All Roads lead to… Lucca!

Growing up in Rome, I knew of that phrase ‘all roads lead to Rome’ my entire life but it never resonated until I apprenticed in a legendary restaurant called La Mora, a couple of miles north of Lucca. Travelers typically land in Tuscany, thinking first of Florence, then of Siena and lastly of Pisa, largely because of that heroic leaning tower. But the true gem of Tuscany, hiding in plain sight, is Lucca, a renaissance city every bit as regal as her more famous Florentine sister. The ancient wall that protected Lucca for the past 600 years is still intact as are all the city gates that encircle this provincial capital. Climb the 232 steps to the top of the Guinigi Tower and you’ll clearly see that all roads lead to each and every one of those city gates. 

All Roads lead to Lucca

Lucca’s Potent History

The history of Lucca spans over 2,000 years. Caesar, Crassus and Pompeii reaffirmed their Triumvirate at the Lucca Conference in 56 B.C. Dante spent part of his exile in Lucca. Napoleon converted the Republic of Lucca into a monarchy and made his sister, Elisa Bonaparte, Princess of Lucca. I’ll end the hit parade with a mention of Lucca’s most famous native son, Giacomo Puccini. There is no opera without La Boheme, Tosca, Turandot and Madame Butterfly.

Although La Mora no longer exists, Lucchesi of a certain age will recognize the name instantly, such was the grip that La Mora held on the culinary landscape of Lucca for over 3 decades. It was a Michelin starred establishment, even though the cooking was firmly anchored to the cucina povera or “poor man’s cuisine” of the Lucca region. I can still taste ALL of the dishes I learned how to make there, not the least of which was the freshwater eel, a delicacy in that part of northern Tuscany where the Serchio river reigns supreme.

Anguilla in umido, was the title of the dish on the menu. Umido, in Italian, means “humid” but it is a common culinary term for when a dish is braised in a liquid. In this case, a tomato based broth coupled with carrots, onions and potatoes, is perfumed with a local herb called nepitella. In English, that herb is called ‘calamint’ and it is indeed of minty extraction with hints of oregano and basil. Although ‘humid’ eel, braised with tomatoes and mint might not sound as sexy as a bouillabaisse, it was one of the most succulent dishes I have ever had! 

I have never seen true nepitella in the States., but mention the name in Tuscany, and everyone grows weak at the knees. Tuscans claim that their ancestors, the Etruscans, planted the herb over 2,500 years ago, which means it predates Roman civilization. Italians, as we all know, are fiercely jealous of their culinary traditions, which gives Tuscans every reason to claim that nepitella has nothing to do with Rome. Don’t ask how they would know that Etruscans planted it. Suffice to say that Romans can’t take credit for that Etruscan DNA, and that suits the Tuscan pride just fine.

La Mora’s Signature Dish

But La Mora’s true signature dish was Lucca’s Zuppa del Gran Farro or the “Grand Farro Soup”. These days, everyone is familiar with farro (the ancient grain that fed the Roman army) and when they say zuppa in Tuscany, it can only be the rich bean stew that is pureed with Lucca’s famous extra virgin olive oil, which Lucchesi proudly claim, of course, that it is Italy’s best. The farro is cooked separately and folded into the thick porridge before serving, making it a true Tuscan classic that even Romans (and other Italian “foreigners”) begrudgingly add to their own restaurant menus. It’s THAT good ! 

Zuppa di Farro - Lucca

Such was the case at one of the more formative restaurants where I worked in the late 80’s off of Central Park in NYC. San Domenico NY was the Gotham version of the mythical San Domenico restaurant in Imola, a short drive from Bologna in the Emilia Romagna region. If you’re an old school Italian foodie, you’ll know that San Domenico in Imola is a two-star Michelin restaurant, founded over 50 years ago, whose original chef, Nino Bergese, was the creator of the “egg in the raviolo”, a dish that has been duplicated by Italian restaurants all over the world. The dish, like all things that make you wonder, “hmmm, why didn’t I think of that?” is brilliantly simple.

It consists of a single, large raviolo where the filling itself is one large egg yolk, nestled in a ring of ricotta and finely chopped spinach. A second sheet of pasta is hand pressed over the yolk and ricotta ring so as to form something resembling a pasta flying saucer. Then, the raviolo is plunged into boiling salted water and, like all fresh pasta, cooks in approximately 3 minutes. The genius is that in those 3 minutes, the egg yolk also cooks, much like a soft boiled egg. 

