The interview was by phone, as Covid would have it. Just the same, the charm was palpable, the spell woven. For the chef of Dal Pescatore restaurant south of Mantua, Italy, is an accomplished cook – and an equally skilled storyteller.
Though battered by the pandemic and its aftershocks, I haven’t really missed haute cuisine. The comforting little cardboard boxes I’ve eaten from over the past year had led me to forget the tremendous thrill experienced at certain restaurants, and not just because of the food. Then that fine flame was rekindled within me: It happened a few weeks ago, when I set out to write this profile. With the help of her youngest son, Alberto, I was to meet with Nadia Santini, one of the grandes dames of the Italian culinary scene. Those three Michelin stars awarded in 1996 and retained to this day do tend to dazzle. On the other end of the phone line, in enchanting, musical French, Chef Santini explained to me that she had penned some thoughts in that language, reflections on the current circumstances, and that she wished to read them to me. In her text, she addressed the power of literature and culture. Of cuisine, too, which becomes culture. She talked about her political-science studies, which led to her meeting her husband, Antonio, and cause her to be viewed as an intellectual even today. She slipped in a word about Relais & Châteaux, founded following World War II with the objective of “making the world a better place through cuisine and hospitality.” Ms. Santini, 68, demonstrates a certain lyricism when she observes that “politicians make borders – and love and cuisine go beyond them.” Lyricism, but great courage as well, such as when the couple decided to turn the trattoria established in 1926 by Antonio’s grandparents into a temple of taste, having been scorched by the “sacred fire” in France’s gourmet restaurants (including Paul Bocuse, Pierre and Jean Troisgros, and Roger Vergé) during their honeymoon. Nadia took the kitchen reins over from Bruna, her mother-in-law… and Dal Pescatore became Dal Pescatore.
“Leaving a restaurant having learned something is truly a luxury”
Her culinary repertoire includes, of course, the famous pumpkin tortelli, with origins dating back to the Renaissance. Chef Santini has made this dish her own, the recipe for which has been passed down in Italy from mother to daughter. The fried eel, too, marinated an entire day in a blend of vinegar and white wine, reminiscent of Antonio’s fishing trips with his grandfather. I cannot resist asking her about the Parmesan crisps that everyone agrees are attributable to her. She has probably told the story a thousand times, but she willingly answers questions as though they have only just now been plied. “It was on a winter evening. For days, the fog had been so thick you could cut it with a knife.” Nadia decided that such a gloomy atmosphere could only be countered by something fresh, so she made a green broth of spring onions. “Next, I took a very hot pan, buttered it lightly, and tossed in a handful of grated Parmesan. Once it melted, I took a wooden spatula and flipped the little thing over. It got hard in ten seconds. I topped the broth with these little crisps – they looked like stars. There was the green of spring and the yellow of winter. A lot of customers wanted to know the recipe, so I invited them into the kitchen to see how I made them. Leaving a restaurant having learned something is truly a luxury.”
I mentioned earlier how the flame had been rekindled. And yes, I got chills listening to Nadia Santini tell me another anecdote when we were many hundreds of miles apart. Some chefs only know how to express themselves through edible things. With others – and Nadia is one of these –, the passion is palpable in their words. This woman is a storyteller…who does not think herself one.
One day, a Chicago attorney reserved a table at her restaurant four months in advance. Shortly before the dinner date, he called to inform her that his wife had the flu and couldn’t eat a thing, but that they would be coming anyway. “In our region, back in the old days, when you had the flu but no money to pay for a doctor’s visit or medicine, you would consume a very rich broth and pasta. But instead of stretching this pasta to make noodles, we grated it like cheese into the broth.” Nadia decided to reach back to that traditional dish and prepared the venerable liquid for the woman with the flu. But Antonio Santini, who calls the shots in the dining room, refused to serve the broth, believing it to be too rustic. So Nadia served it herself. “The woman ate it all, every drop. She got up and came into the kitchen, crying. She said, ‘When I was three years old, my grandmother would take me and my cousins out to Lake Michigan. The snowdrifts there were taller than we were. And she made this broth for us. And for the past thirty years, I’ve been trying to make this broth for my little nephews!’ I put an apron on her and she made the broth again herself. And she drank a second bowl of it!” Five years later, during an earthquake in their region, the Santinis heard from this woman again. “She told me that she hadn’t forgotten me and that if we needed anything, they could send us money, whatever we wanted. That was when I came to understand the power of emotion.”
At this point in the conversation, I want only one thing: to be in the Lombard village of Canneto sull’Oglio to savor pumpkin tortelli, white truffle risotto, and more wonderful stories from Nadia Santini. In his 2010 documentary starring the chef, director Paul Lacoste said something that resonates perfectly with my experience: “You could call that magnificent simplicity. Plus something very moving. I wonder where this emotion comes from. Does it come from the ingredients? Does it come from Italian cuisine? Does it come from Nadia Santini herself?”