Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Pizzaiolo of Sessant

“Tell me” Paolo asked reflectively “do you like pizza?” It was a simple enough question and easily enough answered. “Of course I do!” I replied, knowing full well that we have not even scratched the surface of the question. To me, pizza is a measure of a connoisseur. Pizza is complicated and complex, great pizza cannot be completely understood in only one day. Pizza takes time, much more time than you might think.
Most of us think of pizza as fast food but in reality it is a true slow-food. Great pizza takes years….perhaps a life-time to perfect. Pizza is ancient and there has never been a dish created that can compete with the popularity of pizza.
“I know a place,” he told me…“it is a special place...” Now, when an Astigiani tells you something like this you need to pay attention. What he is really telling you is a secret and secrets don’t usually flow easily in the Monferrato. “I know a pizzaiolo that is champion of all of Europe,” he informed me “and he has a little place near here.” This revelation surprised me because the north of Italy isn’t that well known for pizza. Usually you hear about great pizza coming from Naples or Sicily.
Some days passed by with no mention of pizza so I thought I would ask again about the famous pizzaiolo. “Yes, yes,” Paolo assured me “we can go there." “How about this Thursday?” I asked, and with a quick phone call the date was confirmed.
We met at a crossroads north of Asti and Paolo guided us up the hill to the restaurant. It was an unassuming place with a sign hanging out front that did little to indicate the greatness that was contained within the four walls.
For me, walking into a restaurant with a trusted friend that knows the owner must be one of the most satisfying feelings in the world and this was certainly our case. Paolo introduced us and there was a comfortable feeling between Mario and I right from the beginning.
Mario is Sicilian, he and his attractive Spanish wife Alicia, from Marbella, run the place single-handedly. It only took a matter of minutes for us to become friends, in spite of the language barrier. He took us upstairs to see the extra dining room and we discovered that the entire stairwell was covered with his awards and certificates. He has one degree after the other and countless awards including no less than three European championships. “I won first place three times in a row so they decided I can no longer compete. I have to allow someone else a chance.” he told me. It is a good thing they didn’t apply the same logic to Michael Schumacher or Tiger Woods, I thought out loud!
Back downstairs the wall were covered with pictures of Mario posing with various celebrities including famous footballers and several with the various reigning Miss Italys. Apparently a good pizzaiolo has more staying power than a beauty queen!
We got a chance to see his work station and the wood burning oven. He had a chilled mise-en-place set up with all the toppings and a big marble work surface. The oven was roaring with burning wood and the balls of dough were all lined up, limp and ready to be worked into pizza crusts.
“Ok, let's go.” he said and he slapped down a ball of dough. He moved incredibly fast and the pizza crust was formed in a matter of seconds. A quick drizzle of olive oil and the whole thing was scooped up with a big stainless steel peel and in one quick movement, deposited on the floor of the oven. "Test pizza," he said "just to check the temperature." The crust immediately began to bubble and in a minute or so it was brown and delicious. Out it came and was cut up and piled on a plate for our “apero”.
Happy with the temperature, he started our order. In seconds he had formed each crust and almost as quickly he had the tomato sauce spread and the toppings distributed. He worked with lightening speed. Paolo told me he can build 10 pizzas at a time and not miss a beat. I never saw a wasted movement nor a single mistake.
Now, I have to admit, I become immediately infatuated when I encounter brilliance. I am often nearly in tears when I hear a perfect aria by Maria Callas and I can stare at a good painting for hours without feeling the time. I have paid huge sums of money for the opportunity to try the food of a famous chef and the experience I had at Mario’s was no less important than those things. Was it the best pizza I ever had? Easily! But what was more important was that it came from such a nice guy, whose entire life has been devoted to making the best pizza possible. A true artisan! I couldn’t have enjoyed the pizza more if my own brother had made it!

Mario and Alicia Giangreco
La Malagueña
Piazza Umberto 1,
37-Fraz Sessant str Asti - Chivasso (a few kilometers north-west of Asti
Tel/Fax: 0141 21 05 47 or Cell 339 32 54 11 10
Open for lunch but he only serves pizzas in the evening.