While the raviolo is boiling, a dollop of high quality butter is melted in a small saucepan and when the butter starts to brown, it is imbued with a fistful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano so that the cheese fizzles in the butter. At the 3 minute mark, the raviolo is drained from the pasta-water, plated in a pasta bowl, and the bubbling butter/cheese mixture is poured over the top. The piece de resistance comes table side, where the server shaves fresh white truffles from Alba over the entire dish. All you have to do is split the raviolo with your fork and watch the egg yolk ooze over the truffles, butter and Parmigiano cheese. There is only one word for this dish. Heaven! 

Even though the San Domenico restaurant was originally from Emilia Romagna, the New York version served Lucca’s Zuppa del Gran Farro as if it were their own. In fact, it quickly became the restaurant’s signature dish. San Domenico NY was the darling of the burgeoning Italian fine dining scene. Up until then, the majority of Italian restaurants in NY (and throughout the U.S.) primarily served red sauce and veal cutlets. San Domenico NY was a smashing success from opening day and warranted visits from any and all Italian dignitaries and celebrities visiting New York.

The Roman Jeweler

Whenever Pavarotti hit the Big Apple, his first stop was always at San Domenico. More so, we had a regular lunch client, the scion of a famous Roman jewelry house, who always managed to arrive at 2:29 in the afternoon, knowing full well that the lunch seating ended at 2:30pm. He obviously didn’t know, and certainly wouldn’t have cared, that the small band of lunch cooks were the same toiling the dinner service, following the true Italian method of working a ‘split-shift’ for lunch and dinner. In Italy, while lunch is served over the same timeframe as in the U.S., the dinner hour does not usually begin until 8pm. Many restaurants in Italy do not even open the doors until 7:30pm. But this was NYC, and we were just 15 blocks north of the Broadway theaters. We even had a special ‘pre-theater prix fixe’ menu for those who wanted to have a quick dinner and still make the 7:05 curtain call. We opened the doors for dinner service at 5pm and by 5:30 we were often in the throes of a full seating and then, we had the normal dinner rush from 6:30pm to 9pm.

Because this was NYC, the “normal” dinner hours were also followed by the post-theatre diners and those who liked to eat late at the bar where food was served until 11pm. My day as a line cook started at 9am to prep for lunch and dinner service. I would break at 2:30 and take the subway home to Morningside Heights (30 minutes door to door) so I could put my feet up for an hour before returning at 5pm. If I were lucky, I would end my day at 11:30pm but it was not unusual for me to be there until midnight. Oh, and this was 6 days a week, not 5. I never worked so hard in my entire life.

You can imagine, then, how precious every minute of that 2:30 to 5pm break was to the kitchen crew. So, when the jeweler pranced in at 2:29, we would throw up our hands in despair. He would easily cost us an additional 30 minutes of work and ruin our day. That wasn’t the worst part. He always started his meal by ordering the Zuppa del Gran Farro and inevitably would ALWAYS send it back saying it wasn’t hot enough. On a fall day, 30 years ago, Lorenzo, our sous-chef, couldn’t take it anymore. He started flinging pots and pans while cursing in his Bolognese accent and calling the Roman jeweler by every name in the book.

That there was a north-south divide between Lorenzo (north) and jeweler (Rome) meant that there was all the more bile to the vitriol. The other cooks were all disciples of San Domenico in Imola and had come over from Italy for the chance of working in New York at one of the premier Italian restaurants of its day.  

We all watched with trepidation as Lorenzo thrashed the kitchen while reheating the soup. First, he took the dainty soup cup, the one with small handles on both sides, and placed it over an open flame. Then he slammed a small pot on the adjacent burner and filled it three quarters with the farro soup. While the soup was heating, so was the elegant, two-handle, Richard Ginori cup. The dishwasher, whose job it was to clean those pots, was ensconced in a corner waiting for the storm to pass. The cup was so hot that when he poured the soup it splattered in all directions— some hitting me in the chest. And I was several feet away.

