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When an Italian named Giuseppe Maffioli says he is going to come to town and cook for you, with a name like that, it’s an offer one can’t refuse!

Niagara Culinary InstituteGiuseppe MaffioliMaffioli is a professional chef and restaurant owner from Lombardy, and his sole intent was to share his passion and love of Italy’s bucolic foods with advanced level students of Niagara’s Culinary Institute.

Personally, I believe most people who develop an addiction for cooking go through various stages of gastronomical exploration in one form or another. I for one, at the beginning of my career, thought the French kitchen was the “be all and end all” of cooking. I still love true French cooking, but wasn’t long before I was lured away by the diverse cultures and cooking styles of Asia.

Be it India, Indonesia, Vietnam - no matter which country I focused on, one common element became apparent. Prime ingredients are the heart of good cooking. I started spending time (too much on occasions) seeking out the absolute finest of whatever ingredients I needed for a recipe. I perused local markets fondling every piece of produce I could until I found perfection. I still do!

Italian cooks have been doing this for centuries. Meals cooked in the Italian family kitchen are founded on the finding the best available at the market in the early hours of the morning.

I guess having had my share of lackluster renditions of pasta, leathery slices of salty prosciutto, mundane olives, bland pizza and starch-laden risotto, I missed what the soul of first-rate, wholesome Italian cooking is all about.

Watching Giuseppe cook for three hours was awe-inspiring. His performance was not glittery in that gut wrenching manner of Bobby Flay, or full of smiley pre-scripted Rachel Ray styled verbal diarrhea.

zucchini blossomsInstead, this man took time to talk about the attributes of every single ingredient he used with sense and passion. Maybe not every ingredient he asked us to shop for was as good as what one can find in the markets of the Provincia di Brescia, but try getting zucchini blossoms in the middle of an Ontario winter. They actually arrived from a shipper who brought them in from Israel!

With help from his translator, Maffioli discussed the three dishes he composed, all of which can be found on the menu of his restaurant, Carlo Magno, in Brescia, a province of Lombardy.

With gusto, Maffioli explained what pasta really is, a paste, nothing more, but a paste in many forms and guises. He rationalized why noodles are shaped the way they are, to hold a sauce perhaps, or to give substance to a broth. More importantly, the flavour of the pasta must show true.

He verbally deconstructed a plate of pasta with tomato sauce and basil by stating the following. One needs to taste the simplicity of the pasta first, then allow the flavour of the simmered tomatoes to rush across the palate and to finish, a little kick from the herb. In this case the sauce does not need to be adulterated or overpowering, it just needs to do its job and that comes from using the best tomatoes that one can find; not an easy task at this time of the year.

Gnocchi di patate aromatizzati al limone
con crema di fiori di zucca e mazzancolle
(Lemon zest infused potato gnocchi with zucchini blossom and prawns)
click here for recipe

potato ricerWhile demonstrating his first dish, potato gnocchi, he stressed the importance of working with the right potato. High starch is preferable, no salt in the water as it impedes even cooking, and peeling occurs only when the tuber is cooked and cooling. Once pureed, a minimal amount of flour was worked in, along with ample salt and several egg yolks.

GnocchiAfter a partial mixing the dough was rolled into cylinders and cut. They hit salted boiling water bobbing wildly for a few seconds once they surfaced.

GnocchiThe gnocchi were larger than what most North Americans are used to. His appetizer portion has four of the dumplings sitting in a pool of acidulated zucchini blossom puree, topped with deftly cut candied tomato wedges and pan-seared shrimp.

I thought the lemon zest really added a nice dimension and the citrus element in the sauce worked with the shrimp. There are a lot of flavour components to this dish and matching a wine could be tricky. I would really focus on the acidity level of the sauce and go with a locally made bubbly such as a Ca' dei Frati Cuvee Dei Frati or just pop the cork on your favorite sparkler.

Pappardelle all’aglio dolce, timo e “bagoss” con Coniglio e funghi trombette
(Pappardelle with sweet garlic, thyme and “bagoss” cheese
and Rabbit with chanterelles mushrooms)
click here for recipe

While starting his second dish, Maffioli described the different textures of pasta one can produce by using different grades and types of flours, whole eggs, yolks alone, or water. He made mention of pasta made with wine as the only source of moisture.

