Our film class, a group of 6 American women who weekly discuss an Italian film in Italian, recently viewed the 2017 documentary, Marchesi: The Great Italian. It recounts the life of Gualtiero Marchesi (1930 – 2017), widely believed to be the father of modern Italian cuisine who refined and personalized Italian regional cooking and elevated it to international acclaim.
Born in Milan, Marchesi began learning the cooking trade by observing and working in the kitchen of the restaurant in his parents’ small hotel. He continued formal education in Switzerland, France and Japan. He then returned to Milan and opened his first restaurant in 1977. It quickly earned a coveted star from Michelin, the French rating guide. A second Michelin star soon followed. In 1985 when Marchesi’s restaurant became the first in Italy to receive a third Michelin star, he said, “this gives the prize not only to me but also to the renaissance of Italian cooking that has been in progress for the last 10 years.”
Marchesi’s philosophy of cuisine is based on simplicity and fresh ingredients first, then technique and elaboration. His dishes became works of art or musical scores. He believed that each ingredient has a role in the symphony, it must be clearly recognizable, and that to achieve harmony it must stand on its own in the contrast between flavor and texture.
Among Marchesi’s signature dishes are the famous Risotto Oro e Zafferano (Risotto Gold and Saffron) with an edible gold leaf over the rice; Raviolo Aperto (Open Raviolo), which has a filling of scallops between two sheets of pasta, a plain one and a spinach-flavored green one; and Spaghetti Freddi al Caviale (Cold Spaghetti topped by Caviar), seasoned with chives and shallot. Dripping di Pesce (Fish Dripping) was a later invention inspired by painter Jackson Pollock; the background is a light mayonnaise enhanced by the white of squid and clams, the red of tomatoes, the black from cuttlefish ink, and the green from parsley.
Throughout his life, Marchesi was a whirlwind of projects and new initiatives. He created a line of frozen foods and a signature liqueur. He provided management services to other restaurants and created menus for cruise ships. He opened a cooking school in Parma and restaurants in London and Paris. He even created two new hamburgers and a dessert for McDonald’s restaurants in Italy.
But it was his high-end restaurants that drew attention and awards … and controversy. In 1992 he closed his Milan restaurant and opened another one in a luxury hotel in Erbusco (province of Brescia), which also earned Michelin stars. When Michelin downgraded the Erbusco restaurant in 2008, Marchesi announced that “I do not want to be judged by guides using points or stars.” He repudiated the Michelin system and its stars, the first person in history to do so.
Marchesi led a very intense life and died at age 87 in 2017, shortly after the documentary was made. Today Terrazza Gualtiero Marchesi is the only restaurant in the world to offer the entire menu of the most famous dishes of Marchesi. It is hosted by the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, a five-star hotel overlooking Lake Como. The restaurant is supervised by Enrico Dandolo, son-in-law of the Maestro.
Marchesi’s legacy lives on in current chefs like Massimo Bottura and Carlo Cracco. Marchesi embodied the philosophy of the great 19th-century chef Pellegrino Artusi: “Cooking in itself is a science…which only the best are able to transform into art.”