Upon entering Luciano Zazzeri’s La Pineta restaurant less than two weeks ago, I noticed the bearded chef sitting alone at one of his elegantly set dining tables. He was lost in thought flipping through loose sheets of paper. At the time, it struck me as odd that he did not notice my incoming party. We were the first reservation of the evening at the sea-facing wood building that everyone in this part of coastal Tuscany loving calls la baracca, or “the shack.”
Luciano was known for his inclusive and kind personality. He was the ultimate gentleman host who personally greeted all incoming patrons of the Michelin-starred seafood restaurant he created. He received the signori with a warm hug and the signore with a kiss on the cheek.
On March 18, I awoke to the news that Luciano had taken his own life the night before, reportedly shooting himself in his parents' garage. He was 63 years old.
Of the celebrity chefs in my adopted home, I would argue that Luciano Zazzeri was the Italian cook who nurtured the closest bond to Italian wine. As a young wine writer, I met Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido and Sassicaia for the first time at la baracca. Subsequent meals at La Pineta positioned me a table removed from Marchesi Piero and Lodovico Antinori. Back in 2007, I wrote a cover story for Wine Enthusiast magazine that also featured my photography of chef Luciano on the cover. I created a poster-sized enlargement of the cover to showcase at the Vinitaly wine fair in Verona that year. I remember being profoundly annoyed at Angelo Gaja who had defaced my poster by drawing little hearts on Luciano’s image with a ballpoint pen. The protagonists of vino Italiano were all faithful clients.
Luciano’s rise to fame was directly linked to the budding popularity of Italian wine. La Pineta’s location in Marina di Bibbona made it the only worthy restaurant near the Bolgheri wine area, just as that appellation started to grow in prestige. The fact that Luciano specialized in beautifully fresh and delicate seafood while Bolgheri made robust, full-bodied red wines hardly mattered.
Luciano’s cousin, brother and uncle all fish the waters off Tuscany’s coast at Bibbona. Luciano proudly renewed his own fishing license regularly.
Perhaps Luciano’s biggest achievement was that he made it work. He bridged the ultimate wine and food divide—only Luciano could pair raw fish with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot.
My last dinner with Luciano featured an appetizer of pesce crudo with a beautifully linear and mineral-driven Domaine des Comtes Lafon 2014 Meursault Clos de le Barre. There had been a special request in my party for a traditional platter of spaghetti alle vongole veraci and Luciano did not disappoint. He made smallish portions for all of us to taste. We paired the spaghetti successfully with Giacomo Conterno’s 2011 Barolo Francia. The Nebbiolo-based wine is beautifully direct and powerful. It makes a perfect companion to the al dente texture of the pasta in this dish, with its decisive crunch and salty aftertastes. Our last course saw the full-bodied, but unfortunately slightly Bretty Castello di Terriccio 1999 Lupicaia paired next to Luciano’s signature dish, cacciucco, a fisherman’s soup from nearby Livorno served over toasted bread. The recipe calls for all shellfish and seafood to be boiled together for hours. But Luciano’s recipe never sees more than 10 minutes of heat. All the enriched fish flavors are concentrated in the bread at the bottom of the dish. After that, we cleansed our palates with a zesty green apple sorbet.
“Wine and food move hand in hand,” Luciano once told me. “I believe that Italy’s increasingly sophisticated wine culture has done a lot to help our cuisine.”
Rest in peace, Luciano Zazzeri, and heartfelt condolences to your family.