1991, June. The first time I walked through the door of a Le Soste restaurant was in Mantua, in Il Cigno Trattoria dei Martini. I was entering a place which was related to the image of a trattoria merely for the warmth of the innkeeper, Tano. Everything else was a masterpiece of grace and elegance, from the rooms of a sixteenth-century building to the Castiglioni lamps, the tables with a mise en place so perfect and in pure white that I almost felt in discomfort in front of the refined dining room staff. Nonetheless, after a few minutes, Tano’s skill in welcoming his guests made me really feel I was in the typical dimension of this city that has made the history of Italian beauty accessible to all. The sorbir d’agnoli they served me still remains in my mind as the hallmark of a way of making cuisine which combined popular flavours with elegant manners. It was the first restaurant in Italy to return a Michelin star, while preserving everything that deserved the recognition, because Tano didn’t want any conditioning in his work. From that moment, perhaps, it still remains my favourite restaurant among the hundreds and hundreds of places I have visited over the last thirty years.
The first time I remember it well, although I can’t remember the year exactly. Seventies, for sure, probably ‘75 or ‘76. I was a young engineer and I used to travel a lot for work, and even then, whenever I arrived in a city, my first thought was finding out where to go for dinner. I had heard people talk about the Pescatore as one of those restaurants where you just had to go. I booked, I was alone, and I entered a place which immediately seemed like a Paradise. I met Antonio Santini for the first time, and I was literally charmed by a warm welcome which is probably still unrivalled today. Then everything went on as it started, with perfection. I remember one detail: at that time I already used to eat little, I used to taste things rather than finish a full portion. The menu (a large-sized affair) had no tasting options and at the bottom it said: you cannot ask for half portions. A little intimidated, I asked Antonio Santini: could I ask for two half portions of two different dishes? He did not know me, but I clearly approached him with the right tone. He thought about it and then nodded. I still have that large menu which I took away with me.
The “sosta” as a time and place dedicated to comfort and relax. During our first steps into the world of haute cuisine – in the mid-80s – the concept of “sosta” was totally different from what it is today. The fine dining restaurant is nowadays the representation of a musical score built on accelerated time-lines around tasting menus where speed, rhythm, progression and counter- strokes are the fabric on which the signature cuisine moves. In those days, however, the concept of dinner was based on dilating the system rather than on verticality. We therefore think about the paradigmatic memory of the Mantuan Soste: il Pescatore, il Bersagliere and Martini. Those are places where the sosta, in fact, meant a safe harbour, comfortable and reassuring even if the journey had been arduous due to fogs that now only remain as evanescent memories.
Tasting a new dish for the first time is absolute magic. It happens so often when you are a child and the world is still vastly unknown, but when you’re older and collected lots of experiences, tastes and memories it all seems to be “seen that”, “written that” and “thought that”. For me, a great restaurant is a dive into Wonderland where I can experience the surprise of something I have never eaten before – and it doesn’t matter if the dish has a 50-year-old tradition or 5 minutes of improvisation. In the restaurants of Le Soste you find all this: signs that are several decades old and that pass on the heritage of Italian cuisine; mythical destinations in which the signature dishes are iconic expressions of a recipe; research, contamination and avant-garde laboratories, where one can smell an exotic ingredient, bite a new texture and be conquered by a new flavour. Guides have this precise purpose: they are white rabbits that guide you towards the best dish in your life. For me, the one you haven’t tasted yet.
On tiptoe and with a huge feeling of awe, I went to the Albereta, which I had chosen a few months after starting this work as my first step into the world of haute cuisine. I was immediately welcomed with kindness, and a number of minor details gave me the impression that I was in for an experience that would leave its mark. The great dining room, the view into the kitchen, the paintings on the walls: everything was so beautiful, impressive, unique and breathtaking. I remember the dishes, the obsessive perfection of certain preparations, and my surprise in discovering live the things I had only read about. And then I remember meeting a smiling, kind and very pleasant man who stopped at our table to find out how the meal was going. He was genuinely interested in our well-being. When I think back to Mr Marchesi, that simple and spontaneous smile, that special welcome and that warm attention are some of the first memories that come to mind.
