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Endless Italy: Region by region, Top Chefs Share the Country’s Most Graceful Ingredients

Luxeat Insider
·
8th ED.

Endless Italy: Region by region, Top Chefs Share the Country’s Most Graceful Ingredients

Luxeat Insider
·
8th ED.

Italy’s cuisine is as varied as the terroir: from the Alps and Apennine Mountains to the sun-baked shores of Puglia, from the volcanic soil of Etna and Vesuvius to the northern Lakes and the hills of Tuscany, produce and ingredients follow the land. Still, the country has a staggering number of high quality products, which goes some way to showing the sheer biodiversity on offer within a single nation, formed of twenty incredibly different regions.

Endless Italy: Region by region, Top Chefs Share the Country’s Most Graceful Ingredients

Campania, by Franco Pepe

Home to Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Campania is world famous for Mozzarella di Bufala, but the region offers so much more than that.

Franco Pepe

The first thing that comes to mind is the beautiful Conciato Romano, which is probably Italy’s most ancient cheese. It is magic: after the sheep, goat or cow milk is coagulated, expert hands press it to create the shape and then garnish it with condiments, and finally age it in terracotta vases. It develops a scent of alcohol and mature fruits, as well as an almost spicy persistence. We use it in our Mastunicola pizza with a figs preserve from Puglia, some Caserta Black pork lard and Matese oregano. Of course, we can’t forget to mention tomatoes: in my pizzeria I use many of them such as the San Marzano, the Piennolo (a sort of small natural candy growing under Mount Vesuvius), but the one I particularly care about is the Pomodoro Riccio by La Sbecciatrice. It is a very ancient variety, which grows in the area of Piana di Monte Verna; it is very resistant to heat and its balanced taste make it the perfect tomato for my Margherita Sbagliata – literally ‘wrong margherita’ sauce. I could speak for days but to conclude, I must talk about the Crisommola, which means apricot in Neapolitan dialect. In the Vesuvius area, we can find more than 70 different varieties of indigenous apricots with the most bizarre names. They have an incredible range of aromas, textures and flavors, from intense sweetness to complex acidic bitterness. I use them to make jam, paired with fresh ricotta, hazelnuts and dehydrated Caiazzo olives in my fried dessert pizza, the Crisommola.

Restaurant: Pepe in Grani (Caiazzo)

Andrea Bezzecchi: The Real King of Balsamic Vinegar

Mar 27, ’21

Featured in 8th
edition of Luxeat Insider

By Edoardo Celadon and Phoebe Hunt

Andrea Bezzecchi, Owner of the Acetaia San Giacomo. Photo by Stefano Caffarri

For those passionate about Italian cuisine, meeting Andrea Bezzecchi at his Balsamic Vinegar factory is similar to how meeting Michelangelo might feel for an artist. The man, the artisan, the location and the end products make Andrea one of the true custodians of the time-honored Italian heritage around Traditional Balsamic Vinegar – Aceto Balsamico. Andrea is the owner of the famous Acetaia San Giacomo, located in Novellara in the middle of the region of Emilia-Romagna. As soon as you arrive at the vinegar factory, or acetaia, you perceive that something special is about to happen. Just in time for a coffee, we immediately start the visit.

The main location of Acetaia San Giacomo in Novellara. Photo by Edoardo Celadon

Tell us how your passion for Balsamico started?

I inherited it from my father. Aceto Balsamico was traditionally produced in very small quantities by a lot of families between the provinces of Reggio Emilia and Modena, both in the area of Emilia-Romagna. Historically, making it was a precious hobby and a sign of wealth; families would make a couple of barrels at home, and that was it. It wasn’t supposed to be consumed at the table as a condiment, but rather as a digestive or a sort of medicine. My father’s passion gradually turned into more than one hundred Balsamico barrels collected in a small Podere, a sort of country house. After he passed away in 1994, it just felt natural to take care of them.

What exactly is the real Balsamico?

