Le Marche is a remote region of Italy where fishermen haul in netfuls of branzino and shepherds roast meat over hay. A native son returns to his roots.
Like most great chefs, Fabio Trabocchi of Maestro, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner in McLean, Virginia, turns to the culinary traditions of his homeland for inspiration. But while most of his peers claim, often with misty eyes, that the cuisine of their mothers and grandmothers motivated them to pursue a career behind the stove, 30-year-old Trabocchi credits his choice of career to his fathera farmer turned long-haul truck driver.
Fabio's dad, Giuseppe, is among the last of his kind. He grew up on the type of sharecropper's farm that was once home to most of the population of Le Marche, a remote part of Italy that lies over the Apennine Mountains from Rome, on the Adriatic coast. Like many, Giuseppe was forced off the land by the social changes that followed World War II, and cooking became his link to the past. That cooking (veal chops with honey, lamb stew with lemon, pasta with lobster) inspires Fabio's cuisine, but Fabio both refines and intensifies it. As Paul Bocuse did with the home cooking of Lyon, and Alain Ducasse with that of Provence, Fabio Trabocchi has "gastronomized" the simple, hearty food of Le Marcheand was named an F&W Best New Chef 2002 for his efforts.
Trabocchi and I recently traveled to Le Marche to research a cookbook (Cuisines of Le Marche, due out in 2005). We flew into the regional capital, Ancona, and rented a car for our explorations. Divided into four provinces by four river valleys, Le Marche (literally "the marches" or "border regions") has not yet succumbed to tourism. We visited medieval piazzas as quiet during afternoon nap time as they were when the painter Piero Della Francesca lived there, and strolled through cacophonous markets inside ancient city walls, where the passing hours are measured by the clear sound of church bells.
Trabocchi grew up in Osimo, where he helped his father tend a garden on a vacant lot, growing fennel, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants and herbs of every description. Fabio and his sister would help Giuseppe cook or run to the store for him. "He would give us some coins to buy something from the baker on the corner," Fabio says. "He would tell me, 'Don't ever let go of your sister's hand.' He was afraid I would lose her. So it was quite an accomplishment to pay the baker, hold on to my sister and grab our cookies all at the same time."
Trabocchi began cooking as a young teenager, making his way through Ada Boni's Talisman Italian CookbookItaly's version of Joy of Cooking. After a job with a pastry chef, he enrolled in the local cooking school, where the instructors noted his immense natural talent early on. "My teachers never used to scold me if I cut class to go to the beach with my girlfriend, because they knew I would always have my work done," he confesses with just a touch of rakish pride.
At Maestro, Trabocchi applies classical techniques to the home-style recipes of Le Marche. The region is famous for its vincisgrassi, a lasagna filled with offal. Trabocchi modernizes his by jettisoning the sweetbreads, brains and organ meats and substituting porcini and prosciutto. Or he takes branzino (sea bass) and roasts it over wet hay, a method used in the mountains for cooking meat. He pours fish stock through the smoky hay to create a sauce, which he then reduces and mashes into boiled new potatoes.
Trabocchi's flavors are always intense, as they must be to stand alongside the deeply fruity Verdicchio and the brawny Rosso Conero wines of Le Marche, long regarded as adequate but not notable table wines. But there is a movement in Le Marche to change that image. On our journey we met vintners who are working to improve their wines, in part by limiting yields, aging some white wines and adopting the organic and "biodynamic" methods of the Tuscans, Burgundians and Californians. It was exciting to taste the beginning of this transformation (a red blend from Fattoria Le Terrazze, called Chaos, stands out in my mind). But it's clear that despite these refinements, strength will always mark the wine and food of Le Marche and the cuisine of this bold, inventive chef.
Peter Kaminsky's next book, Pig Perfect, is due out next June.