Saturday, July 11, 2015

On the Road to Dubai - via Alto Casertano

I first heard about Road to Dubai thanks to a Facebook post in mid June.  Road to Dubai, A road trip  described as an unprecedented gastronomic tour of Italy. A group of chefs, journalists, food distributors and foodies travel in 3 campers from North to South Italy It sounded pretty cool, but I wanted to learn more.  I sent a message to Chef Francesco Guarracino, leader of the pack.    

Chef Francesco Guarracino

Guarracino, originally from Sorrento, has been the executive chef at Bice Mare Italian Restaurant in downtown Dubai for about four years.

The chat went something like this...

Ciao, Francesco, come stai?  Bene?? Allora,  will you be coming to Campania during your tour? 

Yes - for two days.  Would you like to join us?

Gee, I don't know maybe for one day of course I would!!!

Fast forward to the Fourth of July.  Instead of celebrating Independence day at a barbeque in the park complete with fireworks, I headed towards the small town of Caiazzo in Alto Caertano to  Pepe in Grani.  At about 1140 the camper caravan arrived after spending the previous day on the Sorrento Peninsula.
I was there, along with Franco Pepe (Pepe in Grani) and Manuel Lombardi (Agriturismo Le Campestre) to welcome the crew of chefs, journalists and food lovers...headed by Guarancino.
Campers parked, we headed down the narrow cobblestone road towards one of the top pizza meccas in Campania, wait, in Italy. Pepe in Grani.  

Franco Pepe welcomed the crew with a little history of his way of pizza making.  He showed the laboratory where he does what he has been doing best for oh, such a long time.  Preparing pizza dough by hand.  I've known Pepe for years, am a grande admirerer of his work and his pizza, so I stepped back to watch the reaction of the group.  As Pepe worked the dough, cameras snapped, questions were asked and other words - in my opinion, the group was fascinated.

Franco Pepe

After a tour of the pizzeria which includes an amazing terrace as well as   three guest rooms with breathtaking views of the territory, the troupe was ready to taste a few pizzas.

 Pepe explained the wood burning stove concept as he put together his first pizza for the degustazione/tasting.  A simple pizza with simple ingredients.  Garlic, olive oil, red chili, and anchovies.  

The next pizza was a twist on the classic pizza margherita.  Pepe calls it his Margherita Sbagliata.  Sbagliata means wrong, incorrect.  So what did he mean? Well, it meant that he added the tomato sauce after he cooked the pizza, not before.  A tomato sauce made with pomodoro riccio.  Even the basil was made into a sauce, and squeezed on top.

During a brief pause, I was asked which Franco Pepe was my favorite by my new travelling companions.  A tough question..but as I began to answer, the next pizza came out of the oven and headed straight to our table. La Riccio Nero ripiegata. Ripiegata means foled over-not like a calzone, but folded over after it comes out of the oven.  The pizza included escarole salad, scamorza and fior di latte cheese, and black pork salami. Which by the way, is one of my favorite ingredients...

Last but not least, a pizza that gave us an introduction to our next stop.  Pepe's pizza with sugna, figs from Cilento - fresh and jam version, as well as a sprinkling of Manuel Lombardi's conciato romano cheese.

On that note, we said our goodbyes to Caiazzo and headed towards nearby Castel di Sasso about 15 minutes away.  Here we entered into a peaceful sanctuary known as Agriturismo Le Campestre.  

Nearly 5 years had passed since my last visit but I instantly felt at home.  It was here where we would have our lunch and relax a bit on the terrace.  Lombardi shared his family's southern hospitality with the crew from Dubai.  A spread of products from the farm such as ....

fresh ricotta cheese

purple potatoes stuffed with pancetta bacon

primo sale cheese with tomatoes

fried cheese
Other appetizers included olives with marinated apples, buffalo milk mozzarella cheese, a chick pea soup with thick crusty toasted bread, and a delicious salami tray.

A first course pasta dish which I wrote about here.  Chef Guarracino helped out in the kitchen as well, and even plated up for us.

Scialatiello ai Profumi delle Campestre

Last but certainly not least, special dish that highlighted the family's production of the ancient conciato romano/pickled cheese.  Pears baked in sparkling  Asprinio d'Aversa wine and sugar were the perfect accompaniament which I will write about in a future post.

Manuel Lombardi

Lunch was over...maybe  too soon for me, since I would be leaving the group at this point. 
But before I left, I chatted with Guarracino for awhile.  It was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm, like when he bit into a piece of buffalo milk mozzarella that Mimmo La Vecchia of Il Casolare shared with all of us that afternoon.  Or when he paused in front of the anfora of conciato romano - an ingredient which he knows well.  We talked about the challenges of getting products in Dubai that he wanted to put on his menu...products that would allow the chef to stay true to his Italian roots and please an international clientele back in Dubai.

Yes, I left the group, but continued to be with them in spirit as they headed to Terre del Principe to learn about Casavecchia, and Pallagrello Nero and Bianco - ancient grapes found only in Alto Caertano.  Later, the headed to Le Colonne Restaurant and Michelin star Chef Rosanna Marziale who gave them another taste of the territory.

The group continued on to Puglia, and then,  a trip that began in Milan on the 29th of June ended in Sicily on the 8th of July. Just part of a bigger package that will feauture a summit held in Dubai in October.

A little far from home for me, but ...well, who knows? In the meantime, I'll follow the hashtag #roadtodubai...

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