May was exceedingly knowledgeable about the fare throughout Italy, and he was happy to share his insights with me on a few occasions. Born Antonio Magliulo south of Naples, May had traveled extensively throughout the county and was familiar with the leading restaurateurs, chefs and food producers. His pan-Italian Palio in Manhattan’s then-new Equitable Building that opened in 1986 took its name from the annual horse races in Siena, which featured a noteworthy, dramatic mural from the Tuscan artist Sandro Chia, and had a kitchen headed by a top chef from the far northern Alto Adige. After departing Palio, he opened San Domenico – long regarded as the best Italian restaurant in New York – a transplant of sorts from the famed restaurant in Emilia-Romagna that has carried the tradition of the cooking for Italian aristocratic households, along with great attention to its locale not far from that rich gastronomic capital of Bologna.
As I learned more about Italian food, the food of Italy, it seemed that it was really local or regional cuisines, all largely tied to a particular area. That was reinforced in many books and articles over the years including a couple at home. My copy of the long-useful The Italian Food Guide from the Touring Club of Italy a couple decades ago wrote in its introduction to the country that “It is a short step from local produce to local dishes. To tell the truth, local cooking has always fascinated even the most refined intellectuals” (even if I might not be one of those). In a similar vein, the phone book-sized resource resting by my stovetop, La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy from the impressive-sounding Accademia Italiana della Cucina, describes that the “most striking aspect of the book remains the enormous quantity of recipes and their close relationship to the places where they are eaten.”
So, it was interesting for me to learn that May had a different – and even controversial – idea about Italian cooking. “There is no regional cuisine. Italy has always had two cuisines, that of the aristocracy and that of the people” was what he said to me in the seaside town of Pesaro on a GRI trip there in 2011. “The cuisine of the aristocracy was always much lighter than that of the regular people,” while the poorer “Italians were just limited by their local products.” And “today you can find Milanese in Palermo, Romans in Naples, and people from the South in the North.” The local diets have become much more diverse. And much richer, more protein, more meat. And there are more and nicer restaurants with dishes moving about. First, spaghetti and clams and more recently cacio e pepe can be found throughout a large part of the country plus a number of others. At the least, May was on to something, and before most others.
Tajarin with white truffles at the San Marco in Canelli near Asti a few years ago