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Italy: Made by artisans

Italy has long been home to artisans producing top-quality foods and natural products, from olive oil and gelato to chocolate and leatherwork. In their own words, seven regional producers describe how they are preserving traditions

Italy: Made by artisans
Massimo Spigaroli serves friends, Antica Corte Pallavicina. Image: Getty

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Food: Massimo Spigaroli

Antica Corte Pallavicina, Parma, Emilia Romagna

Massimo Spigaroli
‘Italian food’ doesn’t really exist — every region has a different cuisine. Tomatoes, olive oil — things traditionally associated with Italy — are actually from the South. In the North, we use more butter and animal fat. And our pasta is made with egg. Don’t forget, we’ve only been a nation for 150 years — every region has its own food culture, and we work to preserve it.
The Emilia Romagna region produces the most DOC and DOP (protected) foodstuffs in the country — think Parmesan, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar and culatello, a very special ham that I make and serve at my restaurant. We’re in the middle of the country, here — everyone has passed through Emilia Romagna, and they all brought their food with them, influencing our cuisine.

Culatello di Zibello, the ham I make, is only made in Parma Province, on the banks of the River Po. It’s a very unique meat, and our microclimate is one of its main ingredients: in autumn, the mists penetrate the cellars, encouraging a special mould and giving the ham a special scent. In medieval times, farmers would pay their land rent with culatello. Today, it’s produced in exactly the same way — made entirely by hand, in 700-year-old cellars, with just pork, salt, garlic and wine as the ingredients. No chemicals, no preservatives — it’s the highest expression of Italian cured meat.

Food is crucial to us Italians — every kind of celebration ends at the table. We don’t eat for nourishment; we eat to taste, to feel the flavours. You don’t need a Michelin star, either — whenever I’m travelling, I’ll eat at a random village trattoria, and I’ll be floored by what they’re cooking.

Regional traditions — from pizza to spaghetti alla carbonara — need to be kept alive, and you need artisans producing the right ingredients to do that. I don’t think there’s another country in the world with as many artisans as Italy. And people come here for our food traditions. The meats, the tomatoes, the vegetables, the sun that helps them all along — that’s what they come for. It’s our history, and we have to maintain it.

Massimo’s Emilia Romagna
Typical dish: Broth with stuffed pasta.
Unsung hero ingredient: Gnocchi.
Best tortellini: Taverna del Cacciatore.
Starter: Spaghetti with tomato.
Tip: Stick to regional specialities wherever you are. And buy a serious food guide.

Antica Corte Pallavicina: Strada del Palazzo Due Torri 3, Polesine Parmense.

How to do it: Black Tomato offers a seven-night, self-drive trip around Emilia Romagna, including flights, accommodation, car hire, food tours and a cooking lesson, from £1,603 per person.


Alessandro making chocolates. Image: Romeo Viganotti

Alessandro making chocolates. Image: Romeo Viganotti

Chocolate: Alessandro Boccardo

Romeo Viganotti, Genoa

Alessandro Boccardo
Viganotti was founded in 1866 by Romeo Viganotti, and then passed down through his extended family. I started out as a pastry chef, but loved working with chocolate, and joined Viganotti in 1998, by which time there were two brothers running the company. They wanted to retire, but wanted to pass on the name Viganotti, so in 1999, they entrusted me with the business. It’s the job I always dreamed of.
Today, we work in Romeo Viganotti’s old laboratory, and still use some of his original equipment in the chocolate-making process. We hand-make the chocolate using wooden moulds, we cut our cremini pralines with a 150-year-old knife, and we work from his hand-written recipes for things like croccantini, boeri and ciliegie. But we’ve expanded, too. I developed a range of chocolates flavoured with spices, salts and teas — the stranger the flavour, the more I enjoy myself. Some of the new flavours — like red salt, and salted vanilla chocolates — are now as popular as the original pralines. But we also carry traditional sweets like gocce di rosolio — rose-flavoured liquid inside a hard sugar casing.

Genoa’s chocolate history goes back centuries — although it was a food for the rich, the lower classes enjoyed it too, and there were many artisan chocolate-makers. By the late 19th century, there were around 40 chocolatiers like ours left.

Chocolate is a universal product, but I think Italian artisans are more rooted in their own regional traditions. We’ve developed entirely Italian products by pairing chocolate with hazelnuts from Piedmont, almonds from Puglia and Bari cherries. Chocolate-covered citrus fruits are also a strong point for us.

Alessandro’s Liguria:
Restaurant: Da Rina, Via Mura delle Grazie 3R, Genoa.
Snack shop: Trattoria Sciamadda, Via Ravecca 19R, Genoa.
Museum: Galata Museo del Mare, Calata de Mari 1, Genoa.
Top spot in Liguria: San Fruttuoso.
Best Ligurian dish: Trenette pasta with pesto.

Romeo Viganotti: Vico dei Castagna 14R, Genoa. 

How to do it: The Italian Connection has a week in Liguria, including, flights, seven nights’ accommodation in Genoa and Cinque Terre, car hire and hiking passes for the Cinque Terre National Park, from £975 per person.

Compiled by: Julia Buckley

Read more in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)