Jenny Crombie travelled to Verona to meet the undisputed king of tortellini, Giovanni Rana, at his restaurant where she learnt the secrets of pasta making from the experts
Giovanni Rana’s renowned trattoria Le Tre Corone is perfectly located in Verona’s Piazza Bra. It forms the ideal stop-off for opera lovers before and after performances at the city’s Roman arena during the three-month summer opera festival, and is equally appealing in the colder winter months, when I make my way here on an dark November afternoon to meet the Maestro Pastaio himself and to enjoy a masterclass in pasta with his top chefs.
“I love the fact that the British people love pasta so much. I also like the curiosity of British people – they are always very happy to try out new flavours and trends…”
It’s a relief to get out of the drizzle and into the cocoon-like warmth of the restaurant, where I am ushered into the spotless kitchen to don an apron, ready for head chef Alessio Bottin to impart his pasta wisdom. And as head of the kitchen for a tortellini guru like Giovanni Rana, he is certainly suited to the task. Alessio demonstrates the techniques involved in achieving perfect pasta, showing us all manner of shapes, colours and flavours of the stuff, which give off delicate but evocative aromas. There’s even a cinnamon pasta, which takes pride of place of Le Tre Corone’s dessert menu, filled with apple and served with a berry sorbet.
We watch the master in action as Alessio rolls the pasta thinly, and shows off the impressive machines that do this job with ease. It’s cut into squares and we’re then allowed to try shaping our own tortellini by hand – much harder than it looks! Many types of pasta are produced for diners here, but of course it is the filled varieties that are the most popular and prolific on Le Tre Corone’s menu.
And after accruing plenty of pasta knowledge, I’m keen to meet the man himself, as Giovanni Rana stops off at his restaurant for a chat. On meeting him, I am struck by his warmth and charisma – at the grand age of 72 he is full of energy and drive, and his love of his chosen field is evident.
He was born in Cologna Veneta in the Veneto region in 1937 and worked in the family bakery from the age of 13. He found great joy in his work, but a life in pasta held more allure. As he explained to me: “My hands have always been filled with flour – whether bread or pasta, and in the 1960s times were changing. I saw that there was a gap in the market for filled pasta.”
And this is how at 25 years old he began to make tortellini by hand for his local community, though his products became so popular that he soon had to hone the production process and expand his operation – including the introduction of optimised industrial machinery to make tortellini that were virtually identical to home-made varieties. Before long, his pasta was available nationally and became market leader in Italy.
Now the Giovanni Rana brand is an international fixture, but his heart remains in Italy, from where he runs the company and presides over Le Tre Corone.
I am intrigued to learn about his food philosophy and find out why his brand has done so phenomenally well. “We take the selection of good raw materials very seriously,” he tells me by way of explanation. “This is what creates authenticity, which is the most important thing in our food.” Looking at the success of his pasta it’s an ethos that seems to have served him well – and nowhere more so than in Britain, where his pasta is hugely successful. “I love the fact that the British people love pasta so much,” Giovanni exclaims. “I also like the curiosity of British people – they are very happy to try new flavours and trends, although we take care to ensure the flavours of our products are suitable for British tastes, which differ from those of Italy. We even launched a flavour of tortellini just for the UK market – chicken and rosemary.”
It is this kind of carefully tailored creativity that keeps the company moving ever forward, and it is the kind of thing that fascinates Giovanni in his role. “I am lucky: as president of the company I can concentrate on the things that I like to do – I can give the other things to my son, Gian Luca!” And one of the things that most interests Giovanni as president is getting involved in all kinds of research and development activity. With this in mind, what plans does he harbour for developing the brand in the future? “We have so many plans!” he laughs. “Innovation is in the very DNA of the company.” Having met this powerhouse of pasta, I have no doubt of it – food fans had better watch this space…