Maestro Federico Fellini
Maestro Federico Fellini is definitely Italy’s most famous movie director. Over his forty year career he was nominated for twelve Oscars and was awarded five. Movies like La Strada, 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita and Amarcord captured life in a profound way, sometimes blurring the line between dream and reality. To capture life on film, he said, was to show people eating, sleeping and making love.
As it does for most Italians, food played a very important role in his life, and in his movies. In fact he did not believe in “spit takes” (where the actors would spit out food they were eating during a scene) but was adamant that they consume the food as in real life. This meant that there were sometimes huge teams of cooks on set, busy preparing fresh food for all the actors to eat, often shooting a scene until the food had run out.
Born and raised in Rimini he always had a strong connection to his home town and with the beautiful Grand Hotel.
As a child he would stare through the gates at the perfectly groomed grounds and stately white mansion, dreaming that one day he would be sitting on its front terrace sipping Prosecco and enjoying la dolce vita (the sweet life). As his career flourished, the hotel played an important role as a backdrop in movies like Amarcord and as a refuge when he stayed in Rimini. This limelight was perhaps the reason the hotel was made a national monument in 1994.
Like many Italians
Besides having fabulous rooms, the hotel also boasts a world class kitchen that could feed Fellini’s appetite for his favourite home town cuisine. Again, like many Italians, Fellini was not a fan of over complicated food but of simple dishes prepared well with the freshest of local ingredients.
It was his love affair with food and The Grand Hotel that compelled us to make a reservation for dinner while visiting Rimini.
Although they have a fantastic menu, we were interested in what Fellini would have eaten. We wanted to experience the food that influenced him and made it such an important part of his portrayal of life.
So with the help of our friends at the Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board we convinced the hotel to prepare a special Fellini menu for us to enjoy in their grand dining room. Little did we know that we would not just be eating Fellini’s favourite dishes but we would be immersed in a scene that could have been cut directly from one of his movies.
Greeted by the Maître d’Hotel
Arriving for dinner, we were greeted by the Maître d’Hotel who spoke with a very calm and soothing voice. He showed us to our table, against a wall, with a beautiful view across the room. The dining room was not full but had a few large groups interspersed with a few couples. Immediately we had the feeling that something strange was happening, the wait staff seemed a bit uneasy and were talking amongst themselves as they passed each other in the dining room.
As we got comfortable we were served a Fellini apéritif of Prosecco mixed with a secret blend of fruit juices to start our meal.
This is the point where the Maestro would have yelled “Action!” and the surreal scene would begin.
Entering the dining room was what could only be described as a large, Tony Soprano like, Russian man wearing an ill-fitting t-shirt, track pants and flip flops (highly inappropriate), he joined his wife and four children at their table. We had already noticed them due to their children’s rising volume. Two tables down from them another large family with three children were in the middle of dinner, their kids becoming bored, had left the table to join the Russian kids. As if in a world of his own, the Russian mobster began to eat, like a pig at the trough. He was completely oblivious to his children who were now running the length of the dining room whipping themselves and the other kids into a feverish pitch. At this point, we were astounded that this would be allowed to occur in such a classy place and expected the staff would put an end to it, yet the scene continued.
Trying to ignore the mayhem behind her, our sommelier for the evening, made some wine suggestions over the now piercing screams of the children. Overcoming the distraction, we ordered our wine and then tried to listen as the Maître D’ explained the dishes we would be enjoying, obviously embarrassed by the scene continuing behind him. By now, the children, absolutely consumed by adrenaline, had started to dive underneath the white tablecloths playing a game of hide and seek, not just at their table, but throughout the whole dining room. The parents did not even turn their heads as the kids crawled under tables with people sitting at them and under a huge buffet decorated with an elaborate display of desserts.
7 feet tall
Another Fellini-esque character, a beautiful blonde woman who had to be close to 7 feet tall, wearing the skimpiest blue and white striped sundress, was at the buffet table when one of the boys poked his head out from under the tablecloth and between her legs yelling “Boo!”. He laughed as she jumped back startled with her plate of food. The boy, noticing all the tasty treats above him, grabbed a handful and, squealing like a piglet, disappeared under the buffet table again.
While the mayhem ensued at one end of the dining room a large table of very loud tourists was seated directly across from us. Two of the women were caught up in a perpetual laughing fit that was so loud and seemingly exaggerated, it over shadowed the children’s mischief. Meanwhile, still hoping that the parents would reign in their brats, our Maitre D’ and his staff stood huddled in a corner as dumbfounded as we were, looking almost afraid to intercede. Finally, realizing that this could not go on any further, the Maitre D’ very diplomatically leaned over and quietly told the Russian, still stuffing his face, that he would have to tame his children because they were disturbing the other patrons. Looking bothered, he pushed back from the table and yelled for the kids, who completely ignored him. Turning to his wife, he motioned with his hand for her to pull them from their hiding spots and drag them out of the dining room while he finished his plate of food and then left. The other parents took their cue and followed, slowly collecting their children, one of which was screaming bloody murder for having to leave the fancy playground.
