired by so many thingsthe "scent" of a charging cell phone, a caper with hints of coffeeMassimiliano Alajmo of Le Calandre, a Michelin three-star restaurant, conjures up dishes of stunning originality. Writer Anya von Bremzen tracks him down at his mini food empire in a non-town outside Padua.
Massimiliano Alajmo has a reputation as a somewhat mysterious prodigy whose cooking stubbornly defies pigeonholing. For the 36-year-old chef of Le Calandre restaurant near Padua in Italy's Veneto region, even seemingly random associations or happy accidents can trigger ideas for his extraordinary dishes. For instance: A glass of water left by a recharging cell phone at night gave him the inspiration for his smoked pastas. "I woke up and gulped the water," he recalls. "And I noted that it tasted electric; it had absorbed the 'humor' of the telefonino." Why not infuse wateror broth, or butterwith smoke? he thought.
Massimiliano's uncanny pasta made with smoked dough, smoked butter and a smoky hen broth is accented with herbs and, incredibly, a little tandoori masala spice mix. It's a signature effort for a chef who stocks his kitchen with the latest avant-garde gadgets, conducts esoteric research and all the while insists, straight-faced, that he's a total traditionalist. Massimiliano's unexpected yet pitch-perfect flavor pairings, lightness of touch and fluid style have earned him the moniker il Mozart dei fornellithe Mozart of the stovesin Italian food circles. He has also earned the wunderkind comparison, thanks to being the youngest chef ever to receive three Michelin stars (back in 2002, before he turned 30).
Among le calandre's US fans is chef Mario Batali. "I love Alajmo's truly original approach to flavors," he says. "They evoke grandma's palate, but also a sorcerer's tool kit, to create harmony on the plate between taste tradition and presentation innovation."
Town of Padua. © David Cicconi.
Massimiliano's reputation lured me to Le Calandre in Sarmeola di Rubano, an unlovely non-town about four miles from Padua, off a busy roadway lined with strip malls and car dealerships. I was also curious to learn more about the culinary mini-empire he and his family created in this wealthy, conservative corner of northeastern Italy. Le Calandre, his fine-dining destination, shares its boxy building with his family's small Hotel Il Maccaroni and Il Calandrino, a casual but cutting-edge offshoot bar, restaurant and pastry shop. Across the street sits the Alajmos' stunningly curated deli, In.gredienti. A short drive away, in a rather more bucolic setting, is the family's La Montecchia, set in an old tobacco warehouse. The terrific neo-traditional restaurant has earned a Michelin star of its own for dishes like slow-cooked crisp goose leg with potato cream.
Massimiliano grew up in the Veneto region eating lots of risotto, salt cod and whole wheat bigoli pasta. Although he trained with French superchefs Marc Veyrat and Michel Guérard when he was a teenager, he's quick to credit his mother, Rita, a chef who comes from four generations of restaurateurs. Rita and her husband, Erminio (Massimiliano's father), won Le Calandre its initial star in 1992. Two years later, they took over La Montecchia and handed Le Calandre over to Massimiliano (Massi or Max, for short) and his older brother Raffaele, or Raf. (While Massi cooks, the energetic and wisecracking Raf takes care of everything else.)
Left without parental supervisionand dreaming of creating a place with the rigor and discipline of the French haute cuisine restaurants they so admiredthe boys have achieved stunning success. In 1996, the 22-year-old Massi became the youngest chef with two Michelin stars. Six years later, he beat his own record by snagging a third. In 2004, the family opened Il Calandrino. Recently they've started designing dinnerware (everything from hand-blown glasses to unique linen bread baskets) while still overseeing their three restaurants.
La Montecchia. © David Cicconi.
At my dinner at Le Calandre, Massimiliano's celebrated precision and elegance are evident in everything I taste. A dish of porcini, mango and chanterelles topped with candied juniper and raspberry dust is both earthy and exotic. His saffron risotto, decorated with a dusting of licorice root powder, has an exquisite harmony. ("Saffron," he tells me, "enters the mouth sweet and finishes bitter. With licorice, it's the reverse.") While he's clearly no stranger to conceptual deconstruction, Massimiliano is mostly expert at flavors so subtle and delicate that they can seem radical. Explaining another striking risotto, he tells me how, during a sad period of his life, he tasted a particular kind of Sicilian caper and perceived a hint of Indian coffee. The intriguing confluence of flavors led to more research, and eventually, to a white risotto with dark, moody grace notes of minced capers and intense coffee in the broth and as a garnish.
After dinner, I ask Massimiliano about an ethereal, nutty white substance I couldn't quite identify; he'd served it beneath sweet, plump seared langoustine tails. "Fava-bean tofu," reveals the chef, who is tall, dark and aloof-seeming one minute, warm and engaging the next. In a shockingly laborious process, he extracts "milk" from dried fava beans that have been soaked and pureed, then coagulates it with magnesium chloride from sea water, drains it under a weight and finally purees the resulting tofu with soy sauce, lemon essence and olive oil. I gasp, "You spent two days on such a subtle part of the dish?" Alajmo shrugs, murmuring an Italian phrase that means something like "God is in the details." I think of another phrase: "ghost technique," a concept now being tossed around avant-garde kitchens to describe bold experiments quieted to a whisper. The word technique provokes another shrug from Alajmo. "In itself, technique isn't digestible." I now think of all the celebrity chefs who rush around the world demonstrating their technical innovations at high-profile chefs' congresses. Alajmo prefers to avoid such events. Although he works closely with other chefs, he's most interested in exchanging ideas with his producers.
