We'd left behind the south's sharp ocean inlets--its black volcanoes pasted against orange evening skies, its lemon groves and crumbling villages--for Rome. We followed the A1 Autostrada del Sole, the Highway of the Sun, which cuts through the country, straight from Naples to Milan. It was a two-hour drive, first through lush hills; then through flat farmlands, the standard horse vendors displaying their grazing wares for motorists; then past the withered vineyards, the smoky power plants, the stoic gray roadside corporations, the brightly colored Iperstores, the worker-free construction zones of crushed asphalt and detours, the elaborate Autogrills perched like bridges above the road, the Gypsy camps. We drove by it all and then through the concrete tunnels until we hit the capital, rising up around us in the form of shops and apartments, of ancient statues, baroque palaces, sweeping piazzas. My brother Sal and I had been on the road for days and la citti eterna was to be our last hurrah before our return to the States.
Our roles in the rental car were always clearly defined: I was the driver, he the navigator. We were finishing up a whirlwind wine-buying trip, so we were pale and exhausted. I own a wine store in New York City and there wasn't a day that passed without some uninformed individual, a dreamy look on his face, telling me I had the world's most wonderful job. Such people thought it was glamorous, floating across the Italian peninsula, sipping wine poured from fine bottles, sleeping in villas on sweeping vineyard grounds. They couldn't be blamed for the misconception; God knows, I'd thought the same thing when I was a kid.
It may be a wonderful job, but it isn't always glamorous. I had slept in opulent villas and dined with royals, but usually it went like the most recent trip: in the last seven days, Sal and I had hit up almost sixty wineries and tasted countless bottles of wine. We'd woken up at six and gone to bed at four. We'd eaten at truck stops and at two-star restaurants, gobbled down panini in the car, and been forced by our producer-hosts into many long, multicourse, pasta-laden, oil-drenched meals--the kind of experience you'd savor if you did it twice a year, not twice a week. Sometimes it was kind of like working in the world's best cupcake bakery: no matter how much you love cupcakes, you don't want five a day, every day for a week. Sal and I had stayed in some moldy roadside hotels, a couple of simple rooms-for-rent, and one medieval castle; had tasted virtual vinegar and the most beautiful wines in the country. I'd spent time listening to a Russian scam artist who guided wine tours and I'd sat in the office of a wine producer whose family had at one time been commissioned by a king. We'd been social hostages, privileged to be included at the family table but also dragged to Italian discos filled primarily with men in tight pants. This was what a typical tasting trip was like, racing around the country, trying to find the best wines for my clients and for myself.
Sal didn't officially work with me, but he came along because he loved food, he loved wine, he loved the excitement. Round, rosy-cheeked Sal, his head topped with swiftly disappearing red hair, was the reason I was in this business in the first place. He was the one working as a chef, when he was only eighteen, in the little French restaurant in upstate New York, making beef bourguignon and duck Æ l'orange and chicken cordon bleu to pay for my clothes and my food and my bicycle. He was the one who hired me on as a dishwasher at that restaurant when I was twelve. I would stand on a stool and scrub plates after school, gazing at him with nearly religious devotion as he, baby-faced, clad in a crisp white collarless shirt, yelled at his staff to keep all the knives in place. He was the one who mocked a sous-chef who'd bungled the carving of a leg of veal.
"I bet you my little brother can do a better job than you can," Sal said to the defeated man. I looked up from my dishes and tried to suppress my joy. I was being given the opportunity of a lifetime, threefold: I could humiliate an adult, impress my brother, and cut meat. "Get over here, Sergio. Show them."
He was also the reason I had the thick scar on my left thumb, because as I expertly butchered the shank, I looked about the room proudly, lost track of what I was doing, and sliced my finger to the bone.
Despite the injury, I had gone on to make a career of wine and food, while Sal had branched off into business. Now, in addition to running a software consulting company out in the Arizona desert, he acted as my secretary on trips to Italy. He organized my schedule and kept me company in the car, and his payment was a series of excellent meals and lots of wine, both famous and obscure. Over the past fifteen years, we'd drunk wine from botti in Barbaresco, from cement tanks on the Amalfi coast, and from underground urns in freezing Friuli. We'd gambled until dawn at a Slovenian casino, watched an unimpressive show at a blue-collar strip joint in Turin, and spent loud nights with our extended family in the southern Italian ghetto from which we had emigrated long ago. And now we were on our way into Rome for a final meal before our departure for America, and for the most important tasting of the trip--and perhaps of our lives.