It happened many years ago, exactly how many it’s hard to say, but it’s more than twenty. It was a restaurant that would become a temple of Italian cuisine, a restaurant which was born from the adventurous passion of two brothers who came from the family’s butcher and delicatessen business. A real challenge in Lonigo, in the countryside, where words such as innovation and creativity still struggle to be pronounced. A twenty-three-course dinner, a marathon of delicacies that I still remember vividly. The same way my mind still remembers the details of all-round hospitality, starting with the smile of the staff who accompanied me to the table and took care of me throughout the evening: even for someone who, like me at the time, was a simple customer like others, or even better a guest, in the Portinari way of thinking. For this reason, La Peca is a sosta which stays in your heart, the kind you never get tired of, a place where you will always want to go back to.
We were in the early 2000s and my passion was already sky-rocketing. Not only those from the famous gastronomic guide from over the Alps. Every weekend, whenever the weather was good, I took the car and wandered Italy far and wide to try out the restaurants of the great Italian chefs: Vissani, Pierangelini, Marchesi, and then the Sole di Ranco, the Sorriso in Soriso, and the Pescatore in Canneto sull’Oglio. Great emotions, everywhere. This is how I ended up in Villa Crespi, on Lake Orta, where there were rumours about a young man without significant experience but with a unique talent and sensitivity. When I arrived in Orta San Giulio and I saw this wonderful dwelling; I must say I was dazzled and delighted by such wealth and abundance. In fact, the cuisine impressed me no end and finesse and elegance were its hallmarks. Targeted flavours, deep but transferred through elegant and stylish presentations. A great chef, I exclaimed! And I still think the same thing, almost 20 years after that fantastic lunch on a Saturday.
It was the “luxury” trattoria during my youth. “Pierino” is located on the hills of Viganò Brianza (Lecco), a few kilometres from my home town. At that time, one mainly went to “Pierino” to enjoy a fantastic risotto, served at the table inside half a wheel of Parmigiano cheese. (The visual appeal of food presented in a design dish had not yet emerged). The years went by and the restaurant became a gourmet venue; today the kitchen is headed by Theo Penati, third generation. He picked up the baton from his father Pino (son of Pierino) who, with his inimitable friendliness, still entertains the guests. The fact is that, in my blog in the Corriere della Sera, the story of this restaurant occupies a special place, beyond a nostalgic tradition: “Pierino has renewed its cuisine without going over the top when it comes to virtuosities. Evolution at its best, with continuity.” (Il dito nel piatto, 24th June 2017).
The taste of a dish? Dining room service? The chef’s personality? The furniture? The bathroom (an essential)? Frankly, it’s hard for me to remember what struck me most the first time I walked into a Le Soste restaurant. For sure, the general atmosphere you find in places which celebrate haute cuisine and hospitality. And, to be honest, I can’t even remember when I had my first contact with the Association. With a few exceptions, I’ve been to almost all of these restaurants over the years and I’m lucky enough to know all the owners a little. Probably I also went to many of them before they were part of Le Soste. I can only dare to say that the one which marked my initiation into the world of food and wine over the years was undoubtedly “Da Vittorio”, which was in the city centre at the time and is now on the hills near Bergamo. As a citizen of Bergamo, I have known the Cerea family for over 40 years, and for me they are an example of that rigour and quality which I would like to imitate and which I take as my benchmark every time I enter another restaurant.