To answer this I must start from the end. Most of what’s sold in supermarkets is called “Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP”. The problem around this denomination is that it doesn’t require many rules to be followed: you can pick grapes which aren’t necessarily from the designated origin zone (Reggio Emilia and Modena); you can age it for just 60 days (which is literally nothing, when we’re talking about Balsamico); you can thicken it, you can even add caramel (to give it color); and most of all it’s often a wine vinegar blended with mosto concentrato (cheap vacuum-concentrated must).

Balsamico wasn’t supposed to be consumed at the table as a condiment, but rather as a digestive or a sort of medicine.

In reality many producers, even a few big and renowned names, actually downgrade their Balsamico in this way. The game changes when the label includes the word “Tradizionale” (Tradizionale di Modena DOP and Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP). This small but important differentiation was brought about by the awakening of small producers, who wanted to clarify their methods against the big production of the “Modena IGP”.

For Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale you must use local grapes, you can work only with the cooked must (without mixing it with anything else) and you must age the vinegar for 12 to 25 years after a double fermentation, all in wood barrels. After the whole process, the rigid rules also require the tasting and the bottling to be done by an official control organisation.

The must cooking machine at Acetaia San Giacomo. Photo by Edoardo Celadon

Okay. Let’s put fuel on fire. Where the Balsamico was born?

Well, the first historical traces date back to 1046 when Henry III (The Holy Roman Emperor) was gifted a bottle by the Canossa family, which he described as a “precious vinegar simmering in the Canossa lands.” After that all mentions refer to the same area, which was an ancient Duchy including both Modena and Reggio Emilia. 

The rest of the story is a contemporary war about whether it originated from Modena or Reggio Emilia. Personally, I don’t think this distinction is important – I say choose the real Aceto Balsamico, and don’t worry too much about whether it’s from one place or the other.

Ok, so tell us about your different products.

At Acetaia San Giacomo we produce a vast range of different organic vinegars, such as the classic Balsamico San Giacomo, for an everyday usage, the Balsamela (an apple balsamico), the Essenza, the Agro di Mosto, the Saba (cooked must reduced by 70%) and of course our Tradizionali. As well as this, we make beer and wine vinegar. The traditional aceto balsamico is divided into three categories: the Lobster Seal (over 12 years of aging), the Silver Seal (18-20 years) and the Gold Seal (over 25 years). All the products, even what’s not labeled as Tradizionale, are pure and unblended: we always use 100% cooked must made from organic local grapes.

For Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale you must use local grapes, you can work only with the cooked must and you must age the vinegar for 12 to 25 years after a double fermentation, all in wood barrels.

Could you describe to us the process of how it’s made?

I’ll describe a little about the process of how we make it, so you can see all the steps involved. We reduce the volume of the must by 30% over a direct flame, in order to start the caramelization process which will give the Balsamico its natural aromas of cooked fruits, toasted nuts, caramel without any addition. After the must is cooked, the product sits untouched for 1-2 years of alcoholic fermentation and then acetic oxidation, where bacterias will superficially create a layer on top of the liquid. In most balsamic vinegar factories, including very prestigious ones, instead of waiting months for the bacterias to work they simply add wine vinegar.

Once the product is stable, it’s ready to be aged – stored in barrels in scaling dimensions. The key to obtaining a good Balsamico is called “Rincalzo.” This is essentially the process of refilling the smallest barrel with the next barrel’s vinegar, and so on up until the biggest: without this process you would lose all the vinegar because of evaporation and you wouldn’t be able to age them for long periods of time. The vinegar is all stored at the very top of the Podere in a space which is very sensitive to the seasonal temperatures.

This whole process makes you understand how the number of years doesn’t necessarily mean quality: it’s all about rincalzo. There’s no such thing as “50, 80 or 100 year old Balsamico:” by law most of the brands don’t write “100 years” but just “100”, which doesn’t mean anything and is misleading. Nonetheless many prestigious restaurants and sellers are proud to use those products, but I don’t think they always realise the process behind it.

The aging barrels at Acetaia San Giacomo. Photo by Edoardo Celadon

The aging barrels at Acetaia San Giacomo. Photo by Edoardo Celadon

Could you tell us some of your most prestigious clients? 

I have many but among all of them I’d say Niko Romito at Casadonna Reale, Matias Perdomo at Contraste, Rafael Cagali at Da Terra, Eugenio Boer at Bu:r, Marianna Vitale at Sud, Francesco Dolcetta at Marzapane, Giorgia Goggi at Masseria Moroseta, Paulo Airaudo at Amelia, Federico Sisti, Sarah Gruenberg at Monteverde, Riccardo Bertolino at Maison Boulud, Josiah Citrin at Mélisse, Walter Manske at République, Michael Cimarusti at Providence, Matthew Kenney at Sestina and Wolfgang Puck at Cut.

Number of years doesn’t necessarily mean quality: it’s all about rincalzo.

Future plans? 

Probably we’ll experiment more with wine vinegars, honey vinegars, cider vinegars, rice vinegars and so on. We’re also doing research on new micro DIY kits to obtain real Balsamico “at home”, and our first trial was actually done at Niko’s Casadonna Reale. We do all this in order to fight bad quality vinegars. I’m also publishing my book soon. It’s going to be called “Il Balsamico senza Aceto” (Balsamic without vinegar) to expose this bad habit of mixing vinegar, must and caramel, and how wrong it is. 

Could you suggest some of your favourite pairings with your Balsamico Tradizionale? 

I love pairing it with a moderately aged Parmigiano Reggiano, let’s say a 30 or 48 month one, with a Silver or Gold seal Balsamico. Or why not drizzled on top of a generous plate of Tortellini alla Panna. It works also on cold cuts eaten with fresh Tigelle, a small white bread that you can fill with lard, cheese and cured meats. Young aceti balsamici (non-tradizionali) are perfect for glazing a bitter vegetable such as radicchio or endive or garnishing a fresh salad.

The Seal Gold Balsamico Tradizionale Extra Vecchio by San Giacomo. Photo by Edoardo Celadon

The Seal Gold Balsamico Tradizionale Extra Vecchio by San Giacomo. Photo by Edoardo Celadon

Where:Acetaia San GiacomoStrada Pennella, 1Novellara (RE)42017acetaiasangiacomo.com

Erri De Luca: the food of memories and childhood

Mar 27, ’21

Featured in 8th
edition of Luxeat Insider

Martin d’Orgeval, Aiste Miseviciute and Erri De Luca. Photo by Paola Porrini Bisson

Recognized by the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera as “the writer of the decade”, Italian novelist and poet, Enrico “Erri” De Luca needs no introduction. I and dear friend photographer Martin d’Orgeval had the great pleasure to spend a moment in his presence, and absorb his musings around what food meant to him growing up in Naples and now, take note of his poetic recipe for Parmigiana di Melanzane and imagine the atmosphere of this grandmother’s kitchen. Here are the extracts…

My name is Erri de Luca, I am first and foremost Napolitan and secondly a writer. My recipe for Parmigiana di Melanzane, a Napolitan tradition, is based on three things: 

First you must slice the aubergines and leave them out in the sun. They need to be dry, because if they’re not dry they will absorb too much oil during the cooking process. So we lay them out to dry in the sun and when they’ve dried out, a little like my old face, we put them in the oil.So the first thing is the sun and the second thing is the oil for cooking and then the third thing is to place them in layers with mozzarella, parmesan and basil, layer upon layer.Then the last thing is to put it all in the oven.Then you must leave it alone. Tranquil. It’s not ready to be eaten, no! You must leave it to rest, as it’s tired after everything it’s been through.The Parmesan is at its best and rediscovered its enthusiasm for the dish when it’s well rested. When it’s cooled, it’s perfect.This is a recipe from my grandmother.And a recipe that my mother made me often and when she came to live in my house, it was my entrée.When she died, I never ate it again, neither in a restaurant nor at my home. Because it was linked to that intimacy, and that past.I think that grief isn’t something that comes out at the cemetery but rather at the table.And that is a Napolitain recipe.

Erri De Luca’s kitchen. Photo by Erri De Luca

What is the place of cuisine and food in your education?

