Hunting is an ancient and noble occupation in Italy. Traditions of hunting in the various Italian regions go back to well before the Roman Empire, to the Etruscans and the Greeks and the tribes who first lived in the country long before the wolves found Romulus and Remus.
Carpaccio painted the hunters shooting birds from the gondolas in Venice in 1495. At a few select old Venice restaurants, for example at Ai Veterani, you can still find the traditional dishes like roast stuffed teal, prepared in the ancient way.
In the Piedmont, outside of Turin, the great Hunting Palace Stupinigi outside the city is a constant reminder of the region’s heritage. And it is in the Piedmont that you indulge in that most incomparable and classic Italian game dish: Pappardelle con sugo di Lepre (Pappardelle pasta with hare sauce). Pappardelle are broad, thin pasta that hold the thick meat sauce well. Enjoy a Gaja Barbaresco with your pappardelle–the 1996 is still a very good value at about $200 per bottle, an extraordinarily well developed wine with vigor and subtlety.
In Lombardia hunting centers around the city of Brescia, a city where the tradition of crafting fine weaponry goes back to Roman times. At the gates of the city, the small arms producer Bernardelli has been making superb hunting guns since 1722. At the famous Brescian restaurant Dispensa Pane e Vino (the name just means “Get Bread and Wine Here”) a fantastically artistic chef named Vittorio Fusari is well known for his work with game. His Wild Game Risotto combines venison, wild boar and hare, all hunted in the hills around the city, and marinated for six days in the very tannic Lombard wines like the local Capriano del Colle. He then joins the aged game meat with special risotto rice and flavors it with liquorice.
Let’s not forget Milan, where the great national hunting show takes place every year. The incomparable traditional restaurant Il Luogo de Aimo e Nadia has been serving great game for more than fifty years. Chef Aimo serves a raw tartare of wild Tuscan hare flavored with walnuts, followed by fresh fettucine served with pieces of tordo or thrush– one of the migratory birds most hunted in Italy. They also serve a ravioli filled with pheasant roasted in its own juice and special Parmesan cheese along with white truffle.
Tuscany is perhaps the most hunting intensive of all Italy’s regions, and there is too much good food linked to good hunting there to go into detail, so we’ll only hit the highlights. The great Brunello di Montalcino holds a thrush hunting festival every year. The festival includes dances and costumes from 15th Century and, of course, great cooking.
At the three Michelin star Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, a filet of wild hare is served with a superb white polenta mixed with dates. The entire dish is covered in sauce of foie gras. Savor this dish with a Tuscan Sangiovese, and you experience the real joy of game cuisine.
Moving south to Napoli, Giorgia Chatto, a television personality and chef who has done much to revive the traditional cuisine of the city, is perhaps just as well known for her recipe for shoulder of venison. The preparation for this dish is intensely complicated, baking the venison into special bread, with apricots and other herbs and fruits. This is the kind of dish that harkens back centuries in Naples, and can only be found there.
We’ve only covered a few of the 20 regions of this amazingly rich country. The legacy and heritage of hunting is celebrated in all of them and is deliciously reflected in their culinary traditions. — Andrew Rosenbaum