I'd had other plans. I wanted to take Sal out to a thank-you dinner at Don Alfonso 1890, a restaurant in Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, near the coastal village of Sorrento, where we'd gone on vacation when we were kids living in Naples. Don Alfonso was a famous place owned by a well-regarded culinary family, the Iaccarinos. They had long been considered masters of the regional cuisine. A few years earlier, I'd eaten remarkable, refined versions of the area's most traditional dishes, all made from ingredients grown on the family farm.
I'd been talking it up to Sal and we were excited when we sat down in the sleek white dining room. We didn't even bother with the menu. I like to let culinary professionals do their thing: I told the waiter that we'd have whatever the chef recommended. We got a bottle of Mastroberardino Taurasi Riserva and waited. We were expecting lamb that had grazed nearby; spicy olive oil; spaghetti with tomato, basil, garlic; fish caught in the bay; local herbs. Then the first dish was set upon the table.
Sal and I looked at each other. Pineapple and foie gras? When the pasta arrived, it involved cheese foam, not basil. The main meat course was laced with curry. This was not the menu I remembered. The food was excellent, but Naples is about eggplant, lemons, mozzarella di bufala, the flavors of my childhood, the produce that grows on the hills. Foams and curries, fruits and pates--these were all fine and good, but they had nothing to do with the seaside zone. We could have been eating the same dinner in Hong Kong or Paris.
The chef came out of the kitchen--a young, dark-haired man in a white jacket and rubber clogs. He was Ernesto Iaccarino, the newest generation to enter the business. He introduced himself and we began to talk.
"So, what did you think?" he asked. "Did you enjoy your meal?"
"To be honest," I said, "I brought Sal here for the traditional menu I had last time. Things have changed. What happened?"
Ernesto nodded. "We don't serve that anymore," he said. "It's too tough. Reviewers want you to have the food they're accustomed to, and they're usually accustomed to French stuff. They want modern touches. They want the foams, the unorthodox flavor combinations. We give them what they want so that we can survive."
It was the scourge of the Michelin star that I recognized. The same thing happened in the world of wine: producers, to keep selling, had taken to shaping their wares according to the tastes of major reviewers. I supposed it was the natural way of things, but it didn't sit well with me.
"But we still do the traditional stuff," Ernesto continued. "We've got a new place in Rome, called Baby. You're still around tomorrow, right? I'm going up there; why don't you let me cook you lunch?"
That was how we found ourselves in Rome so early in the day, circling the Villa Borghese gardens, the former vineyard converted into gardens by a cardinal in the seventeenth century and currently the city's lush and extensive central park, around which cars, scooters, and buses raced. The restaurant Baby was in the majestic Hotel Aldrovandi Palace to one side of the whirling traffic, and I took a sharp right-hand turn to pull up to the grand doors.
The restaurant, situated downstairs from the extravagant lobby, was an ethereal series of rooms in gray and glass overlooking the hotel courtyard. Ernesto emerged, welcomed us, and then pushed back through the steel doors and began to work as the restaurant filled up. I ordered a bottle of Vestini Campagnano Pallagrello Bianco "Le Ortole," a southern white made from grapes picked late in the harvest, the sun having dried them just enough to concentrate their sugars. It smelled of apricots, white flowers, dried honey, and nuts, but to me the value was the images it always conjured up: I usually got the sensation that I was being seduced in a Pompeii brothel before the volcano erupted. Sal and I clinked glasses.
"Al prossimo Giro d'Italia," I said. To the next tour of Italy.
Ernesto first sent out what technically could have been labeled "eggplant parmigiana," but was not in any way comparable to the heavy casserole most Americans understand the dish to be. It was, instead, a delicate piece of vegetable art: sweet local eggplant, sliced thin, layered with mozzarella made that morning and highly acidic tomatoes from the foot of Vesuvius, and drizzled with oil. Not only was it unlike the eggplant parm of American red-tablecloth joints, it was different from my mother's parmigiana di melanzane. But we weren't there for some good ol' home cooking. We were there to see how our good ol' home cooking was conceptualized at another level, how the same flavors upon which we were nurtured, the flavors that made us grow, the first, most common tastes for us, were made by the Iaccarino family.