Above all, it was a privilege, because I grew up in the place with the highest rate of child mortality in Europe. Children died because of different deficiencies, including food. I grew up in a household where we never went without, we always had clothing.I had the best emotional education of shame, as shame is an emotion. It’s a persistent feeling, not like anger that passes. Anger comes like a commotion, shakes you and then it leaves you. Not shame. Shame stays like a sort of wound and you must heal it.And that is why I think that shame is a political feeling, it forces you to react and respond in some way.

And it was cuisine, food, brought on that shame?

It wasn’t the food itself, it was the difference.It was what I saw in the streets.Food represented the indispensable realization of life. 

It’s like the Manna* in the exodus, but the Manna was equally distributed to people but for us this even distribution wasn’t the case, so food for us represented the need of Manna.[ Editor’s note: Manna is an edible substance which God provided for the Israelites during their travels in the desert during the 40-year period following the Exodus]

Erri De Luca’s kitchen. Photo by Erri De Luca

Italian food can give one the impression of coming alive, how would you summarize the spirit of Italian cooking? 

Dry ingredients, even dry old bread, added to a dish and revitalised, absolutely nothing was wasted, nothing thrown out. Everything was used. The simplest methods were used to cook to save on water and gas.

Do you remember the atmosphere of your grandmother’s kitchen in Naples?

Yes, because on Sundays we went to my grandmothers to prepare a traditional stew – a sauce with meat. Pieces of meat specially put together. She would cook over a very low heat, like a candle, starting the night before, regularly passing by to gently stir it during the night and on the Sunday at midday there would be that aroma …. For me it was like Church. Like Patheos.A celestial smell, impossible to find. Today you can find this stew, but it’s meat with tomatoes. But my grandmother’s ragout was the apothesis of Italian cuisine.

Erri De Luca’s kitchen. Photo by Erri De Luca

What did your grandma transmit with her cooking? 

A respect for meals and dining. If we accidentally dropped a piece of bread on the floor during a meal, we were taught to pick it up, give it a kiss and put it back on the table.At the table my grandmother used to say, we’re fighting with death here. There are often accidents, one can choke on a piece of food, and when you eat fish… a fish bone can kill. A meal can be dangerous, first of all if you’re hungry, you want to eat and if you eat too fast you can choke. My grandma would say that in all seriousness, be careful, at the table we are fighting with death! 

Respect for food.

Erri De Luca’s kitchen. Photo by Erri De Luca

Fireplace at Erri De Luca’s home. Photo by Erri De Luca

Monica Larner: Italian wine, biodiversity and indigenous grapes

Mar 27, ’21

Featured in 8th
edition of Luxeat Insider

With all the focus going on a few famous regions, and often overshadowed altogether by its French neighbours, the sheer variety of Italian wines is often overlooked. We talk to Monica Larner, an award-winning wine critic and writer who lives in Rome, about Italy’s fantastically diverse offering of wine. The Robert Parker Wine Advocate for Italy, Monica was selected in 2003 to be the very first dedicated Italian wine editor for Wine Enthusiast. Recently we had live interview with her to discover the ancient roots behind Italy’s many thousands of grape varieties, the Roman trade roots and cultivation methods that we’re still reaping the rewards from today, and why, in Italy, it’s all about territorio. 

The full interview you can watch here.

Tuscan vineyard. Photo by Jonathan Skule

First of all, what drew you to a career in wine?  

I started as a journalist, I never thought I’d be a wine taster. So for me, ever since I started doing it, it’s so fascinating to understand the story behind the wines. I see my job as the way of telling the story of Italy, using its grapes as the mediators, as the voices, as the characters. The more you learn about Italian wine, the more you realize how variated it is, how incredibly complex it is, and how each little grape that comes from each region tells a story about that place –  its food, its people, its art, its local architecture. So it becomes a really complex storytelling machine, this tiny little fruit, and that is the thing which inspires me the most. 

And what about Italian wine? Could you tell us some more about the diversity between the country’s 20 regions.

I try to use wine to tell a story about the region. So when you look at Italian wine, of course, you have this boot-shaped peninsula. It goes from the 45th to 38th parallel, so you have this perfect range of exposure along the Northern hemisphere for grape growing, with over 7000km of coastline and all these beautiful breezes.

