Stefano Masanti, a chef of two worlds

A portrait of the artisan from Madesimo, who capably works both in Valchiavenna and California. Creativity and work ethics

13-01-2018

Stefano Masanti was born in 1970 in Madesimo (Sondrio), where he runs Il Cantinone inside Sport Hotel Alpina, one Michelin star since 2008. From Easter to November he takes care of the culinary offer at Vittorio Sattui Winery in Napa Valley, California

Stefano Masanti’s American adventure started by chance. «In June 2006», he says while sipping a digestif made with erba iva, a natural heritage of the valleys of Chiavenna, «the owner of a big winery in Napa Valley entered a nearby bar. He was looking for a room where to stay. The only hotel that was open was mine».

Eleven years (or so) after, the patron chef at Il Cantinone in Madesimo (Sondrio) continues what he’s done for the past 28 winters: he silently runs one of the best restaurants across the Alps. Since 2013, however, there’s a difference that has to do with the 7 months when he’s closed: from Easter to November, together with dining room manager and wife Raffaella, he moves pots and pans to St Helena, some 100 km north of San Francisco. Here they take care of the entire culinary offer at Vittorio Sattui, a winery producing 3.5 million bottles each year, as well as organising endless wine tastings, weddings and business dinners like the one with the Golden State Warriors or Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google.

«This is because I charmed that man», continues Masanti, «thanks to a dinner at Il Cantinone. When he left, he asked us to organise his harvest ball, an event for 600 people. I was proud to bring a team of 11 people from Italy. It was such a success that he asked me to do it again the following 3 seasons. Then he decided he wanted to make cured meat in California. ‘I make bresaola’, I said. And started working. Then they wanted to introduce an ice cream shop. I still had my grandfather’s recipes. He used to make ice creams without chemicals and preservatives. And then he said: 'why don’t you stay here, when you’re not working in Madesimo?' That’s how it went». This sliding door effect in June 2018 might climax with the opening of a restaurant in San Francisco, a natural outcome for the brigade overseas that now totals 17 people.

The chef dressed in white, with wife Raffaella (above) and the Californian brigade at Vittorio Sattui

The chef dressed in white, with wife Raffaella (above) and the Californian brigade at Vittorio Sattui

Snow conditions at Il Cantinone, last week

Snow conditions at Il Cantinone, last week

Meanwhile, we hold on to the 10 people who work for Masanti during the winter at Il Cantinone, a consistent restaurant between Valchiavenna and Valtellina, a culinary area recently lashed by the loss of two excellent chefs like Mattias Peri (Chalet Mattias in Livigno, now closed) and Andrea Tonola (Lanterna Verde in Chiavenna, now run by his nephew Roberto). Il Cantinone was once the Andossi’s storehouse, the family hotel next door. In 1974 his grandfather Mario turned it into an ante-litteram wine bar: «We’d keep some mazziglia [cured meat] and oak barrels that my great-grandparents had already been filling with chiavennasca, the nebbiolo of Valtellina. Our dishes included polenta taragna and sausages. People would come, eat and shop. In 1980 they started to make pizza too».

His grandson took over in 1989, at 19: «I kept pizza until 1998. It was ahead of its times. We used long leavening for the dough, fresh mushrooms and Parmacotto, while everyone used pork shoulder». In 1998, the self-trained haute turning point arrived: «I left the oven to my brother [who still runs the excellent pizzeria Capriata in Montespluga] and started to work on a restaurant tout court». At first, it was a disaster: «Over the weekends, we moved from 400 to 10 guests. But then those 10 slowly became 15, then 20…». In 2001 he built the 8 rooms now forming Sport Hotel Alpina around Il Cantinone. A good way to keep clients. 

The Michelin star arrived in 2008. A little earlier, we at Identità gave him an award as “artisan of the year” for his fantastic brisaola, an orthodox version of the undervalued bresaola. Today, the restaurant seats 40 people and from morning to evening it’s hard to find a free table. This is the total resulting from 16 clients at the restaurant, and 25 at Cantinone bistrot. In the latter they serve the most popular dishes of the last decade, like pizzoccheri Gordona-style, a sort of short strozzapreti that differ from Chiavenna’s ‘gnocchetti’. Or Cream of chestnuts with soft egg, caramel made with vinegar from sforzato wine and bitto mousse. «Everyone wants it», says the chef.

One can notice, in the movements of this serious and hardworking chef, a lively and inventive attitude that shines over his original creative journey. A palate forged over decades of travelling and meetings around the world. Like the one with famous Californian food activist Sandor Katz, who taught him the meaning and basics of fermentation, which he pleasantly applies to loquat, adding character to the Lamb belly (a rare cut to be found) with gems of fir and marinated gooseberry, Jerusalem artichoke and puffed amaranth, one of the highlights of the current tasting menu.

Risotto with red cabbage and saffron by Masanti (photo by Michele Tabozzi, from "Affumicare. Tecniche e ricette", published by Bibliotheca Culinaria)

Risotto with red cabbage and saffron by Masanti (photo by Michele Tabozzi, from "Affumicare. Tecniche e ricette", published by Bibliotheca Culinaria)

Lamb belly and fermented prunes

Lamb belly and fermented prunes

These global influences are broken by lots of local explorations, that go far beyond the pizzoccheri and pizza pair: «Our valleys have much more to offer than buckwheat and bitto. Before being a holiday resort, Madesimo was an important mountain pasture. Here they’d grow oats. And melònz, a flour made with polenta toasted with butter to which they added hot milk». The aroma resembled popcorn, and today livens up the Polenta Cappuccino, sausage and melònz.

As for the meat, there’s lots of game: he gets it from his father, Franco, a hunter, who owns Andossi and 8 years ago, as mayor, stopped the unauthorised building lashing Madesimo. He only uses freshwater fish, especially from Lake Novate Mezzola in Valchiavenna, which ends in Alto Lario. The results show in another successful syncretism, Crayfish with rabbit kidney and black truffle, the result of the custom of mixing meat and fish that was reinforced at Slanted Doors, a favourite Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. Or in the magnificent pumpkin dessert, a non-sweet dessert exploring this vegetable in three textures: flan, cream and toasted seeds mixed with crispy caramel, a single-ingredient habit that shows the influence of Ferran Adrià («Of all the great Spanish restaurants, the only one I still haven’t visited is Arzak» he says).

Masanti with his brisaola at Identità Milano

Masanti with his brisaola at Identità Milano

Contemporary mountain thoughts, marked by a clear statement at the end of the tasting menu: “All our employees have a proper contract and salary”. Right. Is it necessary to point this out? «Yes, it is», says Masanti, «because our world shows excellent product knowledge, but also a very low attention to labour issues. I’m against exploitation in every form, and I support hiring colleagues, if they deserve it. As patrons, we should always remember to pay our employees». Something his colleagues often forget.

Il Cantione dello Sport Hotel Alpina
Via Antonio de Giacomi, 39
Madesimo (Sondrio)
+39.0343.56120
Tasting menu: 70 (5 courses) and 90 euros (7 courses)
Closed on Tuesdays
Seasonal closing: 2nd April -1st December 2018


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