For many of us, raised in America, Italian food was symbolized by oceans of tomato sauce covering cauldrons of mass produced spaghetti-we didn’t know from pasta. And let’s not forget eggplant parmigiana covered with mozzarella not bufala, perhaps from Buffalo, lasagna and veal marsala that had been finished with a sweet marsala wine that came in a small bottle for about $1.39 and should have carried the warning: For cooking only, Not For Drinking.
For many of us, raised in America, Italian food was symbolized by oceans of tomato sauce covering cauldrons of mass produced spaghetti-we didn’t know from pasta. And let’s not forget eggplant parmigiana covered with mozzarella, not bufala, perhaps from Buffalo, lasagna and veal marsala that had been finished with a sweet marsala wine that came in a small bottle for about $1.39, and should have carried the warning: For cooking only, Not For Drinking.
Okay, I exaggerate, there are many places to get a proper Italian meal in Paris but very few that offer the gamut of experience to be had at Emporio Armani Caffé or Mori Venice Bar, where pashas and presidents, performers (Charles Aznavour, Pierre Arditi) and civilians like us dine in Starckian (Philippe) splendor.
Some people open restaurants to make money but Massimo did it because he is passionate and respectful of food and its presentation. We met for lunch at the Emporio Armani Caffé for a discussion of his career.
As we sit down our waiter pours a Grillo, a white wine from the marsala grape, especially well known in Sicily. It develops its unique character due to oxidation as it is aged for 1 1/2 years in open barrels. And then at the end of a year and a half or two years, according to the winemaker, they have the unfermented grape juice, the mout or must. The fermentation can now begin and a slightly sweet wine is produced.
Between the Marsala that the public knows in general and the true Marsala there is a vast difference because a Marsala is high in sugar content and generally is sweet but there are marsalas that are dry like this Grillo. It is an Armani Caffe exclusive in France.
You were born on a wheat farm in Viadana, on the banks of the Po and much of your passion for Italian cuisine and its history comes from your mother. Talk about la momma?
You must know that in Italy, the mother is very important. Everything revolves around the family. Family is important. The mother is the central figure. Mine is as important as any other, if not more, because it is thanks to her that I do this job today in a way that was transmitted to me by first my mother but also by my father who was a craftsman making expensive shoes. I learned the importance of being close to the customer, the value of respecting the client.
In my case, I also had the professional part. Professional vision. My mother was a “rasdora.” It is a job that no longer exists, it is a profession that was transmitted by women, from mother to daughter. And it was the person who ran the kitchens of farms. At the time, we were still on the family farm. At one time people served their workers lunch, and they could easily number forty or fifty people. And even more during harvest period. During a special harvest that figure could double. She was the person who ran all the food and family meals. We had wonderful fresh ingredients and the transformation into meals was not only fun but healthy. Healthy for children, but also for healthy people who went to work.
Is there a philosophy to your cuisine?
Yes, we only use seasonal products–high product quality and very little processing. I respect the integrity of the ingredient. I don’t look to create unusual or exotic plates. My cuisine is not intended to shock. It is a cuisine of pleasure. Above all we eat for pleasure and good health. For me, this is the basis of the cuisine. It is also a vision that is not only mine. It is a vision of Mediterranean cuisine in general, and especially Italian.
When did you first come to Paris?
When he returned, after Franco died in November 1975, he wanted me to go to Estoril, the royal golf course, but because I was still young my father suggested I’d be better off in Paris, so I came to Paris to work at the Ritz and I’ve been here ever since.
And that was your first job in the restaurant business?
My sister is a stylist in the fashion industry in Milan. Once again, by chance, he was looking to open this Emporio Armani Caffé. She told him about me and one thing led another. I’ve opened 12 Giorgio Armani restaurants worldwide.
When I opened here in 1998, the only thing Mr. Armani said was “I want the best spaghetti tomato basil that there is in France.” He did not ask me for caviar or foie gras. He asked me to produce powerful, simple dishes like his art, his fashion. Mr. Armani designs are based on the finest textiles and the cut of the garments. This is not sophistication. Armani is not Versace.
It is something that allows you to digest, leaving a good taste, a good perfume– like a candy. But certainly not a beverage. We do not eat with coffee. While in the Nordic countries …
The farther south the stronger the coffee, much stronger. In Italy people are connaisseurs of café and they pay attention to the quality of the product being served. You should know that the steps in making the espresso are super important. To make a perfect espresso, it is necessary for the water to be 90 degrees celsius and at most 20/25 seconds of extraction. Why? Because that’s how we have almost no caffeine in coffee. After 20/25seconds it begins to extract caffeine. A Neapolitan can drink 20 coffees a day and still sleep at night. My mother, before going to bed drinks coffee. She sleeps because the caffeine is absent. A great coffee has less caffeine. That’s the important thing.