In ancient Roman times Italy was used as a nursery, a place to grow grape plants in the land of wine. So you have all these different grapes which arrived in Italy from various points in the Mediterranean, and were cultivated here. Because of our position in the Mediterranean many of these grapes then ended up moving across towards France and other parts of the world. But the interesting thing is that the ancient civilisations also cultivated by seed instead of by cutting the grape wine plant. When you do a cutting you’re getting a clone, an exact photocopy, whereas planting by seeds you create a slightly new genetic material each time. This created an enormous biodiversity of grapes, which is really the most exciting thing about Italian wine. 

The more you learn about Italian wine, the more you realize how variated it is, how incredibly complex it is, and how each little grape that comes from each region tells a story about that place –  its food, its people, its art, its local architecture.

Today we have around 400 grapes which are used commercially, but there are two or three thousand on record, which are recognized as indigenous or traditional grapes of Italy. And you can’t rival that biodiversity. For example you can make a beautiful Sangiovese in Tuscany, but the minute you take that Sangiovese and move it to another part of the world, of course it reacts differently. And the expression you get from Tuscany is a fingerprint of Tuscany in Sangiovese in Tuscany. And that becomes a competitive advantage, because what other country else can do that? The same goes for Nebbiolo, for Nero d’Avola, and for hundreds of other indigenous grapes.

So when you travel from the North to the South, how would you define Italian wines?

I like to connect why it tastes different, what makes it Tuscian, what makes it Umbrian, what makes it Sicilian, what makes it Piemontesian and so on. I’m sure that everyone is aware of how many dialects Italy has, even from one town to the next, and wines are similar. For example, when you start in the far north in Piemonte, you have the Nebbiolo grape which is a base of Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s most important wines. The grape there is meaningful, important and deep. It’s complex and intellectual, pushes you, tricks you sometimes. It requires a lot of your passion and tension. And this kind of mirrors the personality of Piemontese who are culturally very close to France and have long traditions.

Harvesting Nebbiolo grapes in Serralunga, Italy. Grapes will be used in the process to make Barolo. Photo by Andrea Cairone

If you head down towards Tuscany you get wines which are rich and warm, there is more weight, more softness. It’s velvety, it’s seductive, and those wines of Tuscany are also mirroring these amazing landscapes with cypress trees and rolling hills. And then you go down to the middle, to Campania and Naples, and the volcanic soil of Vesuvius. These wines are full of minerals, very salty and bright and pristine, and they remind me of lemon grows on the Amalfi coast, bright colours and pristine air. Finally you go all the way down to Sicily and the wines of Mount Etna, very pristine and noble and proud. The combination of indiginous grapes with different types of territorio where wine grows gives every little pocket its own fabulous personality, and those wines magically fit with local cuisine. 

What are your favorite regions for wine?

I live in Rome which is a strategically good location, but also it’s important for the region of wine. The region of Lazio which surrounds Rome is not particularly known for its wine, but Rome is the biggest wine market so it has most availability of different wines from most of Italy. But the regions that excite me the most as a journalist are in the south, Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Puglia, Molise, Abruzzo, Sardinia. I would say that’s where you find more discoveries, there are more things to discover, new grapes that have never before been catalogued. But I also love Tuscany, Veneto and Piemonte wines, that are very long ageing.

What do you think are the grapes that ancient Romans were drinking?

Well, there are a lot of grapes in Campania that still grow, like Aglianico and even some white grapes, which we know were favourites in Caesar’s Rome and also in the Castelli Romani area of Lazio which is the volcanic area outside of Rome. There were other grapes that were used, but these grapes quenched the thirst of ancient Rome. They loved them so much, and there were carriages of these wines going to thirsty Rome because there was a huge market. There are ways to connect the great majority of grapes that you find in Italy to the ancient world, in terms of what the locals drink or how these grapes got there, and most importantly how they can trace the route of the wine trade. 

Photo by Markus Winkler

I heard that ancient wine was not really drinkable, is it true?

