Alessandro chegai: slow food and easy living

Story by Erin C. Wilson

Night falls and the shadows creep onto the stone patio at Alimentare in Cagli, Italy.  Alessandro Chegai wipes clean the tables and chairs soiled with the evening’s meals.  His dark beard blankets his cheeks as pieces of his ponytail abandon their rubber band and struggle to find a home behind his ears.  He dons a black apron still smeared with remnants of cherry-red tomatoes and pesto.  The aroma of basil and roasted garlic linger in the cool breeze as empty glasses clink on their journey to the sink.  The meal is done. The night invades, and another slow food meeting draws to a close.

The cobblestone streets of Italy are lined with artisan restaurants and delectable pasta dishes.  The country has developed a culinary reputation derived from its cuisine.  Here, many chefs are artists, and they pride themselves on their creations.  In Italy, taste reigns supreme, but to Alessandro, taste doesn’t always translate into quality.

A native of Rome, Alessandro grew up cultivating his natural curiosity for food.  In 1990, he tired of the capital city -- its pollution and smog -- and moved to the lush hill-town of Cagli.  He delved deeper into his love of food and the principles of not only eating to be fed but rather to be well nourished and well informed.

“I was always curious about the way things work,” he says. “People should be educated about what they are buying and be curious about what they are putting into their bodies to be healthy.”

In 1999, he opened Alimentare with a local Cagliese woman and began cooking and serving food and refreshments to the town’s residents.  In 2001, his dedication to health and wellness led Alessandro to Torino for an annual festival called Salone del Gusto or the “taste of flavor.”  There, he and a friend traipsed through the maze of vendors and eventually wandered into the booth of the “slow food” movement.

“Slow food” is an international movement originating in Bra, Italy.  The campaign, founded in 1986, represents over 132 countries dedicated to organic, sustainable farming, according to the website.  This political and agricultural effort was spawned in opposition to the lifestyle of convenience that fast-food restaurants perpetuate. Instead of hitting the door to conquer the next item on a long list of “to do’s,” the site says, slow food encourages an unhurried, more-deliberate approach to food and to life. The movement supports a culture of leisure that begins at the table.

“Even though it tastes good, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” Alessandro says.

He has since meshed his knowledge and curiosity with the concepts of sustainability to create a quality, sensory experience with each meal he serves and every glass he fills at Alimentare.  The restaurant has become a meeting site to educate patrons about the differences between what tastes good and what is also good for you.  On its shelves, shoppers can find  “verace” or the “genuine, real food,” absent of pesticide contamination and seldom available at other restaurants.

Taking an active role in his health is more than a conscious decision; it is a lifestyle Alessandro has chosen to live, he says.
“Doing something is better than doing nothing,“ he says. “Even if you don’t have the time to eat the right way every day, maybe this knowledge will change what you eat in one or even two meals, and that would be better.” 

As the night continues to cast its silhouette, Alessandro tidies the cafe patio and removes the last of the empty beer bottles.  He rolls his tie-dyed, cotton bracelet above his palm and sweeps bruschetta crumbs onto the patio floor.  He sits, crosses his sandaled feet and stretches his body over the only chair left unfolded.  As he sighs, he reaches for his wine, tilts his glass, and takes a sip of handcrafted merlot.  The townspeople who have dined at Alimentare that night have returned to their homes with full bellies and possibly a bit more knowledge about the food they enjoyed.

A portrait of Alessandro Chegai as he sets up for his slow food meeting.

Alessandro Chegai pauses to engage in coversation in between set up for his slow food meeting.

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