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What top chef Danielle Alvarez learned about cooking on a foodie trip to Italy

We had a quick look around, but hunger pulled us into town for lunch. Piozzano has just one restaurant, Trattoria La Stella. Italy, once financially reliant on tourism, hasn’t had many visitors over the past two years. When my parents and I walked in, the entire restaurant stopped and looked at us. I got the feeling that even before the pandemic, this town had few foreign visitors. It’s exactly how I like it.

A kind waiter who spoke English sat us down. The only question was still or sparkling water. The rest was decided. After a couple of minutes sipping on the local wine (a cold, sparkling red), the first plate hit the table – locally made prosciutto, pancetta and culatello with pickles and soft, crusty Italian bread.

Next were three pastas to share, all handmade (of course) using local ingredients. A rustic ravioli shape with ricotta and greens tossed in butter and served with sauteed porcini mushrooms on the side; a short pasta tossed with borlotti beans and tomato and a generous bowl of Parmigiano-Reggiano on the side; and meat-filled anolini in brodo, one of my favorite things in the world.

Ravioli filled with greens and ricotta at Trattoria La Stella in Piozzano. Colin Dutton; Bryan Cook

When you want to cook and create something with as few ingredients as possible but have each of them shine, everything must be just right. There were no unnecessary garnishes, no extra flourishes to “value-add” – just good ingredients, made with traditions that have lasted centuries, prepared by hands that have been making the same dishes for years using the best local produce.

There is a pride and confidence which is part of the Italian identity. They know how good it is and even in that humblest of restaurants, there was no insecurity about the food or the wine.

During our week in Emilia-Romagna we took a food tour of a parmigiano-reggiano factory and a prosciutto di Parma factory. At the parmigiano-reggiano factory, we tasted the cheeses at different ages; it blew my mind.

The winter issue of the new Fin Magazine is out on May 13. Jesse Hunniford

It was another reminder to stop and pay attention to the details. My mind immediately began to think of the different applications for each one: how a younger cheese might be better in a salad or how well-aged cheese probably doesn’t have a place on pasta as it could be too overpowering (but maybe on a cheese board instead?).

At the second factory, a final tasting of prosciutto, not from different ages but from different cuts, provided further insight into the level of detail and precision that these Italian artisans have. Did you know that different muscles from the same leg of ham taste different? I didn’t, and I left feeling a true sense of awe.

These ingredients get shipped around the world and are in every grocery store. So you might imagine that machines and conveyor belts do all the work. But the reality is that these items are still made by hand (yes, machine-assisted). When I think about that, it is appreciation that makes everything taste sweeter.

From Emilia-Romagna, we continued to Venice, making a quick and fortuitous stop in Verona for lunch, where I had – hand on heart – the best risotto I have ever tasted, at a little restaurant called Tre Risotti. It was made with alpine cheese and served with radicchio.

Cicchetti at Cantina Do Spade in Venice. The small, traditional bar also offers a memorable – and surprisingly simple – spaghetti vongole. Colin Dutton

Each kernel of rice was al dente and perfectly chewy. But what struck me most was the flavor of the chicken broth used to make it. Rich, meaty and umami, it’s been on my mind ever since.

In Venice, we sampled local cicchetti, or small bites, to have with wine, ate many a plate of sardines in saor (a sweet and sour marinade made with onions, vinegar and currants), and too many plates of spaghetti vongole to count.

One of my favorites was at Cantina Do Spade, a small, traditional bar near the storied Rialto Bridge. I asked the waitress if the chef would share the ingredients in the spaghetti vongole. Not surprisingly, they were clams, garlic, local wine, parsley, olive oil and pasta. That’s it!

Chefs around the world have a natural inclination to add to dishes, to constantly try to “improve” them with our brilliant creativity. But the greatest skill of all is knowing when something is enough. I think about that spaghetti vongole and how, in my kitchen, I might have added breadcrumbs or chilli flakes or both, which I know would diminish the dish’s beauty in subtle but perceptible ways.

It was the same way with a salt-baked branzino at Da Giacomo in Milan. It was just literally the fish. I would have felt compelled to have added a sauce or some other garnish. However, it was so delicious in this pure form that it felt like a revelation. But then, branzino itself is only found in the Mediterranean. So if I attempted that salt-baked fish dish with a different fish, it wouldn’t be the same.

Back in my restaurant, I can’t leave the kitchen mid-service and sit down to taste my food as guests are eating it. But I can vow to try to taste things the way I taste them on holidays, with a heightened sense of joy.

Of course that feels impossible now the holiday is over. But if I take these lessons and memories with me as I cook at home and at work, I think the food will be better, simpler and more Italian.

The winter issue of Fin Magazine is out on Friday, May 13 inside The Australian Financial Review.

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