Yes! The Romans had all sorts of strange ways of preserving or conserving the wines, so they put them in clay amphora, and those wines were probably oxidized, but anyway they used a lot of raisins or honey, or any other stuff which used to close the amphora. Also, they flavoured them with different herbs and oils even, so I’m sure that their palate was terrible by modern standards. I’m not sure what the priorities were, but I think they were looking for alcohol.

What about sparkling wines in Italy?

Italy has quite a few sparkling wine regions, and dances a very complicated reality between the two methods of making sparkling wine. One is the Martinotti method used for prosecco, which is a huge category of sparkling wine in Italy of course. It’s simpler to make, because the secondary fermentation of wine occurs in a huge steel container. Then there’s the traditional method used for champagne, where second fermentation happens inside the bottle, the Metodo Classico. So you have this huge range of sparkling wines, from sweet and fun and affordable prosecco to the other side of the spectrum, where you have Fanciacorta wines in Trento and the Dolomites, right down to Sicily, with a very tight criteria and traditional method.  

A glass of wine can become the best tour guide of Italy: there is no better way to discover the country.

Sweet wines

Every single region in Italy has their completely different dessert wines, just as they have different sweets. For example, in Veneto, they have a wine Recioto, and that is a fascinating wine, because they use the same grapes as used to make other wines like Amarone. You have sparkling, semi-sparkling sweet wines like Moscato d’Asti in Piemonte, you have Vin Santo del Chianti Classico, you have quite a few air dried type wines from Calabria and Puglia. Of course, you go down to Pantelleria, further south, a little volcanic island where air-dried dessert wines made with what they call Zibibbo, which is Moscat de Alexandria, dried in the sun on huge tables. Picolit from Friuli Venezia Giulia is really interesting. It’s a dessert wine made from a grape that has a great genetic defect – each plant that has only a few grapes on it, and from that the plant is struggling to put all of its energy, concentration and flavours into these 5 little berries. So you have this amazing distinctive intensity from this strange grape. But obviously it doesn’t produce enough volume, so many are just thrown away, unplanted and discarded. There are only a few hectares of Picolit vines are left in the world, and a couple of hardcore producers who really believe in it. It tastes like acacia honey, with a very delicate, beautiful sweetness.

Harvest in a vineyard in Puglia. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino 

And finally, what can you tell us about pairing wine with food? 

I think the key is to look to regional food and what is eaten in the area the wine is from. So in Sicily you have Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which is light-bodied red wine made with Frappato and Nero d’Avola grapes. That pairs so beautifully with the pasta they have, they roll it by hand and serve with sour fish, maybe a little bit of fried aubergine, maybe a few mint leaves. Then you go to Tuscany and you get these beautiful wines from areas like Pisa and San Miniato, which have a more robust structure, and you can pair them with beautiful cuts of Bistecca Fiorentina. And then you go to the northern regions, where there is risotto, which can be eaten with Amarone and even cooked with a little Amarone too. And in Piemonte, there is a huge tradition of beautiful tajarin, which is very thin cut pasta made with a lot of egg yolk, so there is kind of fatness in your mouth, so you need an acidic structure of Nebbiolo to kind of break through that. So all in all, a glass of wine can become the best tour guide of Italy: there is no better way to discover the country.

Rachel Roddy: An A to Z of Pasta

Mar 27, ’21

Featured in 8th
edition of Luxeat Insider

By Phoebe Hunt

Photo by Rachel Roddy

There is perhaps no better way to tell the story of Italy’s culinary diversity than through pasta. Not only are there many hundreds of different shapes originating from the country’s 20 regions – often with multiple different names depending on where they’re being eaten – each pasta shape forms part of the jigsaw that is Italy’s complex food history over the last few thousand years. 

Rachel Roddy, one of the best food writers of our generation, has taken on the task of telling at least one part of this puzzle through her most recent book, An A to Z of Pasta, which will be published in June. Rachel has lived in Italy for many years and made a career documenting her food adventures and recipes in her much-loved weekly Guardian column, as well as a number of cookbooks. Through the lens of pasta, Rachel explores 50 different recipes with 50 different stories, travelling from pasta factories in Campania to family homes in Liguria, and everywhere in between. We sit down with Rachel Roddy for a (socially distanced) espresso in Testaccio, the vibrant quarter of Rome that she calls home.

