Faith Willinger

Faith Willinger is a proud “born-again Italian”. In 1972, she left America for Europe where she discovered food that was worlds apart from the American-Italian food she grew up with in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, she has fervently shared her passion for Italian food with everyone, most notably American food doyenne Julia Child, and Chef’s Table director and producer Brian McGinn who describes her as, “the Godmother of Italy who has introduced me to some of the most talented, beautiful souls”. Now, Willinger wants to share her Italy – in particular, her hometown of Florence – with readers of The Local Tongue.
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Why I Moved to Italy

I moved to Italy over 40 years ago and I’ve been here since. I’m a lifer. I was kind of crazy moving here. I was divorced and I knew I didn’t want to hang around in Cleveland, Ohio. So, I picked up my son and we started travelling in Europe. This was in 1972. At the time, my idea of Italian food was American-Italian food. When I made it to Italy, and discovered a whole different cuisine, the real Italian, I was blown away. I decided I had to learn everything about it. I wrote to Julia Child and told her that I wanted to know about Italian food what she knew about French food, and if she had any advice for me. I sent her a package of artisanal coffee with the letter just to show I was serious. She wrote me back and said study with a professional chef. Don’t bother with a school and keep me informed. We stayed in contact and when she came to Italy, I took her to a restaurant here in Florence. To this day, I still go there. It’s quite different. I still love it. These restaurants that I’ve given you are the very best. If you have a list from me, I want every single place to be just super. I want everybody’s trip to Italy to be as special as my trips. It’s not only about the Michelin stars. It’s about what’s great, what’s local.

The Importance of Seasonality

Every region is very different. But Florence and Venice, and Rome to some extent, are overwhelmed by tourists. And so, you have a lot of restaurants pandering to tourists with mediocre food because they know that the people who are coming are never coming back. So, most of the restaurants in Florence and Venice are serving a terrible version of local food and people are eating things that aren’t in season. Ribollita a traditional dish, but it’s a traditional winter dish made with Tuscan kale. In order for the Tuscan kale to be great, they say it has to be exposed to a winter freeze. So, if you’re eating ribollita in August, you are not having the ribollita experience. There are many pitfalls in Florence, but there are also many places that I love to eat in Florence.

A Champion of Tuscan Cuisine

Number one is Cibrèo Trattoria. If I have to leave my own kitchen, that’s where I like to go. Fabio Picchi is the chef and creator. First of all, Fabio is olive oil obsessed. He’s also obsessed with ingredients. All of his restaurants serve his personal take on Tuscan cuisine. Some things are traditional, like ribollita, and some things are not traditional, like a potato flan that is so creamy and rich, it’s amazing. In the winter it’s served with a meat sauce and in the summer it’s served with a pesto. His food is original, but heavily based on Tuscany. He grew up in a family that ate well, and you can see that. There’s also Cibreo Caffe, where you can have a small meal of some of the things they have on the menu at Cibrèo, but also other dishes. Fabio opened Teatro del Sale, a private club, but it doesn’t cost very much to join. The food there is incredible. In the evening, they clear away the food and it becomes a theatre. There’s also C.BIO, which is an organic grocery, and restaurant Ciblèo, where Asia meets Tuscany. It’s very interesting. All of these places from Fabio are in the same neighbourhood.

My Neighbourhood Favourite (That I Took Julia Child To)

Trattoria Angiolino is my neighbourhood go-to restaurant. It’s also where I took Julia Child. Julia said to me, “I want to have tripe in a Florentine trattoria” and this is where I took her. It still does the same dish, and it’s still beautifully done. Julia loved it. She said, “this is so great because people always want to take me to the fanciest restaurants in town and that’s not what I want”. I understood what she was looking for and that’s what I helped her have. If you’re scared about having tripe, this might be the place to try it. The restaurant is large and noisy, and it has a great wine list of mostly Tuscan wines.

A Trattoria Not Designed for Tourists

Vini e Vecchi Sapori, meaning “wine and old flavours”, is very central. It’s right next to Piazza della Signoria, the main piazza of Florence. It’s just a simple trattoria that’s sort of hidden. You can tell it’s had a lot of experience with tourists because there’s a sign at the front that says, “No pizza and no coke and no ice.” The owners don’t want those people in the restaurant. It’s a small restaurant and it’s always packed, so you get this, typically Tuscan, real trattoria type of experience. A lot of regulars go to this restaurant. I don’t know who’s in the kitchen, but what they’re doing is great. This is a place where it’s not about grilling, it’s about saucing. So, you’ll have things that are braised for a long time, which I adore because it means that somebody’s taken the time and effort to make a dish that I don’t have to do. The menu is changing all the time, but the chefs do a frenchisino, which is one of my favourites. It’s made with yesterday’s boiled beef braised with onions. It’s a lovely dish. You don’t find a lot of people who make it. It has a small but terrific wine list.