"Now this is what you were talking about," Sal said.
Ernesto sent out a pasta next, ravioli di caciotta al pomodorino e basilico, pasta made with flour and olive oil--not with flour and eggs, as is typical in most of Italy. The pockets were the size of a quarter and filled with caciotta--a sheep's milk ricotta--seasoned with wild marjoram, prepared in small baskets and drained of their liquid, and then topped with little tomatoes, a play on the palate between the flavors of tangy cheese and sharp tomato.
"I could eat this every single day," I told the waiter. "For my entire life."
The meal reached its peak with the arrosto di piccione con passato di ceci. I couldn't figure out exactly how he roasted the squab to so perfectly caramelize the outer skin. But the true beauty of the thing was that the tiny breast was set atop a chickpea puree seasoned with cinnamon, and when I ate it--the bright young peas, the sparkling fresh spice, the crispy bird--I felt that I was somehow tasting liquid gold. Sal's expression told me that his experience was similar.
After some time, dessert came out: pasticcio di melanzane con cioccolata, squares of sponge cake topped with sweetened ricotta and studded with candied fruit and chocolate pieces. Slices of steamed eggplant--dolce, sweet, like only eggplants grown on Mediterranean soil can be--were placed on top of the mixture, and the whole creation was covered with a white chocolate sauce flavored with Marsala. Eggplant, it seems, was Ernesto's guest of honor that season.
Ernesto stopped by the table as we were drinking our espresso.
"Traditional enough?" he asked. "Did you get what you were looking for?"
Ernesto had indeed done for us what a great chef does for his diner. He'd presented us with artistry--we'd consumed dishes that were the culmination of his vision, talent, history. Sure, you can standardize a great meal and serve it anywhere in the world, just as you might have watched Luciano Pavarotti perform in a great opera in Istanbul. But there was an added value to seeing Pavarotti sing an aria at La Scala in Milan; it was more illuminating to see the man in his element. The meal at Baby was a postcard from the south of Italy, made by a southerner with southern ingredients, with respect to tradition--to the long line of people before him who'd shaped the cuisine--and with respect to the land. Ernesto made us food of the region, the season, the place. You could make the meal all over again in Los Angeles, following a recipe with scientific precision, and it wouldn't be anything like it.
"I'd say we got what we came for," I answered. "Thank you."
But we had actually come to Rome for two things, and the second was far more significant. We'd come to drink some extremely rare wine, and by the time we'd finished up the lunch and I looked at my watch, we were late.
I grabbed sal and rushed him to the street. I'd leave the car at the Aldrovandi because we didn't have time to find parking. I spotted a yellow cab smushed in the middle of the mass of Roman traffic, of two-seater cars and motorcycles, all weaving at an alarming speed through the narrow streets. The driver of the cab also saw me, and, with a calm expression on his worn face, he cut through the metallic throng. It parted, just barely, for him, and everyone honked aggressively.
"The St. Regis, please," I said. "You know it?"
"Of course I know it," the cabbie said. "Best hotel in Rome."
"Fast as you can," I said. I rubbed my temples.
"But Sergio, since when do you get nervous about being late to a tasting?" Sal asked. "I don't think I've ever seen you arrive on time."
Sal couldn't yet understand, but this was no regular tasting, not for me and not for him. I had bought these singular and particular wines a few months back, every case that existed in the world, and I was now having them all shipped to my New York wineshop. This was a gathering that involved a bunch of Italian journalists who wanted to taste the stuff before it left the country forever, but I didn't care about them. I was anxious, really, to see what Sal thought. He was my litmus test for sellable wines--a born Italian who was now essentially American, a noncollector and a nonprofessional with a good palate, somebody who didn't go for cookie-cutter drinks, for easy new styles. If Sal, who liked all things wild, strange, and beautiful, understood these wines, they had a real future in my store. If not, I'd be crushed.
"It's too complicated to explain right now," I told my brother. "I made a promise to a dying man. That was six months ago, when he was still alive, and these were his bottles."
Sal nodded, perplexed. "That does sound complicated," he said as we pulled up to the St. Regis. It was large and gothic, flags hanging from its elegantly carved stone doorway.