I can remember that first lunch in Livorno as if I ate it yesterday. (In fact, I can remember it better than whatever it was I actually had for lunch yesterday.) After overnight flights to Pisa—chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro from Chicago, me from New York—we have all arrived hungry. We speed directly to the central market. Fishermen in this Mediterranean town used to sail their wares up the Arno River to the market quay, and today everything in the refurbished market’s 230 stalls looks just as fresh. On a table set for us in a corner is just-squeezed orange juice, thin slices of mortadella and prosciutto, thick wedges of mozzarella and a tomato drizzled with local olive oil. In a basket there are three kinds of bread, each representing the subtly different baking style of three nearby villages. And then cinque e cinque (literally “five and five,” from a long-ago price) a remarkably light chickpea flour pancake. This is Livorno’s street food, and it is delicious.
Worried about the fleetingness of this four-day trip with one of America’s most-loved chefs (he used to cook for Oprah before opening five restaurants in as many cities), I’m snapping photos of every plate. And I’m driving people crazy: “Could you move your arm, so I can shoot the bread?” Art has a better idea.
“We could do these,” he says, crunching into a crispy bite of cinque e cinque. He means he will make them back at home. Because of the chickpea flour, the cinque happens to be gluten-free, and Art, like much of the culinary world these days, is on the lookout for things that are both wheat-free and delicious. But he’s also looking for memories. “If you’re on a trip, you need to experience what’s out there,” Art tells me. I quickly take to the idea of approaching dining as an opportunity for souvenir collecting: Why bring home knick-knacks when you can bring home ingredients and great new ideas?
I first saw Art on Top Chef Masters years ago. We became friends when I interviewed him in 2010 about his weight loss for my book—he had dropped 120 lbs. by changing his diet and training for two marathons. The weight loss helped reverse symptoms of diabetes, so going back to his old way of life is not a possibility for him. But while Art, at age 53, still works out hard, he has eased up on the distance running. As a result, he has to be even more careful about how he eats. He invited me to join him on this four-day food-and-wine-soaked trip to Italy in part to see how he pulls it off. “You travel to explore, and to taste,” Art says. “So the challenge is not to overdo.” He also steers clear of most pastry and anything made in a factory. “Food is hand-made or homemade—or I don’t eat it.”
Normally I tend to be more from the “vacation calories don’t count” school of thought. When will I ever see a tiramisu as fresh and cloud-like again? Does it make sense to skip it? Art’s rule, even when traveling abroad: “Only eat what is really special.” And, for the next four days, that’s exactly what we did.
DAY ONE: LIQUID GOLD
The mastermind of this Italian jaunt is Art’s friend Renee Frigo Graeff, president of the Miami chapter of Slow Food. She has arranged to bring some of her board members to the Salone del Gusto, Slow Food International’s biennial celebration in Turin, not far from where the movement to protect “good, clean, fair” food began. The event is paired with Terra Madre, a massive gathering of small-scale, sustainable farmers, fishers and food artisans from around the globe. Because it is white truffle season, Renee also plans a detour into the forest so we can see how these rare fungi are hunted by man and dog. But first a stop in Tuscany, where she and her husband, Daniel, own an olive oil company, Lucini.
Renee and Daniel had both been in the record business until a honeymoon in Tuscany set them on a different course. They loved Italian olive oil and were surprised how much of it coming into the US was actually grown elsewhere but labeled “bottled in Italy,” part of a sizeable counterfeit olive oil industry aimed to cash in on Brand Italy. It fooled them. “We bought expensive oil, but felt like schmucks! We thought once people knew how much was fake, they would want the real thing.”