Tuscan Food at its Most Elegant

Cantinetta Antinori is serving what a noble family would think of Tuscan food. It’s a little more evolved, a little more elegant. It’s owned by the Antinori wine family, who are a very famous and noble family of Tuscany. They have this cantinetta, a little wine cellar restaurant that is not a little wine cellar restaurant. It’s actually quite wonderful. I would say it’s Tuscan food at its most elegant. For example, beans are a very big thing in Tuscany, and here, the chefs do beans with shrimp. They’re very simply done, dressed with a fabulous extra virgin olive oil. You get three impeccable ingredients together, and that’s a fabulous dish. You don’t need somebody making fancy sauce or doing fancy stuff if you’ve got really amazing ingredients. They also do cecina, which is made with chickpeas. It’s usually more like a crepe, and theirs is between a crepe and a cake. It’s served with shrimp, which is something from the Tuscan coast, and it’s something very unusual to find in Florence. And, of course the wines are all from the Cantinetta Antinori. The guy in charge of the restaurant, Daniele, is a joy. You can say, “give me whatever is great today, Daniele”, and he’ll do it.

A Tuscan-Focussed Wine Bar You Can Dine At

Pitti Gola e Cantina is a wine bar that has food in service to its wine, because wine is what it’s really about. It has an amazing wine list with up to 10 vintages of some wines. The food here is great, very simple and all things that go well with wine: fresh pasta, the best cheese and the best salumi. Natural wine has a presence in Tuscany, but a lot of people don’t want to get stuck under that label. Italians have a hard time following the rules. They just want to do things the way they want to do things. When visiting, I would say that if you devote yourself to Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino – the two superstars of Tuscany – you’re going to have a great time.

Over the Top (In the Best Way)

Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura, at museum Gucci Garden, is just like Gucci: completely over the top. The food is of the world and of fashion. It’s delicious and unusual. If I want to leave the country, this is where I go. It’s a great place to see fashion people parading their everything. The décor and ambiance is so over the top that you get a whole range of interesting people going there to eat. It’s actually situated in what was once an old palace, and the coat of arms from all of the different guilds have been incorporated into the restaurant design. The chef, Karime Lopez, is Mexican, and you feel that through the food. She does a blue corn tostada and when you eat it, you realise you’ve never really tasted a tostada before in your life. It’s the dream of your dreams. She is a very, very talented chef. I’m not a dessert person, but the desserts here are spectacular.

An Adored Chef Cooking in a Renaissance Palace

Chic Nonna is the best new spot in Firenze. Frescoed room inside a Renaissance palace. Elegant service. A gastronomic dinner menu that was speedily awarded a Michelin star. Chef Vito Mollica is adored by Florentines. Also inside the stunning Palazzo Portinari Salviati is the Salotto Portinari: a courtyard bar and bistro that offers all-day dining with Italian classics and a business lunch that’s a real bargain. 

Florence’s Best Gelato

For me, the best gelato in Florence is at La Sorbettiera. If I want gelato, this is where I go. It’s especially known for its chocolate gelato. If you really love chocolate, you don’t want milk chocolate, you want chocolate with no dairy. This is how the chocolate gelato is done here: it’s so dark and rich that they named it tar. It’s almost black, and it’s incredible. The gelato flavours are all seasonal. So, you’ll have pomegranate gelato, persimmon gelato, a squash or chestnut gelato: that’s the fall line-up.

The Greatest Chef in Italy

For me, the greatest chef in all of Italy is Massimiliano Alajmo from restaurant Le Calandre in Rubano. Massimiliano is a genius. He is so curious and always up to something new. If I want to go to a place that will really blow me away, this is where I go. It is just so incredible. Every year, he has a chocolate dessert with 10 different elements, so if you’re a chocolate person, you might need to go there. He created a dish many years ago, a cappuccino of cuttlefish, and it’s become a standard in many places in Italy. A chef who invents a dish that spreads all over the country is incredible. And he’s now taken that dish and made it into a whole different thing. In Venice there is a glass blowing tradition called Murano which features colours swirling through the glass. Massimiliano taken that concept to his cappuccino of cuttlefish, and created something a dish with beautiful, swirling colours using potatoes, beets and squid. It’s art but at the same time his food isn’t fussy. You don’t have the feeling that somebody’s been sitting there with tweezers. It’s amazing. My husband is a very fussy eater. He’s Tuscan, he likes Tuscan food and he likes simple food, but he’s willing and happy to go to this restaurant and that says a whole lot. If you’re looking for the greatest food in Italy, for me, this is it.

