Stefano Scatà
Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo
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Making Noise Up North

Alan Tardi - October 2013

Antonino Cannavacciuolo, a burly, brash Neapolitan, has gained acclaim and fame at his Michelin two-star Villa Crespi on Piedmont’s tranquil Lago d’Orta. Alan Tardi checks out how this force of nature bridges the clashing parts of Italy’s cultural and culinary personality.

Tradition and regionalism backed by a trove of enviable ingredients form the backbone of Italian cuisine. But, truth be told, these unassailable features, appealing as they may be, have also retarded its development somewhat. When the continuation of doing exactly what your parents and grandparents did becomes merely a routine or an act of blind obedience, stagnation sets in. At the same time, stepping out from the tried and true can be perilous, especially if it undermines, rather than builds upon, familiar flavors and preparations.

Now, two decades after Italy’s mostly disastrous attempt to jump on the nouvelle cuisine bandwagon, a new generation of Italian chefs has finally managed to let go of mama’s apron strings without entirely turning their backs on her. Each has a distinct style and approach. One of the most compelling of these chefs is Antonino Cannavacciuolo, whose style can best be summed up in one word—contrast (or, in 10 words: the seemingly effortless, seamlessly harmonious combination of apparently contradictory elements).

An initial contrast hits you the moment you drive up to his Michelin two-starred Villa Crespi to find an ornate Moorish palace complete with a minaret-topped tower standing out in sharp contrast to the sedate surroundings of Lago d’Orta, the smallest in Northern Italy’s lake region and the only one in Piedmont. And another comes when you meet the chef. Contrary to his name, which is the diminutive of Anthony, Antonino is as big as a grizzly bear, with a thick black beard and even thicker Neapolitan accent, not to mention a typically Southern in-your-face presence, which, like Villa Crespi, clashes with northern reserve. The most notable contrasts, however, turn up in his food.

Italy is a long narrow peninsula that extends from the snow-capped Alps of the southern Tyrol to the subtropical edge of northern Africa, and there has long been a major cultural and psychological—not to mention culinary—division between north and south, a division which Cannavaccioulo bridges with ease and aplomb. He was born in Vico Equense on the Sorrentine Peninsula near Naples, and both parents were cooks—his father a professional chef and cooking school instructor and his mother a full-time casalinga (housewife). Quite naturally, Antonino (when he was still truly -ino) followed in their footsteps.

“Being born in Naples gives a cook a natural advantage over someone who is not from the south,” says Cannavacciuolo. “In the south, the flavors are more intense, and there’s a strong, innate culture of food and eating you just don’t find in the north. The air is constantly filled with the aromas of cooking, and at meal time there might be 20 people around the table eating, drinking, and talking, and it goes on for hours. When I was a kid, mozzarella di bufala never saw the fridge and neither did herbs or vegetables. When my mother needed something, she’d go right out to the garden and pick it, and my father raised the best chickens I ever tasted. He still does!”

Cannavacciuolo began working in the restaurant where his father was chef, followed by turns in several other prominent hotel restaurants in Campania before venturing north to Lago d’Orta in 1995. He got his first chef’s job at a restaurant called l’Approdo, where he fell in love with the boss’ daughter Cinzia. The boss liked his food and so did the patrons, one of whom was a wealthy semiretired lawyer from Naples named Rafaelle Esposito, who owned Villa Crespi.

After a few years, the young chef returned to Campania to work at the luxury hotel Quisisana on the island of Capri, followed by a sabbatical to eat his way through the finest restaurants of Italy and France and do stages at Auberge de l’Ill in Illhaeusen and at Le Buerehiesel in Strasbourg. Then he got a surprise call from Esposito.

As Esposito and his wife spent only part of the year at Lago d’Orta, and the cost of maintaining the villa was high, he had decided to rent out the ground floor as a restaurant. But the business was not managed well and, even worse, the lawyer didn’t like the food. “He told me he was going to have major surgery the next day,” Cannavacciuolo recalls. “He said he wasn’t sure he would make it this time and wanted to put things in order. He wasn’t happy with the restaurant in his villa and wanted me to take it over. I replied ‘Come on, avvocato, you’re going to live for a hundred years!’ Three days later he was dead.”