The volume of the room dropped down to normal levels with the kids gone and the tourists’ laughing fits now over.
Our Maitre D’ reappeared and in his calming tone apologized for the disturbance, assuring us we could now dine in peace, while, as if on cue, another waiter arrived with a trolley carrying a soup terrine with my first course, passatelli.
Passatelli is a very simple dish of pasta made from breadcrumbs, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and egg, that is served in a rich chicken broth (recipe below). Nathalie started with another fresh and local delight of sea bass carpaccio with artichokes, both were simple and delicious.
The scene in front of us was now starting to give way to the star of the film, the food, yet it continued to simmer away like a pot that would soon boil over again. Still apologetic, the wait staff spoiled us with their attentiveness, obviously trying to erase the previous mayhem from the evening, while unveiling our second course from under silver domes in perfect unison. Spaghettini with fresh tuna, tomatoes, olives and capers had flavours that were balanced and clean and pasta that was perfectly cooked. This was a tasty first course and just the right amount.
The director, working from above, now started to slowly zoom in for his close up, as our main course was again unveiled in precision before us, releasing the sweet smell of Brodetto di Pesce con le erbette della Riviera from under our covered bowls. Tender pieces of squid, shrimp, scallops and fish were gingerly piled in a slightly sweet and savoury broth with flavours that were super fresh and delicate, reminding us that we were only steps from the sea.
Panning out again, as we finished our Brodetto ,the table of tourists piped up, complaining loudly that the dish they had ordered was not similar enough to what they would eat at home. This time the Maitre D’ acted with swift precision, explaining politely that they were indeed not at home but in Rimini and that this was the way the dish was traditionally prepared, asking if maybe they would prefer something else from the menu.
He then returned to our table, with a tray holding two glasses of lemon sorbet to cleanse our palate before dessert.
I explained to him that I have had some restaurant experience and thought that he was handling the night’s action very well. He graciously thanked us and asked us why we thought people would travel to another country only to demand what they got at home, good question.
Later, our conversation continued as our dessert was presented to us, a Fellini favourite, Pinoli Crostata, a crumbly tart filled with pastry cream and topped with toasted pine nuts, just typing this makes me crave it. It was accompanied by a delicious local dessert wine, Torcolato, that worked magic with the simple and not overly sweet crostata.
Enjoying our dolce
While enjoying our “dolce”, the tourists finally left and we were alone in the dining room to enjoy the final moments in our own Fellini movie, with the appropriate accordion music playing softly in the background.
Then, as if the director had yelled “Cut!”, the scene was over.
The wait staff now moved throughout the room in a much more relaxed manner, like stage hands, cleaning tables and arranging chairs. Our Maitre D’, with the huge weight of the night’s service lifted from his shoulders returned once again with more of that delicious dessert wine and another long plate of mini sweet treats including cantuccini, jellied fruit, fruit tarts and more, just in case we were still hungry.
Like the last people at a wedding
Lingering at the table, like the last people at a wedding, we continued our conversation with him about life, travel and the general decline of the human race.
What a night!
Walking across the terrace and across the beautiful grounds, under a starry and balmy Rimini night, we recounted the evening and wondered whether Maestro Fellini had any part in our experience. It was easy to see how he could be influenced by his home town cuisine but more so by the act of dining with others because it is when we gather to eat (and drink) that all of our qualities and defects are exposed. You need only think of your own family meals to remember the good times and the bad.
On October 31 1993, Federico Fellini died in a hospital in Rome, his rapid decline starting when he collapsed in his suite at the Grand Hotel.
Sadly the Fellini Foundation in Rimini has folded due to lack of funds. It is hard to imagine that this Italian icon’s memories and work would not be cared for more diligently by the film community. This is the time when people like Scorsese and Woody Allen, whom Fellini influenced deeply, should be stepping up to help keep the Maestro’s work feeding us all.
- 1 1/4 cups bread crumbs
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 2 Tbsp butter, soft
- Bones of one or two chickens,(wings & necks are great)
- 1 large leek, coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 large carrot, coarsely chopped
- 3 or 4 ribs celery, chopped
- 1 tsp thyme
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 small bunch parsley stems
- 2 bay leaves
- In a large mixing bowl combine the cheese, bread crumbs, eggs and butter to form a soft dough.
- To make the stock combine the bones and remaining ingredients in a big enough pot and just cover them with water.
- Bring to a simmer and skim off any foam.
- Gently simmer for at least 2 1/2 hours (slow cookers work well), adding water if it reduces too much.
- Strain the stock through a fine sieve and season well with salt.
- To make the Passatelli: pipe the dough, using a piping bag and medium tip, directly into the simmering broth.
- When the pasta floats its ready to serve. Italian kitchens have a Passatelli maker that looks like the bottom of a colander that is pushed down onto the dough to extrude the noodles.
* Although we were in Rimini as part of Blogville Emilia-Romagna, we paid our own tab at the Grand Hotel. For more information on the Blogville project, please visit their website. The opinions in this post are our own.