There aren't many undiscovered places left in Italy. But Michael White, the chef at Fiamma Osteria, in Manhattan, has found an entire region that's considered uncharted territory even by Italians. It's Molise, one of the country's smallest and poorest regions, on the Adriatic coast between Abruzzi and Puglia. "Not many foreigners get to Molise, unless they are shopping for church bells," wrote Waverly Root in his authoritative 1971 guide The Food of Italy, and little has changed since then. As White says, "In Tuscany houses look rustic, but you walk inside and someone's blasting a DVD. Molise is still rural. The sheep outnumber the televisions."
White grew up a long way from Molise, in Beloit, Wisconsin, a small college town where the best Italian restaurant was a pizzeria. A big, enthusiastic food lover, he still happily reminisces about the smell of burning flour on the pizza slate. At 19, in search of something to do when his football season ended, he began cooking at a neighborhood joint. That led to culinary school and a job at Chicago's elegant Spiaggia. "It was a revelation," White recalls. "I saw things like gnocchi and risottoall I knew was rigatoni. Now coffee shops have risotto, but back in 1991 it was exotic." When he decided to cook in Italy, he landed at San Domenico, a Michelin two-star outside Bologna, and discovered fresh, still-warm ricotta cheese, purple Roman artichokes and toothsome homemade pasta flavored with wine. Eventually he was named head of the kitchen, an unheard-of honor for an American, and one which got him on television. After seven years in Italy, White returned to the States and, with restaurateur Stephen Hanson, opened Fiamma in the spring of 2002, with a multiregional menu.
White met his wife, Giovanna, while at San Domenico, and together they traveled for months around Italy. He was most intrigued by Molise, Giovanna's birthplace, a region dominated by tree-covered mountains. In contrast to the rugged landscape, the food is comforting. The lamb is tender and milk-white, and the pork is especially flavorfulin cold climates, sausages age well, White explains. A popular cooking method calls for potatoes and chunks of rabbit, chicken or lamb to be drizzled with olive oil and roasted sotto il coppo, in a pot surrounded by coals. "The first thing I do in Molise is buy half a baby lamb and find a fireplace," White says. "It's not the same in the States."
Back home, he wraps leg of lamb with pancetta to keep it succulent. He makes a satisfying vegetable soup with cheese dumplings in a greens-spiked broth, and another with pureed artichokes and sunchokes. For a Molise pizza, he tops baked polenta with wilted broccoli rabe and Pecorino Romano, so it's simultaneously creamy and crisp with the bite of greens and sharp cheese. "You take one taste and there's so much going on, but it's so simple. Their food is like that," White says.
White's next New York project is Vento, a trattoria slated to open this summer; he and Hanson plan to launch more across the country. Like Fiamma's, the menu will offer food from all over Italy. But White insists there will be an underlying Molise influence. "The best compliment you can give me is to say my food is honest, and the food of Molise is about as honest as you get," he says.
Kate Krader is a freelance writer in New York City and a recent visitor to Molise.