Tell the Chef it’s perfect

Lorenzo held the cup, with a kitchen towel as a mitt, and placed it over the accompanying saucer. He screamed for Franco, the Maitre d’, to come into the kitchen. Franco arrived and he received a warning from Lorenzo not to touch the cup. Franco was a 20 year veteran and, technically, Lorenzo’s equal when it came to restaurant hierarchy. So he warned Lorenzo to exchange the cup, otherwise we could all lose our jobs. Lorenzo’s response was: “ Non mi frega un cazzo, portala cosi’ ! “ (Essentially, “I don’t give a shit, take it the way it is!”)

We were filled with dread anticipating Franco’s return with our pink slips in hand. There was no getting around that the jeweler had been set up to burn himself. If he picked up the cup with both hands for a sip, it was likely to leave him with missing fingerprints. If he put the soup to his lips with a spoon, at a minimum he would scald his tongue, leaving that burn in his mouth the rest of the day. Time in the kitchen seemed to slow down, like when you are in a car accident and see yourself hitting the brakes but the car won’t stop in time to avert catastrophe. Finally, the kitchen doors swung open and Franco seemingly flashed the “OK” sign. He looked straight at Lorenzo and relayed in his heavily accented English the message from the jeweler: “ Tell the chef, it’s perfect” !

It’s like they say, the rich aren’t like the rest of us. Rather than admit defeat, the jeweler told Lorenzo where he could put his cup!

Take it from me and Forbes Magazine, who in 2009 published a list of the 10 most idyllic places to live in Europe. Lucca was rated # 2. It will always be an idyll for me. 

Here goes the recipe for the Zuppa del Gran Farro. If you can find Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Lucca, that’s the cherry on the cake but even without it, you will love this soup. It’s that good! 

Ingredients for Zuppa Del Gran Farro:

  • 1/4 cup EVOO (ideally from Lucca, D.O.P)
  • 1 large Spanish onion, small dice
  • 1 large carrot, small dice
  • 2 stalks of celery (rinsed), small dice
  • 4 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
  • 1/2 tsp of chile flake
  • 4 oz of pancetta, small dice
  • 1 sachet of: bay leaves(3-4) rosemary & sage (2 oz total) wrapped in gauze
  • 1 lb of dry borlotti or cranberry beans (soaked over night)
  • 12 oz ladle of tomato sauce
  • 1 cup of white wine
  • 2 quarts of chicken stock
  • 2 quarts of water
  • Kosher salt to taste (at the end of the cooking process)
  • Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
  • Farro (cooked and kept separately), see recipe below

Ingredients for Farro:

  • 2 Tbsp EVOO
  • 1 large Spanish onion, fine diced
  • 1 lb. of farro grains
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1 cup of white wine
  • 3 quarts veg stock, chicken stock or water

Farro Step by Step:

  1. Pour EVOO in a stock pot and (over low heat) sweat the onion for approx.5 minutes. Add the farro and toast for 2 minutes (like risotto) then season with 1 TBL of salt.  
  2. Deglaze with the white wine and when almost dry, add the veg stock and bring to a simmer. The farro will cook like risotto and be firm but tender in about 18-20 minutes. 
  3. Spread on a sheet pan to cool and set aside.

Zuppa Step by Step:

  1. In a stock pot, place EVOO on medium flame and sweat together the onions, carrots, celery & garlic for approx. 10 minutes or until the vegetables start to soften.
  2. Raise the heat slightly and add the chile flake, pancetta and sachet of herbs and sweat 5 minutes more.
  3. Drain the beans and add to the vegetables & pancetta followed by the tomato sauce.
  4. Cook EVERYTHING together for 5 minutes to marry all the flavors.
  5. Deglaze the pot with the white wine and reduce for approximately 5 min. to cook off the alcohol.
  6. Add the chicken stock & water and and bring back to a simmer (for approx. 45 min) or until the exterior shell of the beans are no longer “chalky”. (add more water or stock if necessary)
  7. Once the beans are fully cooked and creamy, then season the soup with kosher salt and carefully puree’ or blend with 1/2 cup of EVOO.

Note: when pureeing a hot liquid in a blender, you must allow for steam to escape otherwise the pressure will cause the mixture to explode, potentially causing severe burns —best practice is to remove the center cap from the lid and allow air to escape while blending (use a kitchen towel to cover the open lid while leaving room for hot air to escape and prevent any splattering.

To Serve:

Reheat the soup in a small stock pot and add an ample kitchen spoon of cooked farro per portion of soup. Serve in a soup bowl and drizzle with EVOO & fresh cracked black pepper

Long live Lucca, La Mora and Mimi (La Boheme)!