Meeting Mamma…In Italy

Our senior editor travels to the mountains of northern Italy to photograph the mother of one of our Italian chefs.


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.”

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