Masterly mixing and kneading the dough by hand, Maffioli explained why there was such a low degree of sodium in the recipe. Salt creates an uneven texture in the finished noodle and it is far better to simply add plenty of salt to the boiling water.

pasta sheetsAfter a light kneading, the silky smooth dough was run through the rollers of a pasta machine. Half of the resulting paper-thin noodles were sprinkled with Grana Padano, the other half of the pasta was folded over, and both layers were fed once more through the finest setting of the pasta machine producing a thin sheet of pasta that was then hand cut into ribbons, coated with semolina and left to rest.

PastaMeanwhile, simmering away on the back burner, a rabbit ragu had reduced enough to concentrate its flavour and develop a deep brown shiny colour and its aroma had permeated the room. The noodles hit boiling salt water and returned to the surface in seconds. When asked about precooking pasta, it was clear this is not something Maffioli chooses to practice as the mere mention of such a procedure produced a statement his translator chose not to share.

truffle slicerThe cooked noodles - not “al dente”, but plastica, the new buzzword Italian cooks now use - was drained. The rabbit and its sauce were carefully ladled over the top. The glistening blade of Maffioli’s truffle slicer delivered the final complement, ultra thin slivers of black truffle. This truly was one of the best pasta dishes I have been privileged to sample.

pastaThe sauce for this is rich and it demands a wine with god body and structure. Keeping with the local theme, a Sforzato di Valtellina, a wine made from well ripened Nebbiolo grapes, should prove to be a satisfying match.

Risotto mantecato al Franciacorta con ostriche di pollo fondenti
(Risotto “mantecato” with Franciacorta sparkling wine and braised chicken oysters)
click here for recipe

PastaThe last dish to prepare was a risotto using Vialone Nano rice, grown close to Maffioli’s home. He began by talking about the varying degrees of starch one finds in the different levels and grades of Italian short grain rice.

The rice was toasted in a combination of olive oil and butter. Although it is toasted to improve the depth of flavour, more importantly it is to get the rice hot enough so that when wine is added, it comes to a boil immediately.

Risotto with lots of butterOnion was the only aromatic added, at least at this stage of cooking. Boiling vegetable stock was added, in greater quantities than I have been shown to add, until the rice was soft but still with a fair degree of crunch.

Some risotto aficionados on this side of the pond might find this underdone, but to me it was perfect. Then the process of “Mancheria”, a verb used to describe vast quantities of ice-cold butter added to a relatively small amount of risotto, was performed. Freshly grated Reggiano was also stirred in. I was surprised how wet the risotto was at this stage of cooking. It can be tossed up in the air creating a wave effect.

Chicken Oyster sauceAs the risotto was cooking, a sauce made of chicken oysters and brown veal stock had been simmering on the stove. Chicken oysters are small fava bean-sized muscles found on the backbone of the bird at the point where the thighbone is attached.

I remember getting grief from many a chef during my apprentice days for eating those tasty morsels from roasted birds fresh from the oven waiting to be carved for a banquet. It is the best tasting part of a chicken, and what a perfect means to utilize them. I now keep a bag in my freezer and when I process a chicken for stock, I remove the raw oyster and pop them into the bag.

RisottoThe risotto was spooned to the centre of the plate and a few firm taps on the underside ensured even distribution of the finished rice. Some sauce was drizzled over the top and the dish was complete.

RisottoAs for a wine, this time I would go with a white wine, something that will not over power the rice, but be bold enough to work with the sauce on the chicken. The wine will need a good degree of acidity to cut through the richness of the butter and the fat of the cheese. Maybe a glass or two of Chablis, with its mineral and citrus flavours would work well. I am sure a medium bodied Sauvignon Blanc, a Riesling or an Italian Pinot Grigio would also fit the bill quite nicely.

It was a fascinating way to pass three hours. My respect of Italian foods has hit a new pinnacle. When I finally get to Italy again, this man’s kitchen will be top priority on my list of things to see and to eat in.




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