By Murray Schulman
In last month’s issue, you saw that our time in Positano had drawn to a close. We felt a bit saddened at leaving this unique and beautiful region of Italy. At the same time, we were very excited anticipating our next stop on this journey. We were on our way to Tuscany. We decided to travel by train from Naples to Florence. Traveling business class on the Tren Italia high-speed line was a good choice. The train trip was just a touch over three hours through the countryside, and we were in Florence. We were picked up by our driver and traveled the 35 minutes from the train station to Tavarnelle Val di Pesa.
This village is located just between Florence and Sienna in the heart of the Chianti region. Vineyards and olive groves seemed to be everywhere we looked. Majestic tall narrow cypress trees could be seen all around us. We soon came around a bend where we looked out over rolling hills. In the distance on a high hilltop we got our first glimpse of our home for the week, Castello Del Nero. We became more and more excited as we approached along the cypress-lined drive to the ivy-covered stone gateway. We stopped at the stone walk and stepped from the car to be greeted by the massive tower of the castle and the manicured gardens that fronted the property. We were welcomed into the front foyer through massive wooden double doors. Immediately, we were offered cool hand towels and lemon and cucumber-infused water.
Thus began our unforgettable stay at Castello Del Nero in the heart of the Chianti region of Tuscany. The property is 740 acres of lush rolling hills. It is made up of vineyards, olive groves, woods and two large lakes. The castle itself was constructed in the 12th century. It sits at the highest point overlooking the property on which sit six estate homes built between the 15th and 17th centuries. The most recent owner, Robert Trotta, the grandson of four Italians, grew up on Long Island and spent his summers in Italy. Trotta worked closely with the Italian Fine Arts Commission to ensure that the historic details and artwork of the castle were preserved. He was able to bring to reality his dream of creating a five-star hotel that in 2016 celebrated the 10th anniversary recognized as “Virtuoso” as well as being listed among “the Leading Hotels of the World” registry. The castle now boasts a world-class spa and a restored 12th century wine cellar. We made ample use of the dark wood appointed bar and terraces. Two fantastic restaurants, one of which has earned a Michelin star, managed to dazzle us at every meal from breakfast to dinner. On that first night, we ate at La Taverna, an open-air restaurant near the pool. We decided on the Menu Degustazione I Classici — a tasting menu of classics.
This meal was amazing. We started out with Tagliere Toscano con prosciutto crudo, salumi e coccoli — Tuscan ham, local cold cuts and bread puffs. Next came hand-made pappardelle pasta with wild boar ragout. This dish was a mixture of delectable wide pasta noodle and the richest robust wine-infused sauce that you could ever imagine. Next, we were served a unique Tuscan beef stew with onion cream and candied lemon. The flavor combination did not seem to make sense until it hit the palate.
In that moment, I “saw the light.” The dish simply did not last long enough. For dessert, we were served what they described as cottage cheese and chocolate. Actually, it was a blend of fresh ricotta mixed with mascarpone and laced with dark chocolate. This dessert was rich, light and exploding with flavor. Of course, we paired the meal with a house Chianti and rounded everything out with espresso and tiny biscotti. The food and service exceeded all expectation.
One of my favorite and most memorable experiences was participating in the pasta class with Castello Del Nero’s Executive Chef, Giovanni Luca Di Porro. The chef only accepts six hotel guests for each class where we prepared tagliatelle, ravioli, tortelli, beef ragout, fresh cherry tomato and basil sauce and tiramisu that overwhelmed the senses and diminished any that I have tasted before or since. We met immediately following breakfast and were led as a group to a very long and wide stone staircase. Until that morning, this staircase was roped off. I made my way down this staircase into a narrow stone hallway. The hallway opened up into a dungeon like room with a very high ceiling. There were narrow windows very high up the thick stone walls.
In the room was set two long tables that held the implements and ingredients with which we would prepare our menu. This environment was a bit intimidating and there was a minimum of conversation. At that moment, the great chef entered the space. A hush came over the room as he stepped to the table. He introduced himself formally to us and announced in an aloof manner that he loved to teach as long as there was no “blah blah blah.” We stood there not quite sure of how to take this Michelin-rated executive chef. He looked into each of our eyes, suddenly smiled and the wine began to flow. Each of us worked the recipes under his watchful eye and concise direction. We were preparing beautiful food. Everything was running smoothly until one of the class participants requested a Coke to drink. I was just completing my ragout when everything came to a halt. The chef bellowed, “a Coke?”
He pointed at the offending culprit and declared: “There is no point in you tasting this food. You can taste nothing with Coke in your mouth.” This sad classmate hung his head, rinsed his palate, took a sip of wine and rejoined our group. The chef gave him first taste once he redeemed himself, and all was well.
After class, we were sent to the restaurant to dine on what we had made. We all thought that they were simply going to serve us the equivalent items from the restaurant. As we were being seated, we saw kitchen help coming into the restaurant carrying the pots and platters of the exact items that we had prepared. This was our food!!! The kitchen staff simply cooked off our pastas, added our sauces and served. I will admit that a good quantity of the amazing local Chianti was consumed during the preparation and during the meal. But that food was some of the best that we had ever tasted. This was truly a culinary adventure and a great day.
I am proud to share one of Chef Giovanni’s pasta recipes with you here. The recipe that I will share with you is for the traditional tagliatelle that we prepared in that class and that, since returning from Italy, I make regularly at home. This type of pasta holds up to the heaviest or lightest of sauces. We have found that there is something very special about preparing pasta in this way as opposed to opening a box. Each pasta dinner that we prepare is like bringing a little taste of Tuscany back into our home. I will be sharing more of our Tuscan experiences in our next issue.
1. On a clean dry work surface, combine the flour and semolina.
2. Form a well in the center of the dry mixture.
3. In a bowl, beat the eggs lightly then pour into the well.
4. Add the salt and olive oil.
5. Carefully begin to work your dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.
6. Continue to work the mixture into a slightly crumbly ball.
7. Knead the dough until it becomes somewhat elastic (add flour dusting as needed).
8. Once the dough ball is formed, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
9. When ready to make the pasta, remove the ball from the refrigerator and cut into four equal pieces.
10. Work one piece at a time while keeping the other pieces wrapped.
11. Shape the piece that you are using into a disc.
12. Dust with flour and either roll out or run through your pasta roller.
13. Roll sheets to desired thickness in stages. Dust the dough as you go as needed.
14. Using a knife or your pasta attachment, cut the sheets into the desired width of your pasta.
15. Cook in boiling salted water until al dente or approximately three minutes, depending on thickness.