A Sicilian Food Genius

If I could teletransport, I would go to Restaurant La Madia in Licata, Sicily. For me, chef Pino Cuttaia is the Sicilian version of Massimiliano Alajmo. He’s a really great chef but he is so grounded in his region and its special ingredients. You’ll taste things you’ve never seen before. He was the first chef to use an ingredient that had only been found in poor people’s homes which were the leaves of a long squash plant. Long squash is something they use in Sicily and looks like a baseball bat version of a zucchini. We all know about the squash and squash flowers, but the leaves were something that only poor people ate. Pino took the leaves and made it into a filling for pasta, and then he made the pasta itself out of cuttlefish. He’s a magician. He also has a grocery store, Uovo di Seppia, where he sells a lot of the ingredients that he uses. Every Saturday, early in the evening, they have a party called ‘Arancine e Bollicine’, where they serve arancini and bubbles. Once you’ve had his arancini it’s difficult to eat them anywhere else because his are so good. And it’s also great because it means that you can taste Pino’s food for a reasonable amount of money.

A Pizza Pilgrimage

Franco Pepe is the God of pizza. I call him doctor dough because his dough is so amazing. It is all hand kneaded in wooden troughs: that was the tradition. He does classic pizzas, but he also does creative pizzas. He does a dessert pizza, for example, with apricots from his area that are very, very special. He does a fried pizza. He does a pizza as a wrap. As a provocation, he did a pizza with pineapple. He did it just to show people that if you really know what you’re doing, you can do anything. His pizzeria is called Pepe in Grani. If you go there, expect to wait at least two hours. But it’s incredible and completely worth it. There are also three rooms, so if you’re lucky, you can spend the night. The only reason you go to this village is to have this pizza. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s in Campania which is the area in Naples where pizza was born. His family were all pizzaiolos. They have pizza in their blood, but Franco has taken it to a whole different level.

Rethinking Dry Pasta

Most people think dry pasta is not as good as fresh pasta, but these are people who haven’t eaten Peppe Guida’s pasta: he takes dry pasta to the ultimate level. His restaurant, Antica Osteria Nonna Rosa, is in Vico Equense, Napoli. Up the mountain from his restaurant he has a bed and breakfast with three or four rooms. It’s overlooking the sea, and you can see the bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius in the distance. It’s magical. There is a huge garden, and you’re eating what’s coming straight out of that garden, which is in an area with volcanic sea. The vegetables and fruit from his garden are unlike vegetables and fruit that you’ve ever had in your life. He has 15 different kinds of citrus. He cooks a wonderful pasta with lemon, no cream, of course. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever had in your life. I call him the pasta whisperer. He’s focusing on dry pasta, which is from this particular area of the Sorrento coast. He’s taken this local product and made it into something so special and so wonderful. There are lots of shapes that are typical, but one of the shapes that he uses that I adore is pasta mista. They used to sell pasta by weight, and so you would go into a store and they would give you however much you wanted. At the end of the day, in the drawers, where they were storing all the pasta, they’d have a lot of little bits and pieces left over. And they would add those together and call it pasta mista. It’s really cool because since all the pieces are different shapes and sizes, when you cook them, some are less cooked and some more cooked. So, you get a whole play of texture that’s really, really interesting. This is a shape that you will only find in Campania.

How I Became Part of the Chef’s Table Family

I’ve known Massimo Bottura forever. I’ve known him since the very beginning of Osteria Francescana when there was never anybody in the restaurant. I was an early fan. I was walking out of my house to head north to a charity event in Modena, and Massimo called me, and he said, “do you know the documentary film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi?”. And I said, of course. He said, “well, the people who made that film are here and they’re doing a documentary about me and I want you to be in it”. I said, “well, I’m on my way to Modena. He said well come by on the way home and spend the night here”, so, that’s how I got to be in Massimo’s episode of Chef’s Table. And at some point, Brian (the producer and director of chef’s Table) said to me, we want to tell a story of pastry in Italy, who should we do? And I said, Corrado Assenza in Caffè Sicilia. And Brian fell totally in love with Caffè Sicilia and so did everybody on his team.

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