Dear Edorovio,
I wanted to share the experience with someone who would appreciate it. I was enthralled with your blog on Mario's that I stumbled into doing research for our vacation to the Langhe. We were moving from our 3 day stay in Neive down to La Morra and I decided to go up through Asti and try to find Sessant in the daylight. You know how that goes at night in the region. Well it was about 11:30 am and there was the yellow building in your photo. I'm a pizza fanatic and I go everywhere that I can to try the latest and greatest. Your blog got me fired up. So we pull off on the right hand side and I walk up to the building. The metal door was still down and I was reading the hours for a nighttime return. I turn around to get back in the car and out comes a guy who looks like he just woke up dressed in his pizzaiolo whites. My Italian is non existent but I blurted out something stupid in half Italian/half Spanish about "Hey you are el Campione Pizzaiolo del Mundo and we came all the way from California "blah blah. I think he got the gist and was flattered/incredulous.
Anyway, we returned that Sunday night after spending 3 hours at the annual Barbaresco tasting and not spitting very much. Probably not advisable, but I'm not missing Mario's for nothing. Well, It was jammed that night but we got the little corner table for a great view of the man in action. Fantastic to see a real pro at work in any field of endeavor. The one minute in the oven was a mind-blower also. My wife put her digital in movie mode and now we have a 2 minute or less film of Mario making 6 pizzas. He made 50 or 60 while we ate ours. The people of Asti region are so lucky, a lot of them probably don't even realize what they've got there. Anyway, we got up to pay our respects upon leaving and he stopped what he was doing (very busy) and poured some Limoncellos and we went to the stairway to look at the hall of fame. Mama brought the bambino up at this time to put him to bed.
Class act all the way around and fantastic pizza.
Thanks for your blog.
I told him Edorovio sent us.
Jeff M. from California


Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Mayor of San Secondo

Perched on the top of a hill a couple dozen kilometers north of Asti in the heart of the Monferrato is the tiny village of Villa San Secondo. San Secondo, as the name implies is not the first name of this hilltop sanctuary. The original name was Cossombrato, but 600 years ago the lord of Cossombrato decided he couldn’t get along with the people of the village and he decided to move lock, stock and castle-keep to the neighboring hilltop and retain the name of Cossombrato, leaving the village temporarily nameless and lordless. Being resourceful and practical, the village people quickly allied with the powerful town Asti and took the new name of "Villa San Secondo d‘Asti" which was soon shortened to Villa San Secondo. They also decided they could do without a new lord…thank you very much and they tore down the old castle and built their homes with the salvaged bricks and stones. You have to hand it to these folks, they were certainly able to make the best out of a bad situation.

Little has changed in San Secondo over the last 600 years and not much happens that would cause a media blitz. Life is slow and easy just the way the villagers like it, church is well attended and there are a few new building projects each year that help provide a slowly changing village landscape. There is however one very noticeable feature in San Secondo and that is the town hall, which is currently completely shrouded in scaffolding. I am told the loving and long-running restoration of the old hall is the project of the affable town Mayor “Luca Marchetti”. Luca is a jolly fellow that I liked immediately upon introduction and even more so when I heard his “story”. Luca is very proud of “his” town and works very hard on its behalf. “Hello, how do you do? Nice to meet you.” he said to me in very good English and then, in Italian, immediately told my friend…a resident of the town, to be sure and give me some of the free postcards of Villa San Secondo which are available in the town hall and then off he went in a cloud of blue cigarette smoke.

Regardless of all other details, Lucca is a promoter, and a damn good one at that. One day, through the gossip line, Lucca got wind that a Canadian couple intend to rent a village house for a week or so in February. As luck would have it, this is not just “any” Canadian couple…. the “misses” is none other than the Canadian entry for the women’s speed-skating competition in the Winter Olympics in Turin. Even in San Secondo, everyone knows that winter sports are not taken lightly by the Canadians and there is every hope that she might provide a more promising opportunity for victory than the luckless local football club in Turin. So Luca decided that the Canadian flag must be flown over the town hall so “all the world will see a sign of our solidarity with Canada and know that all of San Secondo will be watching and cheering for our Canadian skater!”

We can’t say with any certainty who will win the women’s speed-skating competition this year, but I hope for Villa San Secondo’s sake it will be Canada. I can also say that I am looking forward to spending a little more time getting to know the pretty little village of San Secondo and especially its colorful mayor!

