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Maserati road trip: Notes from a 500km drive through northern Italy

Discovering the spirit of Modenese carmaker Maserati through the lens of Italian traditional craft.

The summer afternoon is muggy and heavy with languor. The birds stay silent. Even the persimmon trees, pregnant with fruit, stand inert as if too hot to move. Only the ceaseless drone of the cicadas, so shrill it penetrates my climate-controlled cocoon, betrays any sign of life here. I kill the engine in my anthracite Maserati Quattroporte GTS, leaving it on the shimmering driveway as I round the corner on foot. And that is when I spot the cows: twenty dozen of them, blissfully indolent under the shelter of two open-walled sheds. Clustered beneath the ceiling fans that dole out merciful respite from the oppressive heat, they unhurriedly ruminate and chumble on hay.

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After all, the Frisians are done for the day, having been milked earlier. All they need to do now is relax, while their full-creamed goodness, resting in vats in the dairy across the road, lies in preparation for the two-year-long metamorphosis into Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Not the powdered “parmesan” sprinkled out of a can and onto a plate of faux spaghetti bolognese, mind. But a devotion to caseous perfection, lovingly crafted as artisans had done centuries ago, updated with modern farming standards.

At the Hombre organic farm on the outskirts of Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, chemicals are banned from the crops grown on the farm exclusively to nourish the bovines. Vets treat them with homeopathic products, eschewing pharmaceuticals. Only half the herd is producing milk at any time; the rest are free to roam the pasture.

Meanwhile, in the air-conditioned warehouse, some 8,000 wheels in various stages of maturation are stacked in racks. The silence is broken only by the occasional whirr of a roving automaton that rotates and cleans each cake, an unceasing task that takes two weeks per pass.

Of such unreproachable quality is Hombre’s cheese that not a single piece fails the “hammer test”. This is where external inspectors, entrusted to uphold the sanctity of the Parmigiano-Reggiano appellation, tap each wheel at various points with a tool to detect any imperfections within. No surprise then that Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, the eatery in the city’s old town that took the crown this year in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, buys his “King of Cheese” here.

  • maserati road trip italy

    01 HAY THERE!

    A cow eats organic feed grown on the premises made of alfalfa, sorghum, oats and barley.

 

A LONG LINEAGE

I meet Matteo Panini, the soft-spoken scion of the clan that made its millions peddling its eponymous soccer-themed stickers to schoolchildren. His late father, Umberto, started Hombre in 1992, soon after disposing of the publishing business, naming the farm after the moniker he had earned during his seven-year stint in Argentina where he worked the land.

Matteo leads me to a vast split-level barn styled in wrought iron after a railway station. Packed in here are 40-plus classic Maseratis – the world’s largest collection – alongside a sizeable hoard of other vintage automobiles, tractors, motorcycles, pedal bikes and vehicular memorabilia. Fancy adhesive labels, it turns out, are not the only collectibles for which the Paninis are known.

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Umberto, Matteo explains, was a mechanic at Maserati before he left for South America. Some time in the 1990s, he had heard that the irreplaceable stash was to be auctioned off piecemeal in London, after the marque lost its museum during an ownership change. Having a soft spot for his former employer, he made a private, eleventh-hour offer to bring the cars home, thus creating the Collezione Umberto Panini.

The collection traces the colourful history of the century-old brand renowned for its sporting heritage. Established in 1914 by five brothers as a builder of Grand Prix cars for Diatto, Maserati pioneered its own racers under the trident badge after the former folded and went on to win many a competition. The red 6C 34 single-seater, in particular, is one of Matteo’s favourites, being the first six-cylinder car made by Maserati and just one of four ever built.

The company was sold after a key sibling died before WWII. The post-war years marked a golden era as the firm’s cars, with the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio behind the wheel, continued to trounce others on the track. When the Mille Miglia was canned after two horrific accidents in 1957, Maserati switched focus to road-going vehicles. Seminal models of the late 1950s and 1960s such as the 3500 GT (Maserati’s first series-produced car), Mistral, Quattroporte and Ghibli cemented the brand’s reputation as a creator of sporty grand tourers, coupes and sedans nonpareil.

But the 1973 oil crisis, following French carmaker Citroen’s ill-fated takeover in the late 1960s, got Maserati, whose beefy engines were exceedingly thirsty, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. An intervention and a subsequent bailout by the Italian government saved the firm from liquidation.

