Jodi and I lived in Barolo, Italy for 3 months back in 2000 - in tents in the garden of Rafaella Pittatore's agriturismo. In between picking nebbiolo grapes, fierce euchre contests over four dollar bottles of the best barbera, and a near daily obsession with agnolotti del plin, we managed to sneak some time with chef Ercole Musso in his Barolo Osteria, I Cannubi. At the foot of the famed Cannubi hill, we'd sit with him and his wife Loredana between Pranzo and Cena or after hours, talking politics in broken Italian, sipping Tokaji. He invited us into his kitchen for one whole afternoon so we could experience "La Cucina Italiana" and we marveled as he made everything - EVERYTHING - from scratch and by himself. He fed 80-100 during busy lunches or dinners and he was all alone in the kitchen. "Ercole" translates as "Hercules", so I guess it's no wonder.
Ever since those days it's always been my dream to get married in Barolo - a small affair outside on Rafaella's lawn - our little Barolo friends bringing unlabeled bottles from their family cellars, salumi from Franco the Macellaio, some grissini from "the paneteria people", tajarin or ceci soup from Rafaella's mother, and of course Ercole on the outdoor wood-fired grill. Well, familial and financial circumstances wouldn't allow for such a party this year, but I think the gods did what they could. A few months before the wedding, we found out that of all things, Ercole and Loredana recently left Barolo and opened up "The Post" - a restaurant in Grand Cayman - one of the two stops on our honeymoon cruise.
So Barolo came to us, sort of. And boy was it sweet. Right across from Seven Mile Beach we were treated to a REAL Italian antipasto of prosciutti e formaggi, Piedmontese wines and grappas, Caribbean spiny lobster risotto served in the shell, and a continual offer of more and more and more with the classic Barolo refrain of "All you have to say is Si" But after eating non-stop for a week already on the cruise ship we had to say "Basta" - though not before Jodi's long-prayed-for finale: Ercole's Panna Cotta. Just enough gelatin to keep it from spilling off the plate, this virtuosic effort has haunted us since 2000 and has eluded our every attempt to reproduce it. Alas, strewn with a few berries and an aged balsamic-ish sauce, it sat before us again - regal, uncomplicated, and utterly perfect. I guess we were too entranced to snap a picture of it, but feast your eyes on his amazing chocolate dessert: a luscious showstopper to be sure. Tasting that panna cotta again, though, was like traveling through a wormhole - it consumed us. And when food does that, it's grace. It's religion.
And for the rest of that afternoon and evening, long after Loredana's hundredth "ciao, ciao, ciao" goodbye at the pier, our bellies and our smiles bore the stigmata of Ercole.