The theater is inevitably evoked when seated for dinner at Maestro in Washington DC, where Fabio Trabocchi designs his high-concept Italian cuisine. There, each dish is plated with the surgical precision of long tweezers and the theatrical flair of the open passe, front-center of the dining room. And so Trabocchi’s new cookbook, a highly personal delve into the little known cuisine of Le Marche, Italy, surprises with its sepia-toned pages and mostly pictureless recipes. Trabocchi illustrates the regional specialties with only a handful of photographs near the center of the book, photos that could pass for touched up 19th century daguerreotypes: family-style plating, rustic backdrops of worn tablecloths and wood, ladles of broth over bowls of paysanne-cut vegetables, and a whole suckling pig bound with string. Without the crutch of design and distraction of photography on every page—which so many cookbooks rely on—Trabocchi’s family recipes and short stories stand on their own to communicate his eloquent culinary philosophy: chefs are products of a specific place and time.
For those who’ve watched Trabocchi confidently lead his team of cooks by headset system in the grand open kitchen, what might seem even more surprising than the limited dish photographs is the small black and white one of Trabocchi himself on his family’s balcony as a small child. While the book is about the food of his childhood, it’s hard to imagine Trabocchi as an untrained culinary student proudly serving his family one of his first invented recipes, a simple chestnut soup(page 38). But before he zipped off to Spain, England, Russia and finally established himself as part of DC’s culinary pantheon, he reminds us with Cucina that he was a starry-eyed boy filling his head with his first “heavenly” smell of black truffles (from the full basket of a truffle-gathering monk in the woods by the hill-town Sant’ Angelo).
The stories have notes of pastoral bliss, yes, but for those tired of the romantic imagery and over emphasized old world quaintness of the rustic cookbook genre, Cucina doesn’t fall into that trap. In a time when chefs and consumers alike are idealizing and celebrating the farm and the farmer more than ever, Trabocchi proudly notes he comes from a pedigree of farmers under Italy’s mezzadria system but goes on to explain how in the 60’s, when he was a kid, the cities lured workers away from their family farms with factory jobs and big-time agriculture took over. As the sharecropping-like system collapsed, his father became a long-haul truck driver whose few days home were always celebrated with family and food—the book is dedicated to him.
The recipe-driven book is sorted simply by appetizers, pastas, meats and so on, and prefaced with a personal story, often witty (in a fussy olive appetizer recipe he shrugs, sure they’re time-consuming, all that sitting around and stuffing each individual olive, but hey, the national pastime is gossiping so it’s perfect!). He celebrates Le Marche’s quirks with explanations of dialect differences from Italian, scattered jokes, and well-researched traditional recipes. A basic section at the back gives recipes for stocks, tomato sauce, and two pasta recipes, one for stuffed pastas and one for noodles.
While Trabocchi admits to specific nostalgia for life on the farm, the book itself is not a simple romantic contemplation. In fact it seems more of a study in how history and scent-memory can all, in context, provoke meaningful spontaneity and originality in the kitchen. The proof: Smoky Hay Turbot (page 117). The idea came about one afternoon while reminiscing with fellow Italian sous chef about the smell of burning hay, when the two noticed a piece of turbot lying on the counter...mischief ensued. At Maestro the proof lay in the eating; the turbot arrived plated on glass through which long strands of hay were visible, referencing his affectionate memory of the countryside, authentic in terms of philosophy, but somehow new. In Cucina that same turbot is adorned only with olive oil-mounted mashed potatoes and fleur de sel, served family-style of course.