A short drive inland and we arrive at the olive groves with 4300 trees, all heavy with olives, waxing from green to brown, the first indication that they are ready to be picked. A team of workers is raking the fruit out by hand, a traditional method that most producers have given up in favor of machines that shake the olives off later in the season. Art, Jesus, and I relieve them for a few minutes, combing the fruit from the trees using small plastic rakes. But it’s a lot of work for the men doing to the job for real. The fruit rains down on tarps and is gathered into trucks for a short trip to the mechanized sorter and then crusher, with the final stop a spout of green-gold liquid. Art is curious, asks a lot of questions, muses about growing olives on his family’s pastureland in the Florida panhandle.
Unlike wine makers, olive oil producers can’t coax additional flavor through fermentation; it’s either in the fruit when you pick it, or it isn’t. “This is religion for us, “ says Riccardo, the Italian head of the company, who has joined us. Inside a house on the property we get our first taste: that same green-gold is poured so generously over toasted bread that our chins are glistening from each mouthful. The just-pressed oil is peppery and tickles the throat and bites back with a hint of green garlic and the nuttiness of artichoke. “Amazingly great right off the tree,” declares Art. All the while Renee is talking about the health benefits of extra virgin oil—that peppery flavor indicates an increased level of heart-healthy polyphenols—so we don’t dwell on the indulgence. We take hits of straight oil from a shot glass. That olive oil can taste good enough to sip is a reminder: Don’t cook with your best extra-virgin bottles. “In Tuscany we don’t cook with high quality olive oil,” says Riccardo. “Cook your onion, tomato, vegetables in water, and add olive oil at the end.”
DAY TWO: UNEARTHING UNEARTHLY FLAVORS
The following morning the bell tower outside my hotel room begins striking “eight” at precisely 8:14. I meet Art in the lobby and together we run for 5 km past the marinas, parks, and the oceanfront villas. Livornians are out with their dogs, on their bikes, untacking their boats.
After a quick change and a hotel yogurt and espresso, we are off to the truffle hunt. Mauro del Greco is a licensed (and camo-clad) truffler. “Mr. Truffle Hunter looked like he was going hunting in the back woods of Georgia,” jokes Art later. Art has been to Italy five times, but this is new for him and neither of us know what to expect. “I had a vision of truffles growing in a very ‘painterly’ place,” he admits. “I didn’t realize we were going to be in the bush!”
But we are. We meet Mauro and his two lagotto dogs on the edge of a Tuscan forest. (“Lagotto” comes from the word for lake; they were originally bred as water retrievers.) I would like to tell you exactly where, but Mauro, like everyone in the truffle game, is secretive about locations. The last road sign I remember seeing was Via Karol Wojtyla and after that it was unmarked dirt paths, distinguished by the odor of a controlled burn of leaves and garbage. It’s a primitive recycling program, though I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t also meant to throw outsiders off the scent of the town’s most valuable asset.
Riccardo explains the relationship between tree roots and truffles: ‘It’s like they make love.’
Related to mushrooms, truffles are what mushrooms can only aspire to be. In the wild they grow underground, on or near the roots of trees including oak and poplar, which are abundant here. Riccardo’s English is very good, so we assume he has chosen his words carefully when he explains the relationship between roots and truffles: “It’s like they make love. When the moon rises, the truffles grow at the roots. Then the moon sets and the truffle develops flavor and aroma.” They are expensive—nearly $4000 for a kilo (just over 2 lbs.)—because for the most part they defy cultivation.
It was a hot summer and that isn’t good for the fall truffles; our expectations are managed sharply downward, and we all chime in that we’re happy just to be here taking a walk in the woods, with the dogs. We duck under vines and over fallen logs, following Mauro, who is following his dogs, who are following their noses. A great truffle dog can be worth up to $40,000 and the business is full of stories of intrigue and cani-cide.
No truffles yet, but Art makes a discovery of his own: Bay laurel is growing wild here, and he plucks a bunch and offers me a whiff, far more complex than what I’m used to from jars. I wonder with all the competing smells—bay laurel, grass, trees, humans, little forest rodents—how can a dog track down a buried truffle? I ask Mauro.