Maserati trundled on, changing hands several times in the decades since. It was not until it was paired with Alfa Romeo in 2005 under Fiat Group ownership that it found traction again, ringing up its first profit in 17 years in 2007. Bolstered by the long-awaited reintroduction of its executive sedan, the Ghibli and its Levante sport utility vehicle – the hottest segment in the auto industry – it sold 50,000 cars worldwide last year, an astonishing seven-fold increase from 2012. These two models, together with the full-sized Quattroporte, comprise the fleet within which I can pick a car on this trip.

 

SMOOTH SAILING

I leave Modena and head towards Sarnico on the banks of Lake Iseo near Bergamo. The flatlands turn into inclines as I approach the foothills of the Alps. It is a worthy platform for today’s ride, a blue Levante Q4, to demonstrate its competence in dishing out shedloads of refined, diesel-powered torque that effortlessly eats up the undulating miles.

The Riva boatyard is located in a curious place for a maritime business. Limited to 80-footers due to narrow tunnels, the vessels built here have to
be carefully dismantled and transported by land, before being put back together again near the open sea. Yet, the owners persist for no finer reason than preservation of heritage. For this is where the brand started in 1842, when a young shipbuilder named Pietro Riva stepped up to skilfully repair local fishermen’s boats that were devastated by a sudden storm.

Today, Riva makes some of the world’s most celebrated pleasure craft. Its models appear in no fewer than 40 films, such as La Femme Nikita, Golden Eye and Ocean’s Twelve, and not a single product was placed in exchange for marketing money. Like Maserati, the Ferretti Group that owns Riva has seen a resurgence in recent years: 2016 marked the first profitable year since 2008, thanks to additional investment by its new Chinese owners. The Ferrari family maintains a minority stake.

Taking an open-air ride across the lake in one 07 of its nimble sports yachts, the Aquariva, I watch the sunbathers bask on the shore. I lay my back on the soft leather bench and run my fingers over the polished wooden deck. The rays are kissing my face and the wind is rustling my hair as I am whisked
to the other end of the lake, where a leisurely two-hour lunch awaits. This, I suppose, is what the Italians mean when they say “la dolce vita”.

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TAILORED EXPERIENCE

My last destination is Casa Zegna, home to the famous mill that produced fabric of such quality that it singlehandedly shifted the premium textile’s centre from Manchester to Trivero in the early 20th century. I am in the Quattroporte GTS, the same car that I picked on the first day, and for good reason. It comes equipped with the Granlusso trim that features a very special upholstery: 100 per cent natural Mulberry silk. (That the car also sports
the best engine of the lot, a petrol twin-turbo V8 designed by and shared with Ferrari, is but the icing on the cake.)

Exclusive to Maserati, this precious material was created in conjunction with Ermenegildo Zegna after years of research and development. Soft and delicate yet hard-wearing – it has been proven to survive a quarter of a million “in and out” cycles – it is produced using methods that are the same as those behind Zegna’s sought-after wool fabrics, with a few secret adaptations.

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The latter is made at the Lanificio Zegna in an edifice that dates back to the 1930s. Here, production is modernised and industrial, with huge machines taking care of each step. First, the wool fibres are dyed and “carded” or straightened. Next, thread is formed by spinning the fibres together to form strands of yarn. This is woven into fabric.

What is even more fascinating, though, is the winding journey up to the mill. Flanked by beautiful azaleas, hydrangeas and rhododendrons in full bloom, the 41km Panoramica Zegna – as the road is named – was built by order of the late Ermenegildo Zegna himself, and extends farther up the mountain to a resort complete with ski slopes, hotels and restaurants. It is contained within the 100 sq km Oasi Zegna nature reserve in the Biella Alps, an ongoing environmental improvement and protection project promoted by the company.

It has its origins in Ermenegildo’s belief that he has a duty to give back to the community, having gained much from the labour of his employees. He hence built a hospital, a swimming pool, a kindergarten and other infrastructure in Trivero, and, over the years, the firm expanded his efforts in creating an oasis where staff and other members of the public can enjoy.

 

EPILOGUE

These vignettes, all of which appear on the surface to be tenuously related, in fact come together as a whole to explain what “made in Italy” means. Truth be told, carmakers are so uniformly competent these days, one would be hard-pressed to single out one that is truly awful. So how would marques differentiate themselves? Is Maserati better than its competitors? How do you even begin to objectively measure this? After all, how long is a piece of string?

Hardcore petrolheads may dispute this assertion. They may speak in the vernacular of horsepower and handling, but even they will have a hard time coming to a consensus among themselves as to which among all the industry’s wonderful offerings is resolutely the best. After all, the choice boils down to personal preference.

What is more important, then, is how you feel about the car, about its heritage, its design, its philosophy, its mise en scene; the Italian sprezzatura as you take your everyday journeys. And, that, Maserati has in spades.

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