In place of his name, Massimiliano Alajmo has a sketch of a child with a frying pan in his hand embroidered on his chef’s jacket. Although one might assume that the image is a symbol of his precocious rise to success – Massimiliano is the youngest chef ever to receive three Michelin stars (back in 2002, at the age of 28) – but by dining at Le Calandre, his flagship restaurant located outside Padua in Italy’s Veneto region, one learns that it is representative of the chef’s playful approach to cooking.
“Cuisine must undress itself of the superfluous to rediscover the innocence of a child,” he explains. For this enfant prodigy, ideas for his distinctive dishes come from looking at the world with a sense of discovery.
During a recent visit to the gym, Massimiliano witnessed diacutaneous fibrolysis, a physical therapy technique that involves massaging or “rolling” muscle fibre to relieve knots and soreness. “My trainer explained that elbows are more effective than fingers for applying pressure,” he recalls. Massimiliano immediately asked himself if the same principle might not hold true in the kitchen. “Why not roll out pasta with my elbows?” Within a matter of minutes, he had discovered a new pasta shape, the gomitata or elbow dig.
“If we believe that we have made evolutionary steps forward in gastronomy, we are wrong: during the Renaissance, games and mockery were part of everyday life. Irony is the simplest way to address serious subjects!”
Hence In&Out, a thirteen course chocolate dessert tasting, paired with a musical soundtrack that represents “a journey we have all taken, from our first heartbeats, to our entrance into the world.” Both the music and the chocolates mirror a baby’s development inside the womb, until ultimately making the dramatic passage from the darkness to the light. Only Massimiliano Alajmo is capable of exploring the miracle of birth through chocolate!
The chef’s conviction and passion for the culinary arts are apparently inherited traits. Massimiliano is part of the fifth generation of the Alajmo family self-employed in the restaurant industry. Born May 6, 1972, Massimiliano was raised inside Le Calandre. “When I was little, my mother, a talented home cook, was called to take over the restaurant kitchen. I used to spend my afternoons drifting amidst a sea of chefs and dream about the day when I would have my own white uniform.” His path had been paved.
After attending culinary school and cooking his way through some of Europe’s top kitchens, including those of Alfredo Chiocchetti, Marc Veyrat, and Michel Guerard, Massimiliano returned home to Le Calandre in 1993 and began working alongside his mother, Rita, who together with her husband Erminio, (Massimiliano’s father), had earned the restaurant its initial Michelin star the previous year. Confident in their young son’s talent, Rita and Erminio decided to hand over the reigns a year later in order to take on a new challenge. They had found another restaurant, La Montecchia, located at the base of the nearby Euganean Hills, which was calling for
their skill and experience in catering to larger parties.
On March 13, 1994, at the tender age of 19, Massimiliano was appointed executive chef of Le Calandre, while his older brother Raffaele succeeded his dad in the front-of-the-house. Left to their own devices, the boys achieved startling success. Within three years, the restaurant received two Michelin stars, and six years after that, in 2002, it received the coveted third. But that was just the beginning.
In 2004, Le Calandre spawned Il Calandrino, a stylish café/restaurant/pastry shop located directly next door. In the morning, it’s a bustling neighbourhood coffee bar – albeit one with the perfect espresso, courtesy of Gianni Frasi of Torrefazione Giamaica Caffe in nearby Verona, a legend in Italian coffee circles. The breakfast pastries, made on site, are decidedly Italian in character; butter and milk are often replaced with oil and water and only the essential amount of sugar is used. However, sugar-addicts need not worry. The space is also home to a small pastry shop, managed by Laura Alajmo, Raf & Massi’s sister. The pasticceria is filled with wonderful cakes, chocolates, petit fours and seasonal Italian sweets like frittelle during Carnival and panettone at Christmas.
At lunch and dinner, Il Calandrino transforms itself into a full-blown restaurant. The menu is more casual than the one at Le Calandre, but no less creative. Dill tagliolini are tossed with lobster, capers and sauce of sole, while lamb ribs are seared and served with artichokes, balsamic vinegar and a mozzarella fonduta. Sommeliers are on staff to suggest everything from the familiar to the esoteric, while waiters merrily slice prosciutto and other salumi on custom-designed meat slicers.
The Alajmo family also opened a delicatessen across the street where visitors can purchase the ingredients Massimiliano uses daily in the kitchens of his restaurants.
The shelves of In.gredienti are lined with Sicilian olive oil, jars of vibrant red tomato sauce, and flavoured egg pastas, like smoked tagliatelle and coffee tagliolini, produced according to Massimiliano’s original recipes and sold under the In.gredienti label.
After their successful collaboration with artisan food producers, the Alajmo brothers decided to extend their partnerships to other arenas. Massimiliano’s interest in the role the sense of scent plays at the table, led him to contact Lorenzo Dante Ferro, a master perfumer from Friuli. Together they developed a line of sprayable essential oils, in flavours like basil and lemon, which can invisibly transform a bowl of soup or a classic cocktail. “We eat with our nose,” claims Massi. “Scents and aromas target the brain’s centre of long-term memory, connecting us with past memories.”
It is no coincidence that Memoria, or Memory, is the name of the fragrance that Massimiliano designed for his restaurant. A refreshing mix of lime, star anise, and bergamot that “represents the atmosphere of Le Calandre.”