Sono passati 34 anni eppure di quella sera ricordo tutto. La nebbia. Il freddo. L’odore di campagna che giungeva da oltre i laghi. Aleggiava un’atmosfera di irresoluta sospensione su quella Mantova novembrina, immersa nei suoi squarci di Rinascimento. Era il 1985. Coi miei genitori, in visita alla città dei Gonzaga, andai a cena al Cigno. Fu allora che iniziai a nutrire passione per l’alta cucina. Rammento bene la solennità dell’ingresso, ma pure il sorriso e il buffetto che mi diede Tano Martini, e il suo papillon. E quindi l’acquario incastonato nella parete, l’antica credenza sormontata da sgargianti Venini, gli ‘strani’ lampadari… Mi sentii in un luogo fatato ove tutto era possibile. Fra un piatto e l’altro (mangiai storione, tortelli di zucca, luccio in salsa, sugolo di uva fragola: non male per un bambino di sei anni!) Tano Martini passava al tavolo, raccontandoci della particolarità della cucina mantovana, della storia del palazzo ove ha sede il Cigno, di lui e di sua moglie Alessandra. Non so cosa scattò in me: il mio cervello prese a immaginare Tano come un mago, capace di trasformare una noiosa cena in un’avventura. Alla fine della serata ci portò a visitare le altre sale, mostrandoci gli affreschi e i grandi camini sormontati da vetusti stemmi nobiliari. Mancava solo, a eccitare ulteriormente la mia fantasia, che un cavaliere sbucasse da dietro una porta per mostrami la sua spada! Da allora molte altre Soste ho visitato, e con tutti – in anni di frequentazione – è nata spontanea amicizia. Santini, Pompili, Valazza, Iaccarino, Franceschini, Viani, Piscini, Marcattilii, e diversi ancora in tempi più recenti. Ora posso dire che il sortilegio che quella sera mi irretì era, in realtà, l’innata capacità di fare con passione il proprio lavoro, accogliendo l’ospite come si accoglie l’amico più caro, senza risparmiarsi nemmeno con un bambino di sei anni. Un incantesimo che, come tratto distintivo, si è per me sempre rinnovato di Sosta in Sosta. Certo, a rigor di logica, dovrei supporre che i ristoratori delle Soste non siano maghi. Eppure – secondo me – qualcosa di magico nelle Soste c’è davvero…
Il tempo corre veloce, ma certe cose non si scordano, restano scolpite nella memoria. Correva l’anno 1985, era un sabato di autunno. Di ritorno dall’Umbria, percorrendo la E45, superata Sansepolcro, complice la stagione e il clima, mi prende una irrefrenabile voglia di funghi. È il loro momento. In zona, a San Piero in Bagno, c’è una trattoria che fa piatti a base di porcini. Mi fermo, un’esperienza golosa. A soli due chilometri però, a Bagno di Romagna, c’è il grande Paolo Teverini, con il suo ristorante gourmet nell’’albergo Tosco Romagnolo, allora una stella Michelin. Era un po’ fuori luogo avere preferito, avventatamente, una normale trattoria alla cucina d’autore di uno chef del calibro di Paolo. E non me lo sapevo spiegare. Ritornato a Milano, sento al telefono Teverini: “Quando passa da queste parti, l’aspetto volentieri per farle conoscere la mia cucina”. Gli confesso di esserci passato eccome, da quelle parti, ma di avere fatto “sosta” presso un’altra insegna. Sorride. Ci ripromettiamo di vederci presto. L’aprile successivo sono a Bagno, da Paolo Teverini, per un’ esperienza unica: del menù di allora, ricordo Tortelli di patate burro e salvia, Sella di coniglio alle erbe aromatiche, un assaggio di Agnello in fricassea. Piatti memorabili, che non dimenticherò mai, insieme al calore di una famiglia di professionisti superlativi dell’ospitalità.
The first time I heard about “Le Soste” was twenty-six years ago when I was invited to a dinner of the Association at the Four Seasons in Milan, which had recently opened. I had, however, experienced and understood the spirit of Le Soste, and I would also say the “spirituality”, many years before that event in Milan when I sat down at one of the great tables of the association, at Il Pescatore of the Santini family in Runate. On that hot day in late August, in that patch of flat land, I experienced the thrill of seamless hospitality. In short, I had dined well before, but not with that particular circularity, with that pleasure that embraced all senses. Le Soste are this: a way to enjoy a moment without it being just a moment. Pleasure lurks in every detail: the place, the people, the relationships, the dining room, the cuisine and finally the memory. A way to feel good. Simply but greatly.
There’s a good reason for stopping at Le Soste, always. Or rather, what is the quid for a restaurant in this circuit? The possibility of an Italian experience, I would say, not only made of the highest-level taste (which is almost a pre-requisite), but it also means flowers, elegance and choice of furniture with a certain style in order to make everyone feel at home on a special day. My first experience in a restaurant of this circuit was memorable: Dal Pescatore in Canneto Sull’Oglio. A place where I have always found warmth at the highest levels, the result of the intimate cooperation of a whole family which goes from grandma Bruna, Nadia and Giovanni and then continues with his wife Valentina, his brother Alberto and papa Antonio. A team which gives the idea of being complete in its tasks, capable of making a concerto out of a place. And the first time I came here, like all other times, I always had the feeling of being at home, in my own dining room, but where everything was more beautiful and spacious. With some good food on the table, but also with my best friends. Because in the end, Antonio and all the others are my friends, according to the innkeeper’s profession who is a particular figure: psychologist, confidant and companion. What more can I say? Le Soste are a moment of great friendship.
