Chef Andrea Sposini looks authoritative in a pristine white chef’s jacket that drapes comfortably over his slim build. His head is closely shaved. He waves hello with one hand. A long rolling pin waves back and forth like a conductor’s baton in his other hand. He grasps both ends of the rolling pin and flattens chocolate-colored dough that will transform into cacao tagliolini. His powerful forearms drive the pin across the counter in quick, forceful movements. He flashes a brief smile as guests enter the home of Maria and Andrew Arnone in suburban Lawrence, Kansas. Tonight, the four-course meal he will prepare for a dozen guests concludes the series of culinary events scheduled during his Kansas City area debut.
Originally from Perugia in central Italy, Sposini is better known stateside among a select clientele in New York and San Francisco. Currently, he teaches private classes and cooks for clients on both coasts. He travels within Italy and abroad to promote authentic Italian cuisine and culture as an ambassador and food industry consultant.
While in Kansas City, Sposini prepared a five-course dinner at Mike Garozzo and Charlie Gitto’s Italian restaurant in Harrah’s Casino. He taught cooking classes at The Bay Leaf in Lawrence that covered antipasti, primo, secondo and dolce courses. For the dozen guests standing in the Arnone’s kitchen, tonight’s gathering blends history, cuisine, and geography through words, food, and wine. Coordinated by local food public relations diva Amanda Frederickson and the Arnones, this personalized dinner and informal cooking class beats watching The Food Channel.
Maria, fluent in Italian, translates as Sposini answers questions. Her husband Andrew assists the chef with preparations. Maria’s friend Paola, a tall Venice native now living in the States, adds her perspective and enhances the international flair of the evening. Sposini is affable, patient, and tactful as he parries questions with answers that touch on the roots of Italian cooking. He has taught Europeans, Americans, and even Indians the precepts of authentic dishes. His most recent project involved opening Cibo, the largest luxury Italian restaurant in Dehli, India.
India, Meet Italy
Bringing the purity of Italian cuisine to India presented a unique challenge for Sposini. Before he developed the menu, he prepared a clear brief of his client’s needs. Simply put, the client wanted authentic Italian cooking that observed the proprieties of the local custom and diet. For example, eel is sacred in India. No eel livornese or anguilla alla matalotta. Not fried, sauteed, or grilled. Observing Muslim custom, no pork was allowed on the menu either. No salami, prosciutto, or porchetta.
Sposini researched hundreds of traditional Italian recipes and found options where vegetables served as a side could become the main dish while maintaining the integrity of its Italian heritage. As a result, fifty percent of Cibo’s dishes are vegetarian. Further, he spent six months finding classic recipes without eggs to appeal to vegans. He studied, researched, and, in the end, taught the Indian cooks why the recipes worked as Italian cuisine.
“People think that chefs are creative,” says Sposini. He comes from a class of culinary professionals that believes in upholding tradition. “I want to be a perfect repeater of the cultural concept that already exists. In order for the cuisine to continue, people need to be able to prepare classic Italian cuisine.”
He expresses concern that younger generations of chefs and people at home are not learning methods of traditional cooking. He advocates the need for chefs that are “teachers and repeaters” of the classic style. “Italian cuisine is not a recipe. It is a technique, a lifestyle.”
Green Heart of Italy
Sposini finishes rolling the cacao tagliolini. He lays the sheet on a towel and folds it over a rail to air dry for a moment. He begins rolling another ball of dough for a batch of plain tagliolini. The two variations of pasta will be served in the first course. A guest inquires about semolina flour. The question initiates an impromptu lesson on the use of different flours to make pasta. Each pass of the rolling pin punctuates his translated remarks.
The chef describes his native country as long and narrow. Southern Italy uses semolina, a hard flour, commonly used in pizza dough. Influenced by northern Africa, the south of Italy also uses cous cous for some dishes. In the mountainous northern region near Switzerland, buckwheat is commonly used. And in central Italian regions such as Emilia-Romagna, soft flour is the foundation of its fresh pasta. He detours to Umbria for a word about spelt flour.
This ancient grain’s roots extend beyond medieval times to the Bronze Age. Centuries ago, the Etruscan tribe invaded Umbria and occupied the territory of its chief rivals the Umbri. Spelt, a sacred grain to the Etruscans, was used in funerals and later found in tombs. Its usage extended to the tribe’s diet.
Nutty and slightly sweet in flavor, spelt has been traditionally prepared by modern Umbrians as a whole grain and milled into flour. Eventually, wheat overtook the popularity of spelt throughout Italy because it is easier to process. However, Sposini still touts the merits of spelt, which has excellent digestive properties and nutritional characteristics, as a traditional food source.
His hometown Perugia is the capital city of the Umbria, a central region 800 meters above sea level that Sposini describes as the “green heart” of Italy. Growing up in this hilly, verdant region, Sposini was influenced by the taste of its ingredients, by the purity of local specialties bound by tradition that transcend the dining table. Moderate in climate, the region is known for growing unique produce, particularly Umbrian olives and extra virgin olive oil. “Its low acidity gives the oil a sophisticated flavor,” says Sposini. “In Perugia, olive oil is considered a food and not just an oil.”
Considered the garden of the Vatican, Umbria is also known for its black truffles, Baci chocolate, and cured meats. Norcia, a town in the province of Perugia in southeastern Umbria, is known for sausage and ham made from local wild boar and pigs. These famed cured meats, or norcineria, are sold by a norcino, one who sells the delicacies in a local shop.
According to Sposini, the culinary history of norcineria traces back to the Middle Ages and another honored profession. During this time, Perugia was home to surgical schools. Then, dottore, or doctors, practiced making incisions on the carcasses of pigs to refine their technique. These skills carried over to the art of butchering pigs and wild boars, curing the meat, and eventually selling prosciutto, salami, and other fine norcineria.
Sposini and his assistants serve small plates of cipolla al forno and slices of crostino di fegato e di asparagi al limone. The antipasto of baked onion has been marinated first in white wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar over two days to break down its texture. Baked and served with a drizzle of olive oil, the onion is tender with a mellow flavor.
Creamy chicken liver paté seasoned with capers covers the first piece of crostini. The liver tastes mild with herbal undertones enhanced by the golden olive oil. Each bite is followed by a coo of delight. The other crostini, awash in a brilliant green puree of asparagus brightened with lemon juice, nimbly counters the earthier paté with coy promises of spring.
Bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio tip, glasses fill, empty, and fill again. Guests around the table exchange introductions, then stories, and finally laughter that bubbles like seltzer water.
Sposini’s philosophy establishes that the first work of a chef is to do more than make food. His elegantly accented words ring out in a steady rhythm. He unleashes his idea like a linguistic arrow that will find its target no matter the language. The chef must give, must make food that pleases body and soul. If he can make people happy with the dining experience, then he has succeeded. He suggests a word to describe this dining experience – conviviality.
Surely, Sposini is pleased by the smiles and joy in the dining room as he bustles in the kitchen and prepares the next course.
Cuisine as Lifestyle
After graduating from Cordon Bleu in Rome at the beginning of his career, a mentor suggested that Sposini was well suited to teach others. He began as a low-level teacher at Cordon Bleu and later became a chef in a small town. As Sposini refined his knowledge and mastery of Italian cooking techniques, he decided to launch his own cooking school Alta Società.
“It was not a contrived decision or strategy,” he says. Teaching others the fundamentals of classic Italian food matters greatly to him. Reflecting on his training at Cordon Bleu, he decided not to focus on French cuisine until he dug into the deeper knowledge of Italy’s culinary tradition. He states, “Italian cuisine is not comprised of recipes. It is a lifestyle. It is a sensation experienced when a person tastes the food.”
Alta Società is one means to impart his philosophy, to introduce Italian cuisine, culture, and lifestyle in one fell swoop. A determined teacher, he heeded the call of clients beyond the borders of Italy that also wanted to learn in the United States, London, India, and other corners of the globe.
Ultimately, Sposini teaches chefs how to please their client with the dish prepared. He wants a diner to sit and eat over a span of two hours but not realize the time has passed. He wants the plates to come back empty. He wants the food to taste so good, to leave such an impression, that they will come back and still appreciate the memory of that dish three years later.
The sheets of pasta dough are retrieved and laid onto a butcher block. Sposini folds and cuts the dough into slender strands. He gently seizes a handful and allows the pasta to dangle from his fingers. Light pierces through the curtain of dough. It is imperfectly cut. The texture, the shape, the amount of moisture mark the dough as handmade. Mixing it in a machine would result in a sticky glob.
He prepares tagliolini two ways. The chocolate-colored pasta is made with cocoa comprised of 70% cacao solids. The cocoa imparts a bitter taste, but it is a subtle perception of bitter tempered by the flour, the sweetness of shrimp, the hint of brandy.