“A great meal is always a multisensory experience,” explains Raffaele. “That is one thing that Massimiliano and I agree upon 100 per cent.”
The Alajmo brothers’ determination to provide their guests a great meal, day after day, led to the 2010 remodel of Le Calandre. “We have witnessed a generational change in the clientele of our restaurant. Our customers are less interested in formality and the false sense of inaccessibility and more interested in comfort and sensibility.”
The first thing to go: the white tablecloths, a hallmark of any 3-star Michelin restaurant. Now guests dine on elegant wood tabletops cut from a single 300-year-old ash tree. “You can’t help but run your hands across the fine-grain,” explains Raffaele. “Our sense of touch is often undervalued.”
Selecting materials as if they were ingredients, the Alajmo brothers crafted a room that, like one of Massimiliano’s dishes, is far more than the sum of the parts. The lighting was studied to draw one’s attention to the table; the linen wall coverings absorb the chatter from other tables; while the hand-blown wine glasses are playful representations of the brothers’ opposing figures. “Eating should be about pleasure,” stresses Raffaele, who is known for his ability to make a business out of both.
After having secured the foundation of their culinary empire in Padua, the Alajmo brothers set their sites on Venice. In early 2011, they took over Gran Caffe & Ristorante Quadri, located in St. Mark’s Square, with the goal of giving the aging establishment a much needed face lift, both in terms of the décor and the menus.
For the fine-dining restaurant upstairs, Massimiliano created an entirely new portfolio of dishes that embrace local ingredients, as well as the city’s history of “culinary contamination.” A delicate fish stew is topped with a creamy potato puree and dotted with saffron and liquorice in his cappuccino of the lagoon, while a perfectly seared breast of guinea-fowl is decorated with capers, coffee and a sauce made of Venetian-style calves’ liver.
To create the perfect frame or context for such dishes, Raffaele worked with a renowned architect to restore what was worth restoring, like the Murano glass chandeliers, and replace what was not. “The chairs we inherited were faux antiques,” explains Raffaele. “We decided to paint them gondola black and reupholster the cushions in black velvet.”
These improvements didn’t go unnoticed. Within six months from the reopening, Ristorante Quadri was awarded its first Michelin star and named the Best New Restaurant in both the 2012 Italian BMW and L’Espresso restaurant guides.
Next came the renovation of the historic café, filled with centuries-old paintings and exquisite stuccowork. “There was little we could do on the ground floor, in terms of décor, besides try to best preserve what was already there,” comments Raffaele. A new kitchen was installed to protect against the water, which frequently floods into the café during high tide season.
“Venice has certainly proven to be a challenge,” chimes Massimiliano, “but it certainly hasn’t stopped us.” What’s next on the Alajmo frontier, one might ask. “A lot of hard work and play!”
Today, the Alajmo brothers manage six restaurants and a blossoming catering business, all located within a 60 km radius. That said, Le Calandre remains the heart or creative centre of the operation. Inside his test kitchen, Massi studies a certain ingredient or flavour combination, reworking it into various declinations to fit the personality of each restaurant.
Baccalà, or salt cod, is an emblematic ingredient of the Veneto region and has appeared on every restaurant menu. At Le Calandre, Massi codified his ideal recipe for baccalà mantecato, a traditional dish prepared in an untraditional way: it is cooked sous-vide, whipped or mantecato with olive oil, and paired with caviar, smoked gelatin and a potato tile dusted in potato powder. “The smoke was added as an afterthought,” explains the chef, “however its role is fundamental. The faint trail of smoke transports the sapid intensity of the caviar, creating the sensation of fishing rigs on cold seas.”
At Il Calandrino, the same whipped salt cod is dressed down to fit the restaurant’s casual atmosphere. Served sandwiched between fried squares of yellow polenta, baccalà mantecato is one of many cichetti, or Venetian snacks, on display at the bar. “The dishes may vary dramatically,” explains Massimiliano, “but the research is the same.”
The version of this dish served at La Montecchia is a tribute to Andrea Mantegna, the renowned Renaissance painter who was born near Padua and worked in the Veneto for much of his life. Baccalà “Mantegnato,” served with a biscuit of burnt wheat polenta and a salad of bitter lettuces, captures the earthiness of the countryside, while a hint of anise (added the form of a sprayable essential oil) leaves a lingering scent of the incense that once filled the air around Mantegna’s paintings.
In Venice, Massimiliano’s menus embrace the local food traditions, as well as the culinary “contaminations” that occurred in the city throughout history. Upstairs at Ristorante Quadri, fresh cod is butterflied open to be stuffed with a mixture of stewed onions, anchovies, Parmigiano, and nutmeg, all of which is topped with a smooth potato cream. Downstairs at abcQuadri, as well as at its sister restaurant, abcMontecchia, salt cod appears in the simplest of forms, whipped and plated with a salad of mixed greens.
© chefs in the kitchen by Wowe; Massimiliano in the kitchen by Wowe; PAGE 89: drawings by Massimliano Alajmo; risotto by Wowe
© Mario Reggiani
© faces by Giovanni De Sandre ; Massimiliano with paint brush by Wowe; Massimiliano in the kitchen by Wowe