I had started working as an inspector of the Guida dell’Espresso a few months earlier, which in 1999 was edited by Edoardo Rastelli. I had few places to visit but one of those was Aimo e Nadia. The editor expressly asked me to do it as “I had to understand the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant”. Obviously I understood it only partially. Even if I did eat very well, I wasn’t impressed by the Le Soste plaque he displayed. Too immature as a gourmet, too conditioned by the Event. Now, if I think back, three things move me. That the world is going on and via Montecuccoli – where the restaurant is – was in the outskirts, between social housing and factories. Not today. That the ‘boys’ Fabio Pisani and Ale Negrini have successfully picked up the legacy of two phenomena like Aimo Moroni and his wife Nadia along with their talented daughter Stefania (it was not to be taken for granted). That plaque is still there, with its elegant logo. Beautiful.
When I went to the Locanda di Alia, I understood how important it was for the Associazione Le Soste to put all the member restaurants on the same level. That delightful resort surprised me. It’s located on the outskirts of Castrovillari, a city with a very ancient civilisation but with a rather low average income: how could it be so elegant, functional, comfortable and with a cuisine so creative? How many things did the brothers Pinuccio and Gaetano Alia have to invent to keep the prices low? I then discovered that the beautiful paintings hanging on the walls were of the most famous painter of the area, Luigi Le Voci, who exhibited them in the restaurant of his friend Pinuccio because people went there more than to any art gallery in the area. Gaetano had banned any imported ingredients from his dishes, not only because they would make the bill go up dangerously, but because doing so is outside his and his brother’s culinary culture: so yes to the tuna bottarga from Pizzo Calabro and no to the Beluga caviar.
“The doorbell is ringing, can someone go to see who’s there?” I had started going to his wine cellar a short while before then, to catalogue his immense wealth of wine, and Gino’s call (yes, Veronelli) caught me by the door. I opened it. At the door there was Livia and Alfonso Iaccarino, who had come to the hills of Bergamo Alta to meet the inventor of the food and wine journalism and ask him for tips, suggestions and ideas to make the Don Alfonso continue its growth. We were in the early eighties of the last century, Le Soste had just been born, just like my adventure as a scribe. I attended that meeting with the curiosity of someone who has everything to learn. The Iaccarino spouses struck me with their passion and determination, but above all with their lucid visionary skill, the foresight that would have taken them to the top of the catering sector in southern Italy. I promised them that I would go to meet them soon. And so I did. But I did not go empty-handed. I heard them say to Veronelli, while walking along the city walls, that they were impressed by the presence of chestnut trees with pink flowers, never seen before. So I took some information from a nursery. I put one in my car and I went. They planted it in the back garden. It flourished for over thirty years by marking the seasons of one of the best “Soste” in Italy.
To tell the truth, I should say “my first times” because over two or three months, I met and haunted a few of the Founding members from this group of valiant chefs, who a few years later would start up the successful and prestigious Associazione Le Soste. It was somewhere around 82- 83. For a few years I had paid visits to and “tasted” Gualtiero Marchesi, a great friend, in his legendary restaurant in Via Bonvesin De La Riva. It was almost a daily habit to go there at lunchtime, and sometimes of an evening to enjoy to the full that “different kind of cuisine and service” that you can’t find elsewhere. And he told me about the frequent “get-togethers” with some of the other personalities on the road to fame and pointed out one or two who I went to visit, as a gourmet, starting a highly enviable tour. My first stops were with the “Mantua Trio”: Dal Pescatore in Canneto, Il Bersagliere in Goito and Il Cigno in Mantua itself. They were quite different from each other but the common denominator could be summed up as follows: smart settings, extremely careful service though not contrived, excellent cuisine with top quality ingredients, well-stocked cellar and an impeccably- professional sommelier and, not least, the chefs who were rarely seen in other eating houses, would come into the dining room to greet the guests and share information about the lunch he had served.