Bruss: More than just a cheese

The Piemontese are well known for their food and wine and rightfully so. In the last few weeks I have been served beautiful Salumi, hand-made from personally selected pigs and Salccicia made from pork, ground fresh every morning in a specially designed refrigerated meat grinder, so it can be served raw on the luncheon tables of half the houses in the village. Raw pork and beef are quite common here in the Piedmont. It seems the quality has never lapsed so there is no fear of contamination. Strange customs perhaps, but I have welcomed them with open arms and without apprehension.
I have been feeling pretty plucky about my new food courage, after all, how many people eat raw pork sausage regularly and live to tell about it? In fact, I really like Salccicia and that has started me on the road to all kinds of raw meats like Carpaccio and Steak Tartar. I suppose eating raw meats these days can be considered daring but frankly it pales in comparison to Bruss.
Bruss (pronounced exactly like the name Bruce) is a sort of cheese. I stress the words “sort of“. I encountered Bruss at a lunch with a winemaker in the Langhe a couple of weeks ago. “Do you like a strong cheese?” he asked me, as he handed me the cheese tray. “Oh yes” I smiled and looked down to the tray waiting for his recommendations. “Ah” he said “just a moment then” and he was off in a flash… “Limburger” I thought, “that would be the worse case scenario!” He quickly arrived with a pot-bellied jar full of a grey-white substance that looked like wet concrete. He flipped the lid open and took a long sniff and smiled. His wife made a loud comment in Italian and at that point I was bracing for a Limburger-level experience. “How bad could it be” I thought. I have never encountered a cheese that I wasn’t willing to try and this “Bruss” wasn’t going to break my record.
He passed me the glass pot with a big smile and, as if to seal my fate…he added “I make this myself”! I was overflowing with resolve and I was sure this was going to be one of the great culinary experiences of my newly adopted home here in the Piemonte.
The smell from the glass pot was altogether startling! “Putrid” only begins to describe the horrid stench that emanated from that jar. It smelled like the stinkiest sheep's cheese you have ever smelled times 1000. The whole table was looking at me and laughing. They were all sure that I would never eat it. My face was green. My breathing had doubled. I must have looked like I was going to pass-out. There was absolutely no way I was going to even smell that vial concoction again …much less eat it.
Proper Bruss is never purchased in a store. Bruss must be made at home but it takes a little time. You start with three tomes or small wheels of sheep's cheese each tome is about 3 inches in diameter. Cut the tomes into chunks put into a jam jar and top up with olive oil. You put the jar in your cellar and every day for two weeks you turn it up-side-down. After that you turn it upside down every week or so….continue this for 4 years. After 2 or 3 years the whole mess begins to become one thick paste, kind of like thick concrete. The smell that this stuff makes comes from the Devil himself. Honestly, I can not understand how anything like this ever came into existence. All I can figure is this cheese is based on a bet or dare of some kind.
Well the pressure was on and the whole table was either watching and waiting or laughing sympathetically at me so I decided I would load up a piece of bread and do the dirty deed. So I did…. I wasn’t prepared for the taste. It was almost as bad as the smell. I thought I would pass out. My head began to spin and I felt myself breathing quickly. I heard laughing and the room began to spin. Surely I was going into shock or something. Then slowly everything started coming into focus and in 3 or 4 minutes I felt more or less normal. I washed everything down with a big gulp of excellent Barolo. Clearly, the thrill of Bruss must be surviving it! I was feeling pretty good about the whole event, until my host offered me another round!
Now, I’m at that special age where a man likes to think that his brain has overcome his testosterone but I will be damned if I didn’t hear myself say “Sure, I’ll give it another go!” I felt everyone else’s head snap with a double-take, but I pretended not to notice as I popped the lid on the on the cheese version of “weapons grade plutonium“. In went my knife and I looked on in horror as I drew out the blade covered in the tan-colored goo. Christ, it stunk up the whole room! Once again I slipped the foul concoction into my mouth and began to slowly chew it.
The truth is it was disgusting. I wish I could tell you that it was a heavenly flavor but it wasn’t. It was 4 year old fermented sheep's cheese and it emanates a smell and flavor I will never forget. But you know…after all of that….I am very glad I tried it because it made my host very happy and it expanded my food horizons just that little bit further.
Add to Google Website Counter