La Sangiovesa is a legendary place, something Manlio Maggioli dreamt of in 1990, filled with the words and works of Tonino Guerra, paintings by Guido Cagnacci, tables and furniture that bear the touch of Federico Fellini, the stories and smiles of the people who have left a piece of their heart here: all perfectly kept inside this treasure chest made of stone, art, wood and history. But La Sangiovesa is, first and foremost, home to traditional Romagna cuisine. We sat with Massimiliano Mussoni, chef and manager of this symbol of Romagna for 22 years.
Massimiliano, let's start from the beginning: when did you first dream of becoming a chef?
I've always liked cooking, even as a child. But that dream didn’t motivate me to get out of bed. It was my mother’s broth.
What do you mean?
Every morning, she would put on this large pot of broth, with the leg of a hen sticking out, which was what she used for stirring. That's how it was done then: they made these hearty broths releasing unique aromas that would have woken anyone up. At least those woke me up. It’s something deeply engraved in my memory, also because my mother still prepares it. It was then that I realized the importance of eating well, of doing things with your own hands.
So, your mother played an important role?
Certainly. She had me pulling piada when I was 9 or 10 and I remember loving it, though, at the time, I didn’t give it any particular meaning. It was something I did with her, for the family, for my dad in particular. Back then, when couples decided to get married, people would ask the future wife if she knew how to make piada. When my dad came back home from work, he liked eating freshly made piada with a piece of cheese or some salami, as well as a glass of homemade wine. But there always had to be piada.
And how about your studies?
When it was time to decide for my studies, I thought that Rimini’s istituto alberghiero was the one. It was centered on craftsmanship, on making things with one’s own hands, something I learned back at home. That was when I knew that I would become a chef, or at least I would have tried. And it was magical: back then, we used to spend a lot of time making things, visiting workshops and pastry shops during the summer. And when you were at the right place, you could discover a lot of interesting things.
Did you ever have any particular experiences or met people who have played an important role in shaping the person and the chef that you are now?
There are a lot of people who have helped me grow. I’d probably forget some because the people I have met and the experiences I’ve had are all important to me: from the three-star hotel, where I worked for six months during the last year of school without ever taking a day off, to my internship at Oldani when I was 27 or 28. I will always be grateful to Vincenzo Cammerucci for that internship, he is one of the best chefs in the land, an institution of Romagna cuisine. He is a beautiful person and I try to go see him as much as I can.
You were about that age when you were called to Osteria La Sangiovesa by its owner Manlio Maggioli, right? [Manlio Maggioli founded Gruppo Maggioli, operating in publishing, training, consultancy and operational support to local authorities, public administrations, private companies and freelancers.]
Exactly. Manlio Maggioli is a bright businessman and a visionary. His brain never stops working. He comes to the osteria every day, asking just one question: “How can we be better?” And this is absolutely incredible: you go nowhere without investors. He takes the credit for creating such a restaurant, seeing it way before he actually built it. La Sangiovesa, came to be after Manlio Maggioli purchased Palazzo Nadiani, a historic building in Santarcangelo. At the time it was literally in ruins, and he wanted to bring its extraordinary history and culture back to life. And this is where the real story starts: let me assure you, it’s not a myth. While walking through Santarcangelo with Tonino Guerra, for whom he worked as an editor, and Federico Fellini, Manlio asked the author: “What will the restaurant that I’m opening be called?”. Tonino said “Let’s call it La Sangiovesa!”. Manlio Maggioli searched and found this location, but it was Tonino Guerra who named it.
Thank you for clarifying that it wasn’t a myth. It was already an amazing story given the people who were in it. How can you describe your relationship with traditional Romagna gastronomy?
Each raw material has potential to unleash. For example, the animals we raise at Tenuta Saiano, such as pigeons, pigs, or farmyard animals in general, differ among them, thus they all have something unique to bring to the table. That is why we try, from time to time, to see if we should apply the traditional way or propose tradition by innovating it. The ingredient is the most important element, and surrounding it is Romagna, both the past and the present. For me, culinary tradition is something that we continuously write, and it has a lot to do with how a dish manages to create a lasting bond with those that enjoy it. Making trifle using clear Alchermes – as we have decided, together with Baldo Baldinini of the Olfattorio, to not use food coloring – is tradition: it respects an iconic recipe, but also the consumer as well as the raw material. We remove anything that is superfluous or harmful: all we have is a new recipe that still respects the craftsmanship that enabled to create. Our clients have the final say, and that is what we have been doing here at La Sangiovesa for more than 20 years.
You mentioned the Olfattorio and Tenuta Saiano, which, together with ViaSaffi32, make up La Sangiovesa. Can you tell us more?
