I always try to stay true to the child in me
Alessandro the Chef
I grew up in southern Italy, in a house where food was something you prepared at home, with your own hands. We made our own bread, our own pasta, we bottled our own tomato sauce and passata di pomodoro. My dad even used to make salami and other preserved pork specialities. He wasn’t a butcher, it was just a hobby of his, and we’d all lend a helping hand. In August, when the tomatoes are ripe, everyone in the family gathered around the kitchen table to help sort and process them. My job, when I was little, was to put the basil leaf in the bottle. I can still remember the taste of the pasta al pomodoro we made with the fresh tomato sauce.
For me, these memories go right to the heart of what I think a chef should do. I don’t invent anything, I take my cue from the past. Sure, I add techniques and ideas that I’ve learned along the way, from colleagues and teachers, but in the end my aim is to recreate, for the guests of Passalacqua, the tastes I remember, those old, genuine tastes. So many people who come here have an image of real Italian food, maybe one that comes from films, but they’ve never matched a taste to that image. That’s my job.
Tradition is at the root of this, but you should always hold tradition up to scrutiny, because we know so much more about the science of cooking today. Traditionally, basil is torn up by hand and scattered onto a pizza or a plate of spaghetti al pomodoro. That’s exactly right, because cutting the basil leaves with a knife will oxidize then and make them go black along the cut edge. Traditionally, bread or pizza dough is covered with a linen cloth and put it in a warm place to rise. That’s what my grandmother used to do, that’s the method that is still taught to home bakers in most books and blogs. In this case, tradition can be improved on, because we now know that when they’re encouraged by a warm environment, the enzymes in the yeast rush to break down starch into sugar and ferment it, resulting in bread that is heavy and not easily digestible.
Here at Passalacqua, we put the dough in the fridge at 4°C for around 52 hours, which gives the enzymes plenty of time to do their work. The more work the enzymes do, the less our digestive systems have to do when we eat the bread. But there’s tradition of another kind in all the bread we make here – because the starter is based on a sourdough mother I inherited, which has been kept alive in my family for four generations, since my great-grandmother’s time. So this slow-rise bread is actually more ‘genuine’, in a way, than the standard fast-rise version, because you get more of the sourdough flavor coming through, more of the flavor of the grain in the wheat.
"I always try to stay true to the child in me“