Al Mèni 2020: Bottura’s food festival and the rebirth of Rimini
Have you ever been to Rimini? It’s a seaside city in Emilia Romagna, known for its nightlife and mass tourism in the summer. With over 1,000 hotels and hundreds of bathing establishments, the “Riviera Romagnola” has always been an example of success and efficiency, but beauty was never a priority. A holiday on this coast wasn’t synonymous with quality and international tourism always depended on the interest of less demanding travellers, mostly from central-eastern Europe.
Rimini, though, is not a Benidorm or Magaluf, it’s a beautiful city with a unique cultural heritage that has been neglected for years by the local government. Two Roman monuments demark the historic district: the Tiberius bridge and the Arch of Augustus. In between lies Rimini’s pulsating heart. Thankfully, the city is experiencing a rebirth. The entire 15km promenade is being redone to give priority to pedestrians and cyclists. The spectacular Roman bridge made of Istrian stone is finally turning pedestrian too – can you believe it was used as a regular access point for vehicles? – new museums are opening and historic buildings are being renovated. The main theatre, which was bombed during World War II, has just reopened after 75 years. Credit must be given to mayor Andrea Gnassi for being an architect of this transformation.
Even the food industry needed help to emerge and invest on the quality of local produce and chefs. Romagna – the area around Rimini – is known for being agriculturally amongst the best in Italy, but restaurants have struggled to express creativity or cook seafood aside from grilled sardines and mixed fried fish. The mass tourism mindset didn’t see gastronomy as an opportunity. Providentially, Massimo Bottura helped shine a light on local excellence by organising a yearly culinary event called Al Mèni (in regional dialect “the hands”), where national and international chefs (also picked by talent scout supremo Andrea Petrini and Postrivoro’s Enrico Vignoli) cook and talk under a circus tent – an homage to legendary Rimenese director Federico Fellini – over a weekend.
Obviously 2020 is a difficult year for planning festivals and big gatherings, but Italy proved that with serious rules and guidelines it’s possible to guarantee the safety of visitors and move on with events: it happened with the Venice Film Festival last month and it works brilliantly in Rimini. It’s the seventh edition and since 2013 this city has become more interesting, open to new ideas and – more importantly – aware of its potential: from the creative fusion of Latin American and Riminese flavours of Argentinian chef Mariano Guardianelli’s Abocar to Da Lucio’s Jacopo Ticchi’s attempt to adapt the techniques of global sensations Josh Niland and Victor Arguinzoniz to local produce.
It’s Saturday morning and we gather by the tent for the official opening. A circus act breaks the ice, which culminates with the performers raising Bottura over their shoulders. Speeches from the super star chef, the mayor and the regional government follow: it’s all about celebrating Emilia Romagna, its unique biodiversity, artisans and chefs. After a round of applause, we quickly move to the Antica Pescheria (old fish market) where Osteria Francescana’s sous chef Takahiko “Taka” Kondo is cooking the very first dish of Al Mèni 2020: a tribute to the chef’s Japanese heritage and Emilia Romagna’s produce. A cold pasta with pork shoulder, jelly ears, gherkin, egg and a jus of Adriatic prawns.
Back in the tent, where the main kitchen is located, Marco Ambrosino of 28 Posti in Milan is serving a raviolo with smoked sardines and peanuts. He is one of the most talked about young chefs in Italy and this little dish is proof of his talent. Right after comes Jessica Rosval, the Canadian head chef of Casa Maria Luigia, Bottura’s luxury resort where guests can enjoy a tasting menu of Osteria Francescana’s most iconic dishes. She’s prepared fried mussels stuffed with pork belly and smoked corn, served with a sour cream and squacquerone dip. It’s delicious and Rosval could count on two heavyweight helpers behind the scenes: Taka and Karime Lopez of Gucci Osteria.
On top of these two show spaces, visitors can simply pop by the “starred street market” where chefs from Osteria Francescana as well as two-michelin-starred Magnolia (Cesenatico) work together to deliver gourmet sandwiches. We try Francesco Vincenzi’s Franceschetta Fried Fish (fried sturgeon, marinated fennel and burnt lemon) and Taka’s PaTAKA (potato croquette with turbot tartar sauce) and it’s hard to say which one is better but, in the end, Vincenzi’s dish prevails.
After a break, we return to the tent for Giuseppe Rambaldi’s (Cucina Rambaldi) Fegato alla Veneziana. The former sous chef of Combal.Zero delivers food with a punch – this is Venetian style liver – which, for us, serves as an appetiser before our dinner at Abocar.
For a city the size of Rimini, Guardianelli’s restaurant is a breath of fresh air. It’s positioned in a narrow street in the old town, and as soon as guests walk in they feel like they’ve entered a place that could compete on an international stage. There are four menus and we opt for the “manos libres” (free hands), entrusting the chef with making all the decisions. Of all the dishes, the squid ink and sea urchin risotto and the pork ravioli prove how the chef is capable of delivering a unique fusion of local ingredients and south American flavours.
On Sunday, before going back to the site, we drive into the inland to check out Il Piastrino, a restaurant in the hills of Pennabilli from chef Riccardo Agostini. This village is just a stone’s throw from the border with Tuscany and Marche, mixing the traditions of these areas into their cuisine. The meal is a slow-burner: the first highlight comes when we enjoy delicious crayfish with a glass of stellar Lambrusco Bianco Christian Bellei 2015 from Cantina della Volta. The wine’s finesse and crispness fool you into thinking it’s champagne, but the strawberry notes and greater acidity clearly reveal this product comes from a completely different grape. The peak of the lunch is a risotto with sheep meat in two forms: raw and ragout.
Back at Al Mèni, Giuliano Baldessari of Aqua Crua is presenting a crazy dish of his. It looks like a black tagliatella, but it’s in fact seaweed mixed with squid ink, ginger and parmesan. We walk backstage were there’s a party-like atmosphere as the event is coming to an end. Chef Giorgio Servetto is still handing out some of his tuna sausage tacos while Antonio Zaccardi is preparing a risotto with tomato and burnt Altamura bread powder. From the PA we hear Baldessari remembering when he worked with Zaccardi in a restaurant in Cortina: “We were in our 20s, we never learnt anything there but we had the time of our lives. It’s really important to have that kind of experience too because you don’t want to learn too much too soon. We haven’t seen each other in 10 years!”
As the risotto goes on stage, we demand the Aqua Crua chef to prepare more “tagliatelle”, and the show continues simultaneously in front and behind the scenes. This cold seaweed pasta delivers a punch, with very clear flavours and a hint of spiciness from the ginger. We go and grab some risotto too: hot, creamy and comforting; it’s pretty much the opposite of what we’ve just had, and that’s the beauty of Al Mèni.
Last but not least, up-and-coming talent Lorenzo Lunghi, who has recently been appointed chef of restaurant Torre ad Fondazione Prada in Milan, presents a raviolo with celery and squid ink.
Rimini and Al Mèni, against all the odds, have managed to go ahead with a wonderful food event celebrating the food heritage of a city and a region which are becoming, year by year, a bigger player in the international culinary scene. This isn’t just a local success, it’s a message to the world: we can go ahead with cultural events if we all do our part, enforcing and adhering to effective safety measures.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
Al Mèni took place on 26th and 27th September in Rimini, for further information visit the event’s website here. Scroll down for the full photo gallery.
Watch our interview with Massimo Bottura on the global pandemic, food waste, new Francescana menu, 50 Best here: