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New Jersey Monthly

Smells Worth Handing Down

Walk past Osteria Giotto most afternoons, and the enticing aromas wafting from the kitchens evoke chef Luca Valerin’s native Italy. But even after eight years of concocting savory fragrances here, Valerin, who turns 42 this month, is most viscerally transported by those from his mother’s stove, like the scent of her soffritto, the sautéed, chopped carrots, celery and other aromatics at the foundation of many a classic dish.

“When I sniff them, I go back in time,” he says—back to Padua in the Veneto region of northern Italy, where Valerin grew up in an apartment with a plot of land planted with ten 100-yard-long rows of merlot and cabernet grapes. “We didn’t have microwaves there,” he says.

After a full day working as a dental assistant, his mother, Graziella Varotto, now 68, would cook dinner for the two of them—pasta with sautéed zucchini or all’amatriciana. “The moment I opened the door, I knew what she’d cooked for me,” he recalls. “My mother didn’t ask, ‘What do you want to eat?’ She would cook one thing; she’d cook it very well.” He wasn’t crazy about liver or bollito misto—a traditional dish of boiled meats and greens—but whatever she made, he ate, realizing “she put her love into it.” Even then—long before she became a cook late in her working life, outside Bologna, where she now lives—his mother embodied his definition of a good cook: someone who can make a great dish with simple ingredients.

Valerin’s maternal grandmother, his Nonna Esterina, now 89, had her own tempting repertoire, like baccalà alla vicentina (dried cod cooked in olive oil and milk) and gnocchi in sauce made from tomatoes she’d preserved herself. Come harvest time, the extended family, some 35 strong, would pitch in to not only pick and crush the grapes, but also lay out an al fresco feast. “It was like a family reunion,” says Valerin.

With every member of the family engaged in some aspect of food preparation, it was only natural that by age 10 Valerin was tinkering with dessert recipes. “I was very precocious,” he says. But as a gifted athlete, he trained in the hope of playing professional soccer. A swimming accident at age 15, in which he broke his neck, derailed those plans, and he opted for culinary studies at the Pietro d’Abano school of hotel management in the nearby spa town of Abano Terme, from which he graduated in 1988.

There he learned that the secret to making the gnocchi he now serves at Osteria Giotto—as good as his Nonna Esterina’s—was to let the mashed potatoes cool off before kneading them. “When they’re hot, they still have water in them. If you make the dough when they’re hot, you’ll end up using more flour than you’d have to if the potatoes were cold,” explains Valerin. The result will be tough, and “instead of tasting the potato, you’ll taste flour.”

He went on to hone his skills at the exalted San Domenico restaurant in Imola in the Emilia-Romagna region, Italy’s gastronomic mecca. That’s where he learned to bake the breads that he insists on making daily at the restaurant he co-owns with Robert Pantusa (an American chef whom he met at San Domenico).

At home, just a short walk away, he and his wife, Debora Galassi, strive to pass on their appreciation for the scents and flavors of fresh ingredients and homemade dishes to their daughter, Anna Esterina, 8. “Every time I cook something, I ask her, ‘What did you smell? What does your nose sense?’ It’s very important to me,” he says.

As for his mamma, he notes that when she visits his restaurant, she often tells him, “You eat very well here; much better than in a lot of restaurants in Italy.”

Could success taste or smell any sweeter?

Meeting Mamma…In Italy
Eric Levin, our senior editor travels to the mountains of northern Italy to photograph the mother of one of our Italian chefs…

“Ca-meh-mee-leh?”

I didn’t know so much motherly tenderness could be wrapped around the syllables of one word until Graziella Varotto—mother of chef Luca Valerin of Osteria Giotto in Montclair—offered me a cup of camomile tea at the end of a long day of culinary sightseeing and hyperlocal eating she led with her husband, Giorgio Calzolari. My son, Mike, and I, the beneficiaries of the tour—we saw Parmesan being made, then visited a salumeria where prosciutto, salami and sausage are made—had been invited to stay at their 400-year-old renovated stone farmhouse halfway up the Appenine Mountains, about 30 miles south of Bologna, in northern Italy. We had spent the previous four days eating and walking around Bologna, an irresistible city for doing both. Giorgio says that in Italian opinion polls Bologna always finishes first for quality of life.

Giorgio and Graziella are retired. He calls her “My queen,” and adds, “I am her slave.” Of course he is joking. I think. He gardens. What he grows, she cooks, simply but beautifully. She tends house, he builds staircases and hangs doors and makes their furniture, simply but beautifully.

She speaks no English, but appreciates and applauds my efforts to communicate in rudimentary phrase-book Italian. He speaks English, colorfully, voluminously. What did he do for a living? “I managed a pepper mill.” After some confusion, it is determined he managed a paper mill.

He says that living in the mountains, where their nearest neighbor is perhaps a mile away, “You must be so strong, because you are always with you. In the city, there are always lots of people and things to do. Here you look in the mirror and you see what you really are, not what you are with a lot of people around.” In the spring, outside their windows, cuckoos begin singing every morning at 6 am “like a Swiss watch,” Giorgio says. He and Graziella take us to a terrific village restaurant in the hills above Modena. It is called Ristorante Cantacucco. The Cuckoo. One of its local specialties are potato gnocchi stuffed with chestnut purée, served with cream and tiny squares of tasty speck ham. It’s an unforgettable dish.

Graziella, through Giorgio, says that Luca, her son, is the better cook, because, unlike her, “he has technique.” (For Luca’s part, he says that her food has flavors he can’t find anywhere else.) She remembers when Luca was a boy and she was working as a dental assistant, he loved cake. He would call her at the office and beg her to bring home butter and flour to make cake. When she got home, he would run to the door and look through the grocery bags for the ingredients they would need for baking.

Italians are proud of their food and, it seems, philosophical about everything else. “In paradiso [heaven],” Giorgio says, “you have English police, German organization and Italian cooking. In inferno [hell], you have English food, German police and Italian organization.”