We’re lucky enough to work with Baldo Baldinini, an extraordinary alchemist-perfumer who also collaborates with several great stars throughout Italy. In his Olfattorio, located inside Tenuta Saiano, he works with niche botanicals and rare products. Together, we have created special vermouths with wines produced in our cellar. Here, we offer different and high-quality aperitifs to our guests. Tenuta Saiano is our farm, where we produce wines and oil. The animals that we use in the osteria also come from there. We have a very short supply chain. All meat and salami come from Tenuta Saiano, except for red meat which we order from selected suppliers. We always try to keep what Manlio Maggioli often says in mind: “The best product, at the best price”. And finally, we have the latest addition: ViaSaffi32. The company has invested in this workshop where we make bread, ice cream, cake and spoon dessert that we serve at the osteria. Aside from being a workshop, ViaSaffi32 is a shop where customers can buy products from Tenuta Saiano and where local products, such as tigelle and long-leavening focaccia bread with our cured meats, can be found. [during this interview, ViaSaffi32 received the Gambero Rosso award for serving the best street food in Emilia-Romagna].
At Osteria La Sangiovesa wine plays an important role, right?
La Sangiovesa means tradition: so, when we say wine, we’re talking about Romagna wine. Some dishes pair perfectly with a glass of Barolo or Amarone, but traditional Romagna cuisine requires wine from this land. So yes, our wine list proudly hails from Romagna.
This may be a difficult question but that’s precisely why I’m asking: which are your favorite red and white wines?
I generally prefer wines that convey the voice and character of Romagna, without being exaggeratedly overpowered by the use of wood. As for reds, I’d say Romagna Sangiovese DOC, particularly that from Predappio and Modigliana. As for whites, while Romagna Albana DOCG is undoubtedly an exceptional wine, I’d pick Romagna Trebbiano DOC or Colli di Rimini DOP Rebola. I think that these two denominations will have more prominent roles for the future of Romagna wine.
And which pairings would you recommend with these wines?
Well, Rebola is perfect for the entire meal: it goes well with first dishes that are not too flavorful as well as with cheese. But if I have to choose a dish, I’d say Cassone alle erbe with a slice of cheese and caramelized figs. With Sangiovese we must have powerful main dishes like mutton stew or our tripe. We have been innovating and perfecting this recipe for 30 years: we use a specific kind called “trippa del lunedì”, fresh gray tripe from Faenza’s slaughterhouse, which is cleaned and blanched. We then add in some Lampredotto and pork tripe. I think that would be a perfect pairing.
What’s your first or fondest memory of wine?
[laughs] Have you ever heard of acquadiccia?
No, tell me more.
In the past, after racking, water was poured into the pomace and, after two to three days, a light and sparkling wine was produced. It’s technically not wine, just something that used to be and is still drank with chestnuts, biscuits and dry sweets. When I was 7 or 8, while I was helping my dad make wine, he let me taste Albana Dolce. By then, I already knew how vats were used and how to open them. So, when my dad left me for a moment, I went to the vat that contained Sangiovese, or at least so I thought. Too bad, he had actually put water in there to make acquadiccia. So, I drank and… well, got drunk for the very first time. And after that moment, I got to my remarkable Michelin-starred experience in no time [laughs]. Kidding aside, in recent years I have understood that although pairing wine and food is important, the story you tell guests when you serve them at the table is really what makes the difference. And this changed our approach: we know what to recommend our clients by talking to them, personally assisting them. The pandemic did not stop us. We went to wineries, visited vineyards, tasted wines: we acquired knowledge and stories that we can share with our clients when they come to the restaurant and ask for our wines. That’s the importance of educating ourselves: we must yearn to discover and understand more, to raise questions: “Does this winery fit us?”. And the most inspiring thing is seeing young people keen to know more, being passionate about it: oftentimes, if you really want a spark to ignite, you should bring the heart closer to where the fire burns bright.
Name 3 things that we can only find at Osteria La Sangiovesa.
First and foremost, the 3 or 4 Azdore (lit. “housemakers”) who make and cook piada on the spot. We don’t serve pre-cooked dishes, and every dish comes out with fresh and warm piada: we want our guests to live this magical experience, a show like those you see in theaters. Another kind of magic happens when we make fresh pasta: imagine seeing these women beating 50, 60 or even 80 egg yolks a day, working on tables inside the restaurant to make stringhetti, tagliatelle, pappardelle, and ravioli. I’d also mention the works of Tonino Guerra, or the paintings by Guido Cagnacci: we have four of them hanging in a designated room that we dedicated to this 17th-century painter who was originally from Santarcangelo. When Manlio Maggioli purchased them, he did not put them in his home but brought them to the restaurant so that guests can see and admire them. Just like Vermouth, this place is infused with Romagna. Our goal is to make those who come to Osteria La Sangiovesa feel genuinely happy, let them feel a sense of wonder, the warm hospitality and see its beauty just like I do when I set foot here every day, for more than 20 years.