When he lived in California, leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra as music director for nine years, it was the porcini that drove him to the hunt: Brown and cartoonishly large, they blossomed above the grass with the glossy, round sheen of a baked pork bun.
Now that he’s home in Tuscany, he has other options. There’s the cheery orange dome of the Amanita caesarea — Caesar’s mushroom — with its delectably nutty taste, but also the flute-like, yellow chanterelle, crisp and flavorful with ridges running up its stem. Of course, if he passed the prickly fruit of a wild chestnut tree, he wouldn’t pass that up, either.
But secrecy is key. “I don’t know any locations to hunt mushrooms in San Francisco,” Luisotti says with a puckish grin. Photographs of him kneeling next to mushrooms the size of miniature umbrellas tell a different story. But ask again him where he hunts, and all you’ll get is evasion.
“When I will be back in San Francisco, I want to find my places full of mushrooms,” he chuckles.
Food has long been a Luisotti family passion. A distant relative, Don Guido Luisotti, once went hunting for waterfowl with the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. At home, pasta was cooked “in a thousand ways.” Luisotti’s childhood was full of vegetables like Swiss chard and spinach, plus fish fresh from the Mediterranean.
He missed those flavors when he lived in the United States: “The Mediterranean water is something that gives the fishes a special taste.”
And then there were the rabbits. “In the past, there was a huge tradition of eating rabbits, in my house as well,” he says. “I remember my father telling me, ‘Nicola, come here. You help me to kill the rabbit.’ I was crying all the time.”
Now he can’t stand to eat them. “For me, it’s like eating a cat.”
But it was as he entered his teenage years that he embarked upon that all-consuming hobby: the mushroom. Luisotti says he was 12, maybe 13 or 14, when he joined his friends for the first time in the woods to start the hunt. His father would guide them, teaching them the signs: This variety is good. That one? Bad.
It’s different now, he says. When he looks at his nieces and nephews, Luisotti sees a generation consumed with screens. But back when he was young, he was taught to observe the outside world. “We watched the trees, we watched the grass, because we hadn't other things to watch.”
As Luisotti sees it, childhood is the brief window of time to become serious about mushroom hunting. Once adulthood sets in, so do the fears. Maybe you’ll get sick eating a mushroom. Maybe one will be poisonous.
“But when you are a child, you are open,” he says. If you start early, by the time you grow into adulthood, you’ve already learned what to avoid. Luisotti describes it almost like a second nature.
“I can't do mistakes with mushrooms,” he says. “For me, the right mushroom is like recognizing an apple or a banana. They’re very distinct.”
And then there’s the mushroom-hunting culture. Luisotti is steeped in it. It’s spy-versus-spy out there in the forest. And the games often start before you ever set foot in nature.
“The problem is that all the other people are trying to go earlier than you,” he says. Everyone is on the prowl for la prima nascita — that first explosion of mushrooms, a blossoming of fungi unspoiled by rival hunters.
So when you’re setting out on a hunting trip, Luisotti offers these words of advice: “Don’t say nothing.” The best tactic is to deny you’re even going.
But what if you’re pressed? Pushed and prodded to leak your mushroom-hunting plans? “Eventually you just say a lie and you will save yourself,” he laughs. “When you go into the woods, you lie.”
On the day of his interview for this story, Luisotti reveals that he and his wife Rita are planning a trip to the Garfagnana region of Italy the next morning. Mushroom hunting trips often start at four o’clock, three in the morning. They prepare some coffee and depart before the first light, hoping to get deep into the forest. “The farthest you are, the more you will find.”
It’s Rita he credits with teaching him the skills to cook his fungal quarry. They met growing up together in the same Tuscan village. He says he first asked her out when he was 16: She flatly refused. He tried again at age 21. They’ve spent over three decades since together.
Luisotti recalls a strict division in his childhood home: Women would cook, men would swing hammers. But when he and Rita fell in love, she also taught him to fall in love with cooking. “Day after day, I became a cook,” he says. “Now it’s at least 35 years I cook.”
The mushrooms they gather together end up in risottos, pastas, funghi trifolati — a traditional Italian sauté. And then, when they have extra, they dry them, ensuring they have mushrooms well beyond the autumn harvest.
Luisotti considers himself an adventurous eater. Every time he travels to conduct a new production, he samples the regional cuisine. He likes the Chinese food he’s tasted, the traditional Japanese recipes, the Spanish delicacies found at his latest post in Madrid. But it was arriving to the United States that gave him culinary culture shock.
“When I came to the United States, I saw that many people going into a supermarket and buy food already cooked,” he says. This feels typically American to him. He and Rita prefer to prepare dishes from scratch. “We have our vegetable garden. We have our olive trees. We produce everything, and what we don’t have at our place, we buy, and we start to make the food from the very, very beginning.”
For Luisotti, “food is a kind of God.” But then again, so is music. Nowadays, he worries about the fate of live performance, hampered by widespread theater closures during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
“I can't accept what United States, for example, have done so far,” he says. He believes live performance can return with safety measures like social distancing and mask-wearing.
“People continue to go on the bus. People continue to go on the airplanes. People continue to go on the trains. People go continue to go to the supermarket, to the malls, and everything but the theater and culture. We can't stop the culture. Because if we stop the culture, it means that we are stopping life.”
He points to his own work at Madrid’s Teatro Real as a success story: In July, after a period of quarantine, he conducted live performances of La Traviata. And in September and October, he was at the podium for A Masked Ball (Un Ballo in Maschera).
“Let me tell you, the first rehearsal we had for La Traviata after three months and a half? All the orchestra, me, all the people that were present at rehearsal, we cried,” he says. “We can’t just have surrogates of the music, like CDs or DVDs.”
Luisotti, now 58, believes it took him until his 50s to become a “real conductor,” someone who understands leadership not as iron-fisted command but as a relationship. You go to the podium not to lift yourself above your musicians but to go down and meet them at their level, he quips.
But that professional evolution took time, he says. And not performing comes with the risk of losing hard-won skills that grow rusty without practice.
“Especially as professional artists, you grow up not every year but every day. Every day is different,” he says. “If we stop for months, for a year or two years, then we will not be able to be at the same level as before.”
He calls orchestral scores a “golden cage” for sounds both human and divine — the culmination of billions and billions of years of development in the universe. The music is a voice that calls to him. It is a godly presence, just as he feels with food.
To learn more about conductor Nicola Luisotti, visit his website or follow him on social media. Please consult your local park authorities before foraging for mushrooms: Some require permitting and enforce a collection limit.