Saporito. That’s how we could describe Tuscan food.
It’s full of delicious salt, black pepper and red onion spiciness. Think Porchetta: A deboned pig, filled with herbs, salt and garlic, a condiment affectionately known as “sale aromatico” The roasted pork with herbs is sliced and put between two pieces of unsalted bread. No mayo, no mustard and often no greens or tomato either. Just pure savory pork on unsalted Tuscan bread~ the saving grace. Why you say? There are two stories. The popular one is that the Pope tried to tax the Tuscan Florentines on salt. They gave a strong gesture and said, fine! We won’t use it! In their bread that is. The other reason is that it does create a nice harmony with so many of their cured meats and salty dishes. Supposedly, the bread lasts longer as well. Tuscans were bean and bread eaters. They used leftover bread in a myriad of ways that are particular to Tuscany. Ribollita. Pappa al Pomodoro and panzanella. Every region has its glory and food that distinguishes itself from the other. Not only do Mediterranean countries have differences even though they have similar terroir, every region of every country rings their own bell.
The red onion is Tuscany’s garlic. It’s spicy in a different way and can be eaten raw. It’s a perfect condiment when cooked down to a fine caramelization for instance with paté di fegato. It’s adds a sweetness as well to the gamey liver. Nothing that a bit of anchovy, black pepper and spicy olive oil couldn’t tame.
My favorite Florentine molto, molto, ma molto saporito: Chef Fabio Picchi
Quell squardo intenso.. Fabio had a way of looking right through you. Cibreo, his restaurant, was like church. I always entered practically with a sign of the cross. Would I be saved? It depends on what from. I had heard about Fabio and Cibreo from Faith Willinger in the late 80’s. She wrote about him in her first book “Eating in Italy”. I didn’t know much about Tuscan food, but I was intrigued. I knew if I went to Florence, I would have to make a pilgrimage. Everything about it was like going into the past to taste dishes that were not unlike recipes from the Renaissance. No, there were no stuffed elephants with goats, rabbits and quail. Nor was there pasta, nor bisteccaa. But there was pigeon, its liver cooked to perfection with vin Santo. It was a Florentine haven for gastronomes, different that Paris. I had no interest really in France or French food. That has changed and I learned to appreciate the ‘finitezza” and fine flavors. It was Italy and the Italian language that had captured my heart and the nuance of regional Italian food based on the Mediterranean diet. I wasn’t interested in butter and cream. Soufflés were not my jam.
Fabio was my barefoot shepherd. He was rough and thought I knew absolutely nothing, even though I knew enough to seek him out. I started coming to Florence a few times a year and strangely enough, started a cooking school in the nearby Florentine hills. There was a rhyme and reason, even though it may seem preposterous. It was 1992 and no one was really offering a full cooking program. Lorenza Di Medici had classes. But I had created a full Monty. I happened to end up in the right place at the right time and based the program around strong Tuscan values of cooking with fire. It all made sense to me to eat what grew around us in a regional way of relating. And.. we had the best extra virgin olive oil and Chianti; world famous wine.
I worked with an old world chef and he started from the beginning…skewering little birds and roasting them. Mind you, this wasn’t my idea and it happened on the first day. You tell an old world chef that you want the absolute authentic thing and he goes for the jugular. My first students were in shock as they crunched down on tiny beaks and bones. It wasn’t mandatory. I believe I opted out, less “game” than my own guests. Another chef came after that, who has stuck to me like glue for the past 30 years.
Nevertheless, I had to prove myself to chef Picchi. I had to eat lamb’s brains. Buttery they were, but I ate them only once. After all, we had become friends. He came to San Francisco as a speaker for an Italian Gastronomy Conference and was sort of a duck out of water. I was with a handful of other Italian speakers and food people at the conference. Even though many times he had pretended not to recognize me at the restaurant or the cafe, I had always complimented him on my meal. He would look me up and down and not say a word and barely nod. And off he would go. Until her arrives in San Fran and all of sudden, I am his long lost friend. He latched on. He was partnered with the lovely Maria and I was married. I became useful as well as ornamental as my mother would say. He acquired me as an interpreter and I was happy to oblige. It was that conference where I met his x wife Benedetta Vitale. They created Cibreo together in 1986. No longer together in life or in the restaurant, they still shared 4 children. I sat with them both at lunch one day. I was planning to spend a school year in Florence with my two children. My daughter was 15. Did they know anyone in Florence with whom she could live? I asked. My son, 13 was with me and in a different school situation. They both said, Yes. She can stay with us. Meaning, both of them in two separate houses, just like their children. My daughter Emily lived a big experience in both houses of Fabio and Benedetta and the likes of Giacomo, Judiita, Giulio and Duccio for three months. At the end of the term, Giulio (15 at the time) came back to Colorado with us. We had officially traded children in a mutually beneficial exchange. We became for better or worse… Family. I loved his parents as well and got to know them. His mother transmitted the tremendous affection for food and his father Enzo loved to garden and grew spicy pepperoncino for the restaurant. He was dashing and debonair.
