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Under the Tuscan Son

On a weeklong cruise, New York chef and restaurateur Pino Luongo leads a culinary tour of his native Tuscany and teaches passengers how to make simple, delicious recipes like the six here.

The complications of running a cruise ship kitchen are often incompatible with the emphasis in Tuscan cooking on simple seasonality. For instance, when the chef on a Classical Cruise ship wants to order food, he must send a fax to headquarters in Athens, which faxes the local shipping agent, who contacts the chandler in the port of call. When a Tuscan chef like Pino Luongo needs ingredients, however, he goes right to the source, scouring local markets for the best foods and then letting them determine his menu. So last summer, when Luongo led his first weeklong Classical Cruise trip along the coast of Tuscany, it could have been quite a culinary culture clash.

Fortunately, it wasn't. While we made stops on the islands of Elba and Giglio and sailed north to the neighboring region of Liguria, Luongo--a New York City chef and restaurateur who was born and raised in Tuscany--was able to share his philosophy of Tuscan cuisine. He performed cooking demonstrations on the fly, guided impromptu tours of local markets and acted as a genial master of ceremonies at vineyards and restaurants. Luongo made sure the trip accomplished, more or less, what he wanted: to explain a region and its way of life through its food.

The ship was the Harmony, a 170-foot yacht with room for 40-odd guests, no bigger, really, than some of the private yachts docked in the Tuscan marinas we visited. Its four levels included a kitchen below decks; guest cabins, a dining room and a lounge on the two middle levels; and a large sundeck on top. My cabin was modern and minimalist, with twin beds on either side of a night table and with a smoked-glass door leading to the bathroom. I found the decor spare but elegant, though some guests complained that it was excessively spartan.

We started in Porto Santo Stefano, a town just two hours' drive north of Rome at the southern edge of Tuscany. It is part summer resort, part fishing village; every evening, a fleet of beat-up wooden fishing boats returns with that day's catch. Luongo, a tall, burly, dark-haired man of about 50, grew up just a few miles away. One of his uncles ran a hotel on the edge of town and another uncle is a retired fisherman who used to raise eels nearby.

While many of the guests slept off their jet lag, Luongo led a small expedition into the port, where rows of fish stalls displayed a wide variety of seafood in long glass cases, from branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) and dentice (similar to snapper) to cuttlefish and clams. "As you can see from the winding, hilly roads around here," Luongo told the group, "it simply doesn't make sense to ship food more than about 30 miles, so people eat what's right around them." Luongo chatted and joked with the fishmongers and, bending normal cruise-line procedure, bought fresh clams, mussels and other seafood for the ship's chef, Lulu Place. That evening she would use them for spaghetti alla pirata, pasta in a light tomato and white wine sauce. Its ingredients vary according to what's available and fresh: Like pirates, you take what you can find.

Luongo is better known as a restaurateur and entrepreneur than as a chef. He owns and runs seven restaurants, five of them in Manhattan, including Coco Pazzo, Le Madri, Centolire and Tuscan Square. He has found his greatest success helping to popularize Italian cooking that is simple, straightforward and unpretentious: Tellingly, the first of his three cookbooks, A Tuscan in the Kitchen, provided ingredient lists but no specific quantities.

Luongo is friendly and personable; he circulated among the cruise guests, many of them loyal regulars at his restaurants, as he might in any of his own dining rooms. He is also plainspoken and makes no bones about having an adversarial relationship with what he calls "the food mafia"--prominent New York food critics whom he regards as clubby and snobbish. Those critics, in turn, have given him a reputation for being difficult.

Over the course of the week, Luongo gave three or four cooking demonstrations on deck. One day, he showed us how to make panzanella, a Tuscan peasant salad of bread, tomatoes and cucumbers dressed in olive oil with scallions, basil and parsley. A volunteer dutifully cut stale, unsalted Tuscan bread into cubes as Luongo fielded questions and expounded his philosophy. Another day he cooked a delicious penne dish that took only about 10 minutes to make, combining high-quality jarred tuna packed in olive oil, capers, parsley and basil. "This is what fishermen around here make for themselves on the boat when they don't have a lot of time or fresh fish to cook with," he explained.

We all discovered the unpredictability of boat travel when rough seas forced the ship to dock for three days in Portovenere, requiring us to get around by bus, minivan and train instead. Unfortunately, the local guides the cruise line hired talked constantly. One delivered a monologue about the airports of Italy. Another insisted on identifying the same four or five trees at every curve of the road.