OK, talk to us about pasta!

Well first of all, there are 350 to 600 pasta shapes with 1,300 identified names, so how on earth do you tell a story of pasta? It’s very, very hard to find patterns, and even when you do they’re sort of confusing, with so much cross-contamination and so many hundreds of strands and influences. What’s more, the story of pasta is not linear at all, despite what some people would have you believe. 

Photo from “An A-Z of Pasta” by Rachel Roddy

So, how have you categorised them and fitted them all into a book? 

I decided I would tell 50 stories about 50 shapes, which would fit together like a jigsaw to form a story (which is not to say the be all and end all definitive guide) of pasta. And once we had this sort of common red thread to connect them all together, we gained momentum and it was actually quite easy to find the shapes I needed to tell this story. So it’s an A-Z: A is for Alfabeto, Z is for Ziti. I felt like a detective at times. It’s all about finding patterns, and it’s exciting when that happens.The book comes together as a series of short stand-alone essays, with a collection of classic recipes. 

It’s less of a travel memoir than maybe my first two books were. There’s a lot of information, but it’s also a fun read. It wasn’t my position to be a definitive expert in all Italian food, and I hope the book shows that we don’t always need to take cooking rules too seriously. 

“An A to Z of Pasta” by Rachel Roddy

So, what about the origins of pasta? 

It’s such a big topic. The story of pasta is the story of Italy, and the world, because of course they’re all interconnected. The most common argument is that pasta evolved from Roman Lagana and Arab Itriyya, and out of those shapes everything else formed over the century. But things were constantly being cross-pollinated… orecchiette probably came from the French, for example.

There are seven or eight really great scholarly books out there about the history of pasta. A particularly good one is by French and Italian author Silvano Serventi, simply called “Pasta.” It weaves through history and also draws a parallel story with Chinese noodles, but I haven’t done any criss-crossing there as it’s too huge a topic.

Which pasta shapes do you particularly love? 

My favourite shapes are probably rigatoni or paccheri, which are big flappy tubes about the circumference of a 50p piece, a couple of inches long.Typically they’re from Campania, and they’re served with ragu or stuffed with different ingredients. The name is onomatopoeic from the Neapolitan dialect from paccharia, which means slap, because of the slapping sound they make when they’re being eaten. It’s a lovely shape to understand the importance of really good quality pasta. It’s so nutty and delicious and substantial when it’s done well. 

What about pasta sauces? How important do you think it is to serve specific pasta with a specific sauce? 

Rules are the total antithesis of Italian food anyway because it is all about home cooking, which is based on resourcefulness and mild anarchy.

The best example I can give for this is cacio e pepe, which in Rome is made with the canonical shape of tonnarelli, which is actually spaghetti alla chitarra, which was once known as maccheroni alla chitarra and is where all pasta came from for a very long time. But loads of people like it with spaghetti. Or bucatini which are slightly thicker and have a hole running through the middle. Or rigatoni tubes. Or even gnocchi! And in the end of that you sort of go “yeah, whatever.” It’s funny, and you’ve got to laugh at it – opinions and passions run so high around pasta. 

And how does this tell a story about Italian food and ‘authenticity’ on a bigger scale? 

In my book there’s a chapter called C for Casarecce – a lovely twisted ribbon pasta that looks like an S cross section – where I touch on exactly this. Like everything in Italian food, there are rules, and then you realise the opposite is sometimes completely true. 

Oretta Zanini De Vita was a great Italian food writer, she wrote The Encyclopedia of Pasta which is a masterpiece, and spent years and years travelling all over Italy recording oral history and delving into old cookbooks. She eventually came to the conclusion that really any shape goes with any sauce, and that anybody who is saying anything otherwise is overthinking. But… she always says ‘but’… there are some things to think about. Of course there are some good ideas and guidelines, because with a lot of shapes and sauces the reason they’re so inextricably linked is because they evolved together. 