Following Esposito’s last wishes, Cannavacciuolo took over Villa Crespi in 1999 with Cinzia and the financial assistance of her parents. The couple married four years later.

“It wasn’t like this when we first got here,” says Cannavacciuolo, as he makes a sweeping gesture around the immaculate premises, painstakingly restored to their former glory. Besides the restaurant, the villa also houses a luxurious hotel consisting of six rooms and eight suites. “It’s taken 14 years of hard, continuous work. But it’s paid off. And it gave me time to develop my style.”

Despite living and working in Piedmont for more than half his life, the flavors and aromas of his childhood stayed with him, commingling with the different flavors, ingredients, and culinary traditions of his adopted home. But one of the things that makes his approach so successful is that it doesn’t seem forced or contrived; this merging of north and south seems to happen unconsciously and spontaneously. “It’s not as if I sit down to make up a new dish and ask, ‘OK, how am I going to combine north and south?’” says Cannavacciuolo, “It just happens. Yes, my cooking is the outcome of research, but the research is internal. It’s constantly ongoing, and the results are always changing. Every day, every moment, a new emotion and a new dish emerge. In this business, you’re either a chef or you’re not. It’s not a job, it’s a vocation. Like a priest marries the church, a cook marries the kitchen.”

There are plenty of geographical juxtapositions on the menu, like Neapolitan Gragnano pasta al pescatore and meat-filled Piedmont-style pinched ravioli; Razza Piedmontese veal and shrimp from Sicily; snails from Cherasco and burrata from Campania. Many dishes offer other contrasts, such as meat and fish, liquid and solid, hot and cold. A plump and pristine fine de claire oyster set on a liquid cushion of radish cream is an exquisitely tasty marriage of land and sea, while gnocchetti of baccalà with Venus clams and algae is pure salty sea on the freshwater banks of Lago d’Orta. Another contrast: a crispy croquette cube filled with finely diced gelatinous veal cheeks next to a quenelle of shrimp tartare. A twist on pasta e fagioli is fettucine made with bean flour, tossed with bottarga di tonno, and enlivened with lemon so fragrant it makes one think of Amalfi. The classic Piedmontese vitello tonnato (literally, “tuna-ed veal”) becomes tonno…vitellato (“vealed tuna”): a perfect square of cool raw tuna arrives in a bowl followed by a waiter who pours warm veal demi-glace, richly flavored but not tacky, over the top. Once again, the contrasts of land and sea, hot and cold, seem a bit odd at first, but the rich melding of flavors, textures, and temperatures quickly erases any doubts.

Besides Villa Crespi, which received its second Michelin star in 2007, Cannavacciuolo served as consulting chef at Locanda del Pilone in the hamlet of Madonna di Como near Alba, before leaving there at the end of July to take a similar role at Boscareto in nearby Serralunga d’Alba. He also endorses an array of popular food products, and, along with Cinzia, runs Laqua Spa & Terrace Suites, a small luxury resort on the Sorrentine Peninsula. He also helps manage his father-in-law’s two restaurants on Lago d’Orta and has been thinking about opening a large casual dining complex and retail store nearby. Most notably, as of May 2013, Cannavacciuolo has been the chef/protagonist of Cucina da Incubo, the Italian cable version of Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen (the latest of a rash of new Italian “reality” cooking shows that includes MasterChef Italia with restaurateur Joe Bastianich as one of the judges), which is bound to greatly increase his public profile.

But what about the third Michelin star? “Up until now, I’ve been playing,” he replies. “The fine dining restaurant with 15 cooks in the kitchen, the fancy food, the luxurious setting. But the game is starting to get tough. I’m 37 years old, and I have a family [he and Cinzia recently had their second child]. Now I have a new objective: when I’m 50, I want to retire. And in order to do that, I need to do business. If the third star brings me that, I’ll do it. But I don’t think it will. I need collateral activities that generate revenue and build clientele. Then, one day, I’ll sell them and retire, just as my father did.”

Would the brazen chef really trade in his toque and all that goes with it to cook for the family and carve Neapolitan crèche figures as his father did? What about his comparison of the endlessly creative chef married to the kitchen like a priest married to the church? Cannavacciuolo’s answer is simple: “Hey, if the Pope can decide to step down and enjoy the rest of his life, why can’t I?”