Still, the places themselves were beautiful: the island of Elba, Napoléon's home in exile, with its hills and white sand beaches; the marble mountains of Carrara, whose quarries are visible from the coastal towns, like Forte dei Marmi. Then, as we passed into Liguria, the landscape changed dramatically. Instead of flat sandy beaches with mountains in the distance, the bright green slopes came right down to the water's edge, stark sheer cliffs with luxuriant vegetation growing improbably at about a 60-degree angle. Because of the shortage of flat land on which to build, the port towns on the Italian Riviera have tall, thin houses sometimes six or seven stories high, their bright pastel pinks, oranges, yellows and blues visible far out at sea.

In many ways, visits to two vineyards inland near Florence were the most illuminating part of the trip. Villa di Capezzana at Carmignano, a former Medici estate built in the fourteenth century, has been in the Contini Bonacossi family since 1920. With its marble statues and rose garden, the villa maintains much of its Renaissance grandeur, but it is also very much a working farm, with well-cultivated fields lined with vineyards and olive trees. Among the wines it produces is the highly regarded Super-Tuscan Ghiaie della Furba. The 1998 vintage received the coveted tre bicchieri (three glasses) from Italy's leading wine magazine, Gambero Rosso.

Beatrice Contini Bonacossi, the owners' daughter, showed us around the estate. The business of food and wine is deeply imbedded in the life of the area, she told us, and not only for those lucky enough to own a villa. Villa di Capezzana, which presses and sells its own olive oil, gives 25 percent of it each year to the local olive pickers. "We prefer to pay them in regular currency," she said, "but they want the olive oil instead." We understood their choice when we got a taste of the oil, which is thick and cloudy green with a distinctive, rich flavor. It is also prized because a tree in Tuscany yields just three liters of oil a year; in southern Italy, a single tree might yield four times as much.

Villa di Capezzana also holds cooking classes, so after the tour, we watched chef Patrizio Cirri prepare risotto with peas from the estate's gardens and pork loin served with an agresto sauce, made with young green grapes. In order to produce top-quality wine, some young grapes are removed from the vines to strengthen the flavor of those that remain. "For many years we just threw these out," Contini Bonacossi explained, "until my mother said: ‘Why are we wasting all these grapes?'" The family found an agresto recipe from the Medici period that called for boiling the grapes with onions, garlic, celery, thyme and marjoram. The result has the tanginess of vinegar and the chunky texture of chutney. Initially a family experiment, the agresto is suddenly in commercial demand. "A supplier in the United States wants to know how much we can produce, and at what cost," Contini Bonacossi said. "I have no idea. This is just something my sister made on the stove."

The following day we visited Villa Delia in Ripoli, a beautiful hillside farm about an hour from Florence. Villa Delia was built by Umberto Menghi, a Tuscan chef and restaurateur, who, like Luongo, went to North America to seek his fortune; he now has five successful restaurants in western Canada. Ten years ago, Menghi returned to Italy to create a retreat that is part farm, part hotel, part cooking school.

Sitting in a row of chairs before a long, white marble table and a stove, we watched as Umberto and his sister Marietta prepared our lunch of fresh ravioli stuffed with nettle leaves and ricotta. Umberto quickly diced red and yellow peppers ("Don't worry if some of the seeds get into it," he said) and sautéed them with roughly chopped tomato, red onion, carrots, garlic and basil. Then he ran the mixture through a food mill to create a sauce. Marietta made the pasta, cranking the dough through a machine until it was a seven-foot-long sheet. Umberto wrapped it like a scarf around one of the women in our group to show how elastic yet strong it was. "You can put a quail egg in it, you can put fish in it," he explained. "One of the reasons to make pasta at home is to include all the fresh things growing around you."

In that spirit, Luongo stopped at a market that afternoon and found something he had been looking for since we arrived: fava beans. In Porto Santo Stefano, their season was already over because of an unusually warm spring. But here, about a hundred miles north, they were still being harvested. Sitting on deck, we enjoyed a simple bean salad tossed with cubes of caciotta cheese, which tastes like a younger, softer version of Pecorino. As Luongo had anticipated, the favas were worth the wait.

Alexander Stille writes often about Italy and is the author, most recently, of The Future of the Past.

Published June 2002
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