Our interview with Sauro Ricci… executive chef at Joia restaurant, and mushroom lover.

Sauro Ricci… Italian executive chef at Joia restaurant, and mushroom lover.Sauro Ricci… chef and mushroom lover.

At Incredible Mushrooms, we’re really excited to talk with Sauro Ricci about cooking with mushrooms in Italy.

Joia is a symbol of vegetarian haute cuisine in Italy, and the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to win a Michelin star. 

Sauro Ricci, a native of Tuscany, has been at the command of Joia since 2011 as executive chef and right-hand man of the restaurant's chef and founder, Pietro Leemann.

Autumn is when wild mushrooms are most abundant in Italy. Cultivated mushrooms - like Champignon mushrooms, Shiitake, or Matsutake - are available throughout the year 

These mushrooms are found in grocery stores, markets, street stalls, and restaurant menus. They are everywhere. Both dried and fresh. 

Italians love to eat mushrooms in risotto or pasta, for their irresistible umami flavor. 

Let’s get started with the interview. And be sure to keep reading until you reach the part where Sauro talks about his favourite mushrooms. He shares some great tips on how to prepare them.

To keep things simple...we'll abbreviate with IM for Incredible Mushrooms and SR for Sauro Ricci.

IM: Why do Italians love mushrooms so much?

SR: For Italians, mushrooms are a very precious product. It is an art to find them in the forest, and it’s only recently that they’ve been cultivated on mushroom farms. Mushrooms are a product of great nutritional value and flavor. In popular culture they are considered a vegetable accompaniment. 

Also, mushrooms have had their place on people’s tables at every time in Italian history. From the time of the Romans, to the Middle Ages, and in modern cuisine, mushrooms have spanned all the culinary cultures that we’ve lived here in Italy.

The most popular mushrooms are Porcini, Champignon mushrooms, Pleurotus, and Cardoncelli which occasionally arrives from Korea. And another very large one, the Portobello.  

And in haute cuisine: for some years now, Shiitake, Pioppino (the latest trend in Italy) and Finferli (known in some countries as the Chanterelle).

IM: How does your story with mushrooms begin in your cooking?

SR: My cooking is high-budget vegetarian haute cuisine. My specialization leads me to see mushrooms as a very important product… for their texture, for their flavor, and for the possibility of being very satisfying when you eat them. 

Our focus is on preparing mushrooms in a way that enhances their flavour. We work at a very high heat, sautéed, which produces a caramelization. We also grill our mushrooms. Then we finish with a touch of soy sauce or tamari.

We get the most intense flavor possible from the mushrooms. Porcini and Shiitake will be griddled or grilled. They can appear in classic preparations of our Italian cuisine… such as risottos, lasagna, ravioli, to make stuffing, and can also be a sauce to accompany tempeh, tofu, or seitan.

IM: What is tempeh?

SR: Tempeh is a fermented product from Indonesia. It is made from soybeans that are fermented with the fungus Rhizopus Oligosporus that produces a white fluffy mycelium.

I traveled to the Orient and started my research on culinary techniques to find vegetarian products all over the world, and tempeh has a lot of protein for vegetarians. 

With tempeh, if it is cooked or tempered, it can develop a meat flavor. For people who are in transition to a vegetarian life, it also signifies peace with the environment and animals. 

IM: How interesting! It's fascinating to learn about some of the influences on Joia's approach to vegetarian cooking.

SR: In the future, mushrooms will be a very important product in the gastronomic world, because they provide flavour and proteins. This will make them of prime importance. 

IM: What are your favorite mushrooms, and why? How do you prepare them?

SR: A great way to treat mushrooms is to grill them and finish them with a few drops of soy sauce or tamari. It gives them more flavor and tamari, it has umami. It is like a marriage of flavors. 

I love...

Finferli Mushrooms

Finferli mushrooms - known in some countries as the ChanterelleFinferli mushrooms - known in some countries as the Chanterelle

Cook them with water and vinegar for 1 minute. Then, remove it from the water and sauté it in a frying pan with a little sunflower oil, rosemary, or thyme herbs. I like it because you have brown meat and a rubbery texture. 

Shiitake Mushrooms

The tastiest way is to sauté Shiitake mushrooms quickly in a pan with a few drops of sesame oil. Then sauté it again and finish it with a few drops of ginger juice, tamari, and soy.  

Ovuli Mushrooms

The flavor of this mushroom is very delicate. The best way is as a carpaccio, with olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Very simple. If you want, you can also add a few drops of lemon juice. 

Pleurotus Mushrooms

Some of the ways Italians like them are breaded and fried. I like them because they have a very interesting texture, they lend themselves to tempura, and you can also grill them and find an incredible flavour. 

IM: What is the mushroom specialty at Joia?

SR: The most iconic dish is "La Relazione Privilegiata" that has a chickpea pâté, parsley pesto and nuts, avocado marinated with many aromatic herbs and grilled porcinis. We bring it to the table on a BBQ grill plate. Under those herbs, we light it, and it produces smoke that imparts a delicious smoky flavour. We finish this dish at the customers' table.

La Relazione Privilegiata with mushrooms
La Relazione Privilegiata with mushrooms

"La Relazione Privilegiata" consists of two dishes. It has porcini, one of the most
loved mushrooms in Italy.

IM: You have included Porcini in this dish. Why are Porcini so loved in Italy?

SR: Among all species of mushrooms, the Porcini is one of the tastiest. The Porcini is considered a valuable food also because it cannot be cultivated on farms. It grows in the wild. 

What most characterizes the porcini is the intense aroma of the forest, but this aroma is not too strong and can be enjoyed both cooked and raw. 

A typical Italian recipe is a salad of fresh Porcini mushrooms, thinly cut and seasoned with a good extra virgin olive oil. Its flesh is firm and compact, exudes a persistent aroma, and is intensely aromatic.

Porcini is a versatile ingredient: it is good breaded, sautéed, fried, grilled, combined with pasta, risotto, and soups. It's used fresh and dry or in oil.

IM: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!

SR: It was a pleasure meeting you. I enjoyed our conversation about mushrooms! 

My final message is I hope that everyone will experience the thrill of exploring the magical world that is given to us by Porcini, Fiferli, and all the other mushrooms that grow in the wild.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Photo courtesy of Sauro Ricci and Lucio Elio, with thanks.

The Joia Restaurant.

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