In.Gredienti: Prosciutto. © David Cicconi.
Another thing that inspires Massimiliano is the synergy and unique flow of ideas among the various parts of the Alajmo dining complex: As a whole, they form a kind of interlocking flavor laboratory. In.gredienti is at the heart of the network. It's the name of the deli, the brothers' private food label and their coffee tableworthy cookbook. It's also a concept that powers Massi's philosophy: "I don't create anything," he insists, "I simply showcase the ingredients." I believe him as I survey the deli's incredible lineup of artisanal Italian foodstuffs; the family's decade-old place has become the best little food shop in Italy. Here are packages of coffee and black Sarawak peppercorns from the genius Veneto roaster Gianni Frasi of Torrefazione Giamaica Caffè. Eggs are supplied by Paolo Parisi, a Tuscan gentleman-farmer who famously feeds goat milk to his hens. The dried pastas hail from Abruzzi-based Pastificio Verrigni, a family-owned operation that made recent headlines by employing gold-extrusion dies (the metal patterns that transform dough into shapes), giving its pastas deep wheatiness and a lovely rough texture.
The Alajmos also collaborate with artisans on their In.gredienti label. Working with an organic pig farmer in Tuscany, they've created amazing salumi, such as the dusky finocchiona scented with wild fennel and star anise. Their line of Le Essenze sprays was overseen by Lorenzo Dante Ferro, a Friulian master perfumer. A light misting of these pure essential oilslemon, dill, bergamot, gingercan subtly transform anything from pastas to cocktails. "We eat with our nose," argues Massimiliano. "Smelling goes straight to the brain's center of long-term memory; it connects us to past emotions."
Once hooked on a particular ingredient or flavor combination, Massimiliano keeps on revisitingto connect, he explains, "to the most intimate essence." Menus that avoid repeating ingredients are, for him, like "encountering a wonderful person and not ever wanting to see them again." "Massi is a monomaniac!" jokes Raf, who plays the jovial manager role to his brother's dreamy poet.
"The dishes at our three restaurants might be different," notes Massimiliano, "but the research is the same." And so, the caper-coffee combination flows from the risotto at Le Calandre to Il Calandrino's vitello tonnato, which in turn is reworked at La Montecchia into a lovely veal fillet with almond sauce and tuna cream. The fava-bean tofu at Le Calandre might reappear as pistachio tofu, filling a fabulous ravioli at Il Calandrino.
Il Calandrino: Chocolate Torta Pazientina. © David Cicconi.
The day after my meal at Le Calandre, I park myself at a table at Il Calandrino. In the morning, it's a busy neighborhood coffee baralbeit one with a pastry selection that includes, among other things, feather-light brioche prepared with olive oil instead of butter and filled with a jam made from five kinds of obsessively selected apricots. In the evening, conspicuously elegant locals crowd the counter sipping inventive cocktailslike a concoction of almond milk, rum, lime and a misting of star anise essencewith their plates of cicchetti, the Veneto snacks that include wonderfully light beef-and-pork meatballs, studded with bits of olive and served in a little pool of tomato sauce. The dinner menu is more casual than Le Calandre's, but it's just as creative.
Compared to the energy at Il Calandrino, the vibe at Le Calandre seemed rather old-fashioned. And so, last winter, the brothers decided to shake things up, defying three-star conventions by tossing out white tablecloths as part of a radical makeover. "A great meal," pronounces Raf, "is a multisensory thing." Diners can now run their hands across fabulously tactile tables all cut from the same 180-year-old ash tree while inhaling the faint, almost subliminal citrusy scents of Lorenzo Dante Ferro's ambient perfume and gazing at the fantastical chandeliers made from two giant dried cods. Normally, three-starred kitchens are strictly off limits to diners, but here a narrow, dramatically lit window offers a peek into Massimiliano's kitchen. There he is, putting the finishing touches on a chocolate dessert called Gioccarita. It's a playfully interactive construction of 12 riffs on chocolate. As if that's not enough, each riff is accompanied by its own whimsical child's drawing created by Giorgio Cavazzano, a famous Italian comic book artist. The inspiration for this particular dish? Mariarita, the chef's one-year-old daughter.
Massimiliano Alajmo's Restaurants
Chef Massimiliano Alajmo and his brother Raffaele preside over their astonishing Michelin three-star flagship.
Located in a former tobacco warehouse, the Alajmos' rustic-chic Michelin one-start restaurant serves neo-traditional dishes.
A key part of the Alajmos' flavor laboratory, this deli sells products like prosciutto from Italy's top food artisans.
This stylish restaurant has great bar snacks, a fabulous wine list (with choices like Gravner) and pastries such as the chocolate Torta Pazientina.
Anya von Bremzen is a New York Citybased food and travel writer. Her most recent book is The New Spanish Table.