The use of cocoa is a “modern take on a classic technique,” explains Sposini. History wanders into the moment. He points out that tomato is not used on tonight’s menu. Classic Italian cooking employs native foods available in the Old World before the New World introduced the now ubiquitous tomato. “Tomatoes were not used until America was discovered.”
Sposini reminds his audience that Italy is a young country. “On the 18th of March, Italy celebrated its 150th anniversary,” he says. Before that, the land was divided into kingdoms in Sicily, Vienna, and so forth. “Only the wealthy houses used better ingredients.”
To prepare the cacao tagliolini con gamberi al brandy, he boils the pasta in salted water for a few moments, it is drained and tossed in a sauce pan with olive oil and shrimp. Once a splash of bourbon is added, he shakes the pan and orange flames erupt dramatically before subsiding. The alcohol is cooked away, but the flavor remains. He narrates as he cooks: The sauce merges with the pasta to unite as one. The flour in the pasta absorbs the liquid. This characteristic is important so that the dish presents one flavor. Cooking the pasta in sauce too long is a mistake.
Tagliolini con crema di funghi, or tagliolini with mushroom cream, follows. Plated, the dual portions of pasta form a symbolic yin and yang. The small serving is sufficient to appeal to the senses and appease the buildup of hunger. Unlike the monstrous servings at chain restaurants attempting to deliver value while sacrificing quality, Sposini’s modest portions pose little danger of fattening the guests or diluting its essence. Moderation is the key, especially since two courses remain. The pleasing taste of fresh pasta lasts far longer than the time it took to prepare.
Politely, the guests quell mild signs of trepidation and anticipate the chef’s most daring course – lingua in salsa verde or beef tongue in green sauce. This lingua is different from the lengua served in taquerias around the city. Sposini spotted the beef tongue at the market and decided to offer it on the menu. Never mind the anatomical origin of this typically inexpensive meat. With Sposini’s version, the texture is tender; the color lighter than the heavily seasoned meat used to fill street-style tacos.
Chef Sposini slices petite, slightly fatty portions of lingua and serves them with salad greens lightly dressed with citrus vinaigrette and paper-thin orange slices. Smiles tighten, eyes flicker back and forth across the table and down to the plate. Some portions are passed onto a neighbor, others attempt a bite or two. With a few forkfuls, mine disappears. The lingua is reminiscent of a mild roast beef. It is divine.
Dessert arrives as a crowning achievement. Torta di nocciole con crema di cioccolato al rum sounds like the password to heaven. When the hazelnut torte arrives on a cloud of white chocolate cream and splash of rum, only a choir of angels would complete the moment. Sighs of appreciation drift across the table.
Sposini closes the meal with an unexpected treat. For the first time tonight, he takes a seat as all eyes turn to him. Individual slices of strawberry are laid in flat wide spoons on a tray. He gestures to a small bottle of aged balsamic vinegar. He weaves a history lesson that involves dowries, women that made this precious vinegar while men divined wine from grapes; how the vinegar is aged in barrels of different sizes and woods to impart and concentrate its flavor; how balsamic vinegar is a traditional digestive and a delicacy to be treated like gold.
As he speaks, he pulls the handle from the bottle and extracts a tiny amount of vinegar in a dropper. A few dark droplets glide onto the strawberry and the serving spoon is passed around the table. The guests sample this combination of flavor and sensation – sweet, tart, fruity, acidic. Our senses are heightened ever so slightly; our knowledge of food and its place in history reinforced with each bite. We are attuned to a moment that inevitably must pass as the evening draws to a close.
Cooking to Please
Cuisine is a powerful, portable and sensory cultural force. Food speaks a language better received around the world than politics, religion, or a fanatical combination of the two. Around the dinner table, strangers are now convivial acquaintances that reluctantly say farewell.
An anecdote that Sposini earlier shared comes to mind. He was hired to cook for a private party at the client’s beautiful home in California. “Make what you want,” he was instructed. No boundaries.
Sposini chose to make risotto with quail. As the meal commenced, he set the dish on the middle of the table in a big presentation for the guests. He soon learned that quail was the official state bird of California. To make matters more complicated, three sons in the family were active members in an anti-hunting group. They left the table. Sposini extracted a valuable lesson from the experience – always understand your objective.
Even a master chef has lessons to learn from the past and present. “Everything is a consequence of time,” he says. “History tells the life of a whole culture. That history can be told through cuisine.”
Tonight’s objective has been reached. In a day or two, Sposini will depart for the West Coast. For now, the teacher can relax while his students of history, culture, and cuisine depart with buoyant spirits into the shroud of night.