I spent many days thereafter as a guest in Fabio and Maria’s home in the countryside. I would wander into the kitchen and watch Fabio cook. He would make scrambled eggs with shaved truffles, Artichokes standing on their heads and make anything he touched, special. He once took me foraging just outside the backdoor for wild garlic. It was relaxing. In all of his bravado, Fabio was gentle, sensitive and loved to host his friends.
The most memorable and important time I spent with him was on the island of Elba. He and Maria took me sailing . Fabio understood divorce. I was going through one. I sat next to him pretty much in silence as he steered the boat in the wind. “Non devi mai sentire in colpa”. Don’t feel guilty. He said. It was the kindest and most supportive thing anyone could have done. I never forgot his kindness. Fabio was not an easy friend. He could be hot and cold. Some found him terribly arrogant. Even when he was cold to me I forgave him. I kept that genuine experience sailing with him in my mind and forgave him and could never enroll in anyone’s criticism of him. He was a genius. Passionate and at times frightening. Never was he threatening. He could just gaslight the hell out of you if he was in the mood. Enigmatic, theatrical and fearless, he fought for what he believed in like a crusader, an imposing Commander for good food and flavor and where it came from. He would rage if a fish didn’t have pink flesh if it was supposed to, having come from a place where the water was cold and they ate shrimp. No pink? No shrimp! Imposter! Incredibly sensitive, he was outraged at betrayal and yet would bow to what was holy. He loved what he loved deeply and fiercely, never skimping. And yet, he was as clever as a fox when it came to using “advanzati”, leftovers, selling you what he had to peddle. He was like the wizard of Oz when creating a dish. The simplest things became huge and imposing, delicate and divine. He let me in the kitchen often and for years I saw a magician’s touch. We had a joke for a while. “It colpo del forno! “ Everything was the oven’s fault. Even if it was personal.
At times I felt under his wing. “Americana.. tu non capisce niente”. You don’t understand anything and you won’t until you have tasted it for 20 years. He was right. Now I can taste the difference in parmigiano vecchio buono. I was always the nieve American in his eyes. He was bigger than life. Overbearingly so. He looked like Karl Marx. Big white head of a hair and a big white beard. I would dress a certain way not to be criticized. He would pick me apart form head to toe. I realize now that I often experienced a loss of confidence around him. I learned to protect myself. I was friends with whom I chose, and carried on with what came natural to me. I couldn’t second guess whether indeed he cared or had so many other things on his mind that it had nothing to do with me. Why did I take things so personally? Because I cared. I would make a beeline to Cibreo and to C. Bio to see Fabio as soon as I was in Florence. He was like an organizing principle. Sometimes I was a carissima amica and sometimes he would still look me up and down and not say a word. Who can make sense of this? It was who he was ~ unpredictable and a creative genius.
This is my story. I couldn’t possibly count all of Fabio’s accolades. I haven’t mentioned his books, which are all super charming. “Papale Papale, Recipes to Save the Soul” is one of my favorites. There’s also Teatro del Sale which he built for Maria. A stage and a kitchen. Both theaters. He lived a brilliant life.
Fabio died February 25th. 2022. He was only 67. I had known him half my life. He had a tremendous effect on me. He was a giant of a man. Strong and fierce on the outside, soft and gentle on the inside. The bellezza of a flower. The innocence of a child. These are things he loved. “Guarda che bellina,” he would say. His death was a shock for us all. He wasn’t well. It came upon him quickly. In the end, it was too late to fight.
Giulio has taken over the caffe and the restaurants. He is practically like my Italian son. He is now almost 40 and has three children. He is working as he mourns. Giacamo and Duccio have taken over C. Bio.
They all have something of Fabio, a strength, a love of good food and a willingness to uphold the Cibreo icon. They have hearts of gold. Maria is my friend. She will continue to make the world laugh. Right now it will take the true face of the clown to smile through the tears.
I am a student of Fabio. I will forever be impossible to please unless you give me the best. Then I will kiss your hand. I have my own brand of saporito and it will get stronger as I age.