Most will concede that Italians have a natural propensity to talk. That said, when it comes to describing their love for their cuisine – their quest for perfection, their passion for local producers and ingredients, their respect for family traditions and culinary secrets – the dictionary doesn’t seem to contain the right words, or enough of them, to truly express their feelings anymore and even the most loquacious among them is reduced to humble awe.
Ask Ghigo Berni, co-owner of San Lorenzo Fuoriporta in Wimbledon, to describe Italian cuisine and, within two hours, you’ll believe that only now will you be able to enjoy a plate of pasta as it should be.
Ghigo grew up in his parent’s well-established Knightsbridge trattoria, San Lorenzo, walking in the shadows of the ‘60’s cinema stars, refugees of the infamous Cinecittà strike. However, this world of wonders and celebrity didn’t make the boy forget his first passion for food, though, and when he moved to Wimbledon to open the South Western cousin of San Lorenzo (Fuoriporta meaning “outside the walls”), he made a point to always look for what he calls: the perfection of simplicity.
“This simplicity comes from necessity and poverty. When peasants had the chance to enjoy a piece of meat, they wanted to make the most of it; a dish that would bring out all the flavours. All the basic ingredients used in Italian cuisine – garlic, oil, rice, tomatoes, mushrooms – come from the ground, the earth. They carry with them a spirit and every Italian dish is elaborated to celebrate what nature gives us.”
The starters were an apt introduction to that idea of simplicity. The Bufala, avocado e pomodoro – Buffalo mozzarella, plum tomatoes and avocado – was the essence of Italian cuisine itself: fresh and tasty ingredients, a pinch of black pepper and salt with just a drop of seasoning. By mixing the three, this light dish was the perfect preamble to Italian cuisine in national colours.
The Melanzane Alla Fuoriporta was intense; the grilled aubergines melted in the mouth with the buffalo mozzarella, while the Parma added a salty overtone, even though it could be enjoyed just as well with the delicious homemade Foccacia bread served on the table.
The Polenta taragno con calamari is spring dish celebrating the natural combination of calamari and peas. Although it looked quite heavy, the polenta with buckwheat was actually quite light. The texture was enhanced by the tender braised calamari, tomato sauce and green peas.
We soon moved on to the definition of food and how what used to be a primary need became a way of life. “Food is comfort, memory, emotion, history, culture. Food has always been at the centre of discussion, a component of a relationship that brings people together.” Things seemed to have changed with the generations, though. “Now cuisine has become a cult, an elitist thing, a sign of sophistication. People discover food with culture and emancipation.”
The conversation lead to interesting redefinitions, and metaphors: “Food is following the same evolution as music. Like classical musicians, looking for the original perfection of a piece of music, people usually start cooking classical, practicing to achieve that same perfection they first tasted. But very quickly, they want to add their own touch, to create something new. Experimentation is important but it can become too confusing. It is important to go back to where we come from and where the food comes from. As the French in Indochina, they tried to create something that will reflect their national identity while using local ingredients. And that’s how the whole French Asian trend started.”
We returned to true Italian dishes for the main course, though; traditional risotto, fish and meat which Ghigo described with love and passion.
The Gamberoni alla Fuoriporta – grilled Indian Ocean king prawns with wholegrain risotto. Having grown up in seawater, the prawns are juicy and generous in taste. Fried with a drop of oil and lemon before being placed under a grill, the prawns are placed on wholegrain risotto and served with a delicate sauce of stock, white wine and garlic. The dish was properly balanced between the rice and the copious amount of king prawns, avoiding any frustration in terms of quantity.
The Salsiccia piccante con Lenticchie – Spicy sausages grilled and braised with Italian lentils, garlic and white wine, served on mashed potatoes – was a first experience of Italian lentils. The dish was rich with flavours and yet not too spicy. The lentils were first cooked with garlic, rosemary, stock and olive oil, while the sausages grilled with pork fat, salt, chilli, garlic and wine. Once done, the sausages were braised with the lentils and then topped with olive oil before serving onto the mashed potatoes. The sausages were delicious, spicy and not too greasy. The lentils had absorbed the grease of the sausages, infusing the lentils with a nice spicy taste. A simple and comfortable dish with many flavours that worked well together.
An elegant and soft Valpolicella Superiore 2007 was served to pair with these very different dishes. “Italian wines are regionally connected to the dish you eat. Italy has very rustic and diverse wines coming from grapevines that grow up on very specific volcanic soils. This makes the wines only appropriate to the regional food: a merlot with Sicilian food doesn’t make sense. Wine should always be married with food and the variety has to match.”
After a long discussion, it was time for dessert. What else but Tiramisu? Meaning ‘pick me up’ in Italian, this most popular of Italian desserts is aptly named as it combines ingredients among which everybody is bound to find a favourite: chocolate, espresso coffee, mascarpone, sugar, sponge cake and rum. Tiramisu is one of the only desserts that marries sombre strength of coffee with the purity of vanilla. Even though I prefer a creamier Tiramisu, this one had a pleasant density to it and coffee lovers would appreciate the sensation of having had a sip of true coffee with every spoonful.
The Italian experience wouldn’t have been complete without a glass of Grappa Di Nebbiolo by Sibona. Originally made to prevent waste by using leftovers, wine producers cook the pomace and second pressing of the grapes to create a potent brandy. One bottle of grappa requires the equivalent of ten bottles of wine. To drink with moderation!
As the talented food blogger, WorldFoodieguide, once told me, “enjoyment of food and individual dishes is such a personal and subjective thing. Even being in a bad mood can affect the entire meal.” I would add: the enjoyment of food can only be multiplied by the time we spend learning the history of each dish or cuisine, and listening to the passion of those who cook them. Salute!
San Lorenzo Fuoriporta
38 Wimbledon Hill
London SW19 7PA
020 8946 8463