Photo from “An A-Z of Pasta” by Rachel Roddy

And what about when you’re cooking, do you stick to the rules? 

I’ve always been a believer that when it comes to food ‘rules’, the opposite is often true in Italy. Those strict food rules are sort of preposterous anyway. Rules are the total antithesis of Italian food anyway because it is all about home cooking, which is based on resourcefulness and mild anarchy. This idea of “how things should be” is actually “how we need them to be.” It’s the idea of preserving things and our childhood, which is sometimes very traditional. For example, all the rules around tagliatelle and tortellini in Bologna, the idea that things should be a certain way, is totally ingrained as a sort of tribalism.

All of those things – from grandmas to checked tablecloths to old men in piazzas to coffee to ice cream – they’re all absolutely true. The problem with them is that they become a lie when that’s the only view you look at.

So on the one hand you’ve got the idea of clinging onto traditions to preserve them, and on the other there’s innovation and letting go. Where do you sit in this debate? 

I think you can hold onto both. Tradition and “how things were” is a slippery concept anyway, and I do think the mythology around food is quite powerful here in Italy, but I think with the whole idea of clinging onto the past, I find myself wanting to ask “which past?”. It’s interesting to look at dates of when pasta dishes started to be eaten here, it’s often SO late. Even spaghetti and tomato sauce wasn’t a national dish apart from in Naples until the 1960s. Even the word spaghetti only came into the Italian language in 1859. I love Massimo Montanari, an Italian historian who writes beautifully about exactly this. He uses spaghetti al pomodoro as an example for the ultimate italian dish, when actually spaghetti is from the arabs and tomatoes are from the Americans, but those two things met here and invented a new tradition. Or for example, you can make pesto in your grandmother’s marble pesto, or you can make it in a food processor. So in my book I was able to offer two recipes, and you can hold onto them both – they’re not mutually exclusive. Now, of course, these dishes have all got ancient ancestors, but I think the point is, we’ve got to examine what we mean by the past. I totally believe you can hold two things together.

And what about as a journalist writing about life in Italy more generally? 

You find food represented in every culture. I do think, without over-romanticising it, that Rome for example is such an edible city. Ingredients are so integral to the threads to the past and they feel part of the fabric of the city, so eating them feels to be eating your way in.

Well the concept is just the same. We know the currency and images and what’s expected when you’re writing about Italian food for international audiences. The point is that all of those things – from grandmas to checked tablecloths to old men in piazzas to coffee to ice cream – they’re all absolutely true. The problem with them is that they become a lie when that’s the only view you look at. That’s the problem with any cliche, when it stops us seeing beyond them. 

I always remember walking through Monteverdi near where I live and seeing this incredible orange tree, one of the most magnificent scenes against a yellow building, and then right below it was a huge pile of rubbish and human excrement. I felt like I was having a profound moment when I started thinking about what you take a photograph of, and the importance of capturing Rome in a balanced way. The other extreme is the journalist who’ll say “damn the pretty cliches, we’re going to write about bad cornetti and crime”. You want to say, “hang on, we can hold it all together”. And that’s what i’m aiming for with my pasta book. 

Photo by Rachel Roddy

And finally then, why is food such a good metaphor for Italian life? 

What’s so extraordinary about using food to understand a place and therefore a country and therefore the world and therefore humanity (without being overly ridiculous!) is that in Italy the continuous historic threads with food are so evident. When you learn about the founding myth of Rome in 753BC with Romulus and Remus, and you look at paintings and mosaics, you have pictures of cicoria, bitter greens, and ricotta, and you can find these threads all the way through to the modern day. For me they’ve always been the easiest to understand because I love to eat. You find food represented in every culture. I do think, without over-romanticising it, that Rome for example is such an edible city. Ingredients are so integral to the threads to the past and they feel part of the fabric of the city, so eating them feels to be eating your way in. If you look at a Roman menu in a trattoria, you can use it to write 3000 years of history with the ingredients. The same with Emilia-Romagna, and the same in Florence with the Medici, and the Etruscans before them – you can use it to map history. Ricotta olive oil, pasta, they’re all important.