Grazia Soncini

Maria Grazia Soncini

Grazia Soncini

By taking the very best fish, seafood and game from the surrounding area and cooking it in a traditional manner, Grazia Soncini has managed to hold on to a Michelin star for over fifteen years. Cooking alongside her mother in the restaurant kitchen, she creates hearty dishes which remind guests of the family dinners they had as children.

Cooking techniques have come on leaps and bounds in the past few years. But all those LED screens, buttons and gadgets don’t mean a thing if the produce isn’t up to scratch. This is something Grazia Soncini knows very well; luckily, her restaurant is based in Codigoro, Emilia-Romagna, which has the sea, forests and the river Po on its doorstep, so all sorts of fantastic ingredients can be found locally.

Born in the 1960s, Grazia was put to work at the very young age of seven in her grandparents’ restaurant, La Capanna di Eraclio. Originally opened as a coffee shop in 1922, it only started serving food around the time Grazia was born, as more people had cars and would come to eat, dance and stay over. She used to love watching couples help move all the tables and chairs to the sides of the dining room, playing music and dancing until the early hours of the morning.

Despite being just seven years old, Grazia’s job in the restaurant was to prepare frogs for cooking. This involved cutting off the heads, removing the skin and tying the legs together ready for the pot. While this sort of job might have had other children running for the hills, Grazia loved it – particularly because she adored her grandfather, who was a keen hunter and chef.

There were plenty of other foodie influences in Grazia’s youth. Her father worked behind the bar at the restaurant and her mother Wanda was a talented sfoglina (someone who makes tortellini) from Mantova in Lombardy. Wanda started cooking in the family restaurant soon after marrying Grazia’s father, learning how to make the local dishes by watching her grandfather. While her grandmother wasn’t the biggest fan of cooking (something her grandfather always complained about), Grazia’s earliest memory is watching her pick wild radicchio by the roadside to eat with vinegar, a boiled egg and the tiniest drizzle of olive oil.

As soon as she finished school, Grazia joined the family business full-time. The food has always recreated those fondly remembered, relaxed, home-made family dishes, without all the bells and whistles some restaurants fall foul of. Thanks to this homage to simplicity and comfort food, La Capanna di Eraclio won its first Michelin star in 1999 and has held it ever since. Grazia’s mother Wanda still helps out in the kitchen, making the whole business a true family affair.

What sets Grazia’s food apart from the rest of Italy’s many rural trattorias is her dedication to using fantastic produce. Codigoro, where her restaurant is based, is known for its fabulous game, and being situated right next to the river Po means freshwater fish are abundant. The sea is only a mile or two away, and the fruit and vegetables at Grazia’s disposal are some of the best in the country. A lot of the fresh fish entering the kitchen is only hours out of the water, and the chefs will clean, prepare and fillet them on-site – much like Grazia did with frogs when she was younger.

Grazia is a big fan of anything bitter – radicchio is a particular favourite – but it’s the seasonal game of Codigoro that really gets her excited. This, combined with her traditional, relaxed approach to cooking and presenting food, has turned her family’s humble, rural restaurant into something known across the country. She’s incredibly passionate about her hometown and thinks it’s this loyalty that makes Italy so renowned for its cooking. ‘The food culture of Italy is amazing – every region has its own salamis and ingredients,’ she says. ‘Life is food here; it’s connected to everyone’s social lives and the smell of certain dishes takes us back to when we were children’