In 1989, after cooking at restaurants in Santa Barbara and London, I set out to Emilia Romagna to learn how to cook real, authentic Italian food. For me, the only way to do this was to move to Italy and really immerse myself in the feel, the aromatic scent, and the subtle nuances of fresh flavors.
The things you can’t learn in cooking school, like the way fresh pasta dough feels right before you begin to roll it out or how the delicate flavors find balance in a soffritto. I was lucky enough land a job at La Volta, a tiny restaurant perched on a hill overlooking a valley between Bologna and Florence. It was at La Volta where I began to truly understand everything I know about Italian food.
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During my time in Italy, I traveled across every region in the country and I took notes on everything I ate. This was more than tasting notes; it was how the dish made me feel, the texture, the understated flavors, the regional influences. This notebook became my Italian cooking bible.
One of the dishes I fell in love with was Canederli with Speck, a bread dumpling soup from the northern region of Alto Adige, where Italy borders Austria. Outside of the main Italian government offices, all residents there speak German. Accordingly, they appreciate a cuisine rich with ingredients like sauerkraut, horseradish, and liverwurst, food much closer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire than to Rome.
In 1993, back in New York City, notebook in hand, I opened Pò, a tiny, thirty-five seat restaurant on Cornelia Street in New York City. Pò was my culinary playground, where I was able to cook the authentic and simple Italian food I’d learned abroad, but in my style. I cooked dishes far beyond the typical chicken Parmigiano or red sauce pasta most New Yorkers were used to, dishes like Canederli with Speck. But rather than shy away from dishes they didn’t understand and weren’t used to, my customers at Pò appreciated it. They "got" it and it made them feel good.
After leaving Pò to open Babbo in 1998, I decided to retire this dish into the archives, where so many other great regional recipes live. Every now and then I break out the notebook and make one of these dishes. This time of year, when there’s a chill in the air and the season is changing, my palate opens up to heartier food with intense and rich flavors. This is the perfect time for Canederli with Speck. This is my type of feel-good, comfort food.
Mario Batali counts 25 restaurants, 11 cookbooks, numerous television shows and the 50,000-square-foot Eataly marketplace among his ever-expanding empire of deliciousness. His latest book is "America Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers" (Grand Central Life & Style, 2014).