America is mad about Italian food. Now the talented Benedetta Vitali is proving why Tuscan and Sicilian recipes are some of the most seductive.
Her name is Benedetta, a word that in Italian means "blessed," and it would be fair to say that Benedetta Vitali is blessed with a singular palate. She is quick to detect and analyze flavor distinctions, and she combines ingredients into something new and unusual. Add to that a fierce devotion to the traditions of her native Tuscany and an inquiring mind that has led her all over Italy in search of unique products, and you begin to understand why a trek to Vitali's Zibibbo restaurant on the outskirts of Florence has become a gastronomic pilgrimage for many. And why her beautifully illustrated cookbook, Soffritto: Tradition & Innovation in Tuscan Cooking, a sort of philosophy of the kitchen told through recipes, is winning critical acclaim all around the world.
Sunny and bright, with big windows that open onto a leafy grove, Zibibbo has the comfortable feel of a neighborhood restaurant, as if it were not in the Tuscan capital but in some much smaller, provincial town. Since it opened three years ago, its bar has been a place where a group of locals can be found at any time of day gossiping over cappuccino and espresso. Situated just off Piazza Careggi at the northern edge of town, Zibibbo is not a glamorous restaurant at all, but rather a place where food is to be enjoyed at ease and with gusto.
And what food! This is contemporary Italian cooking at its best: innovative, "but not something that's just fallen out of the heavens," Vitali says with a laugh. Her cuisine is direct and honest--"frank" is the word she uses. Consider a typical Zibibbo antipasto, insalata di polpo, which combines meaty, tender chunks of octopus with yellow-fleshed potatoes. "The ones I used today are from Campania--not new potatoes but the last of the season, because their texture is better for salads," Vitali explains. The octopus salad is served on a bed of delicate, immature radicchio leaves, each barely bigger than my thumb. Dressed with a rich, deeply-flavored Tuscan olive oil and little else, it is a dish that lingers in my memory.
Vitali refers to her style as cucina giornaliera, cuisine of the day. "In my kitchen, a refrigerator isn't necessary, because what I buy in the morning I cook that day," she explains. Simplicity is such a buzzword with chefs today that it's hard to think of it as more than a culinary fad; to Tuscan cooks like Vitali, however, simplicity means looking at a dish and considering not what you can add to make it perfect, but what you can subtract.
This philosophy has informed her career since 1979, when she and her former husband, Fabio Picchi, opened Cibrèo, a restaurant near the center of Florence next to the open-air Sant' Ambrogio market. Cibrèo quickly became one of the city's most noted eating places, not least because of the couple's insistence on filling their menu with truly Tuscan dishes. They banished the pasta course that had become a national addiction, serving only traditional Tuscan soups and vegetable-based minestrones as the primo. Cibrèo brought a sense of adventure to a city where the best restaurants rarely offered anything more intriguing than bistecca alla fiorentina.
Vitali's book remains true to these principles. She gives just five recipes for pasta dishes, although she includes a number of simple sauces that can be served on pasta. The book begins with an explanation of the most basic Tuscan technique of all, the soffritto, a flavor base of aromatics, such as onions and garlic, gently sautéed in olive oil, on which many recipes are built. For this knowledge, she credits her former mother-in-law, and her mother-in-law's mother-in-law before her, back through the generations: "My mother-in-law used to tell me that, once having learned it, I would be able to make practically everything," Vitali writes. "In Tuscany, soffritto is the starting point."
Vitali may have profound attachments to Tuscan traditions, but she also feels attracted to the food of Sicily, where she can still find flavors and ingredients that have been handed down through centuries--salted capers and anchovies, dried wild oregano and hot little peperoncini (chiles) with which to marinate sliced eggplant. Even the name of her restaurant, Zibibbo, is Sicilian, from the Arabic word for raisin. (It's also the name of a variety of white grapes, grown on the island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily, that produces an intensely aromatic sweet wine.)
Her Sicilian-style sweet-sour swordfish harks back to complex Arab and Roman flavor combinations. I have had many versions of fusilli alle sarde, fresh sardines with pungent wild fennel greens, plump golden raisins and olive oil, in Sicily, where it is practically the national dish, but Vitali's take on it is the most nearly perfect of all--the result, I feel, of her selecting pristine ingredients and combining them with a balance of sweet, salty, earthy and tart flavors.
Yet Vitali is Florentine born and bred, with a manner of cooking that expresses what I think of as the Protestant sobriety of Tuscans in the kitchen. Olive oil--tinged with the bitterness of barely mature olives--is the key to her food. And because Tuscans are frugal (some say parsimonious) by nature, ingredients are tied to the seasonal profusion of the farmland that stretches along the Arno valley. No Dutch hothouse peppers will ever have the flavor of locally raised sweet peppers, especially when roasted and served with ricotta made from the milk of Tuscan sheep and sprinkled with sun-baked thyme from a Tuscan summer meadow.
To find ingredients like these, Vitali forages through city markets and the countryside, looking for old-fashioned varieties such as the deeply ridged, costoluto fiorentino tomatoes that are in season only in late summer and fall. As for garlic: "It's incredible," she says, shaking her head, "but the garlic I find in our markets is imported from China most of the time--all because of globalization."
Fortunately, across the road from Zibibbo there's a vegetable garden tended for the sheer joy of it by three retired pensionati who, when I was there in April, provided the restaurant with the last of the cardoons and cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) and the first bacelli (whole fava beans in their pods), spinach and bitter greens.
The produce from the garden has quickly became an integral part of the restaurant and a deep source of inspiration, Vitali says, not just for herself but for her entire staff. With ingredients like these, with a confident hand in the kitchen and with boundless enthusiasm for what she is achieving, Benedetta Vitali is bringing her cucina giornaliera to the world.