Rachel Roddy is a British food writer, blogger, and the author of Five Quarters (in the US, My Kitchen in Rome) and Two Kitchens: Family Recipes from Sicily and Rome, as well as a weekly column in The Guardian. Rachel has lived in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome for 13 years, and that neighborhood has been the inspiration for most of her writing. More recently, she and her family have been spending time in Sicily as well, based in the town of Gela, where her partner was born and still has relatives.
Rachel was gracious enough to be interviewed over lunch at one of her favorite trattorie in Testaccio, La Torricella, and the dishes we enjoyed feature prominently in our conversation. In the interview, we talk about what Rachel finds so compelling about Testaccio, why she prefers Roman trattorie to more formal restaurants, and the challenges and joys of raising her son in Italy.
Justin Naylor: Thanks for making time for this interview today, especially over lunch at this beautiful trattoria! What struck me when I saw your first cookbook was that it was very personal, while many cookbooks these days, however gorgeous, lack a strong sense of personality or identity. That was the thing that first drew me to your writing. I was wondering if that was intentional or just a subconscious expression of who you are?
Rachel Roddy: I began as a blogger, so that was where it came from. Sections of Five Quarters are lifted directly from my blog. Everything was edited, and bits were rewritten, and the recipes were tested, but essentially I was a blogger. I arrived in Rome in 2005, and began writing the blog online in 2008. Before that, I was keeping notebooks, and sort of mimicking the food writers that I like. I’ve always read a lot of food writing, as opposed to just recipe books, so I was very inspired by Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, who always had a sense of narrative. Also Nigel Slater, whose book The Kitchen Diaries is a kind of cookbook in diary form. And the blogs I was reading were mostly American blogs. I still keep an eye on a young woman called Molly Wizenberg, who was a chef. It was narrative, telling a story into a recipe. That’s what my blog was based on, and that’s the strongest vein in Five Quarters. It’s a diary form, with recipes, and history, and geography woven in.
JN: Could you describe what the neighborhood of Testaccio is like, what brought you here, and what has kept you here for thirteen years?
RR: Well, I always say it’s shaped like a piece of cheese. It’s a very distinct geographical shape. This wedge, which is like one quarter of a wheel of cheese, is one of the quarters that I refer to in the title of my book. In 2005, I had been in Sicily and was living in Rome up near Termini, and I’d been going to language school. My best friend came to visit, and she wanted to come to Testaccio. I had read the name in books, but I had never been. I remember looking at it in the book, and I remember thinking of this cheese shape. So, we came to visit. We went to the old market, we sat in a bar called Zia Elena. I was still undecided about what I was going to do, whether I was going to go back to Sicily or go back to England. I was very undecided. She said, “You should stay here for a while.” That afternoon I went to an estate agent, and they had a small studio flat in the block that we had just been near, which was a block from the old market. I had to take a contract for a year, and I thought, Well, OK, I’ll do that.
JN: What was it in that day that was so powerful that made you immediately commit to staying for a year?
RR: Certainly the old market was wonderful. A new market has taken its place now, but the old market was strange, a sort of fortified bus shelter. It had been a street market, and then they covered it in the 1960s and ’70s – it had iron uprights and a glass roof, completely covered in leaves – it had a very incredible light, an almost Caravaggio-esque light, didn’t it? Did you ever go to the old market?
JN: I never had a chance, unfortunately.
RR: It was a wonderful old market, lots of farmers selling their stuff there; lots of butcher stalls, of course, because of the legacy of the slaughterhouse in Testaccio; fish stalls; it was just a very lively, atmospheric market. Lots of local shops; it felt like a little village in the middle of Rome. I think other villages do exist, but it was the first time that I really felt a sense of it, that this was a place, and people lived here. It’s very linear, Testaccio, with straight roads, unlike most of Rome. It’s on a grid system. It’s modern, only 130 years old. So, my initial impression was one of almost shock. But then quite quickly you get the sense of community; there’s lots of schools here, there’s local shops, there’s the market. I see people still every day that I probably saw that first time, thirteen years ago. I suppose you can get that anywhere, but it had a very strong sense of place, and I thought, I like that, and I’ll stay here. Thirteen years later I’m still here, and very settled.
JN: You’ve written that in the first few weeks here you met more neighbors and shopkeepers than you had met in London in five or ten years, which is remarkable. I can understand the appeal of that sort of place.
RR: And I’m quite chatty! I mean, I’m very aware of my own romanticizing of a kind of “something else.” That’s something I do struggle with. As an outsider, the Rome you “want to find” – I found that Rome. But, yes, I did – it’s like a small village really, and it has that mentality. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, particularly as the area changes, but yes, that’s the strongest sense I think you get from Testaccio. And it’s a very inclusive area, it’s always been an area of stranieri [foreigners] – it’s not the real Rome, these were all newcomers. It’s now a lot of third-generation Testaccini, like Augusto here who owns this trattoria.
JN: When you first started meeting people, as a foreigner and guest, you felt welcome, there wasn’t a lot of awkward suspicion of an outsider? Because, as you say, it’s always been a neighborhood of outsiders and foreigners.
RR: Yes, maybe. I suppose there was – there always is – a level of suspicion of newcomers, suspicion of your motive, maybe. But I just didn’t care! Especially when I started writing about it – because I suppose in a way I made my foreignness useful, and gave myself a purpose, didn’t I? So, from quite early on I was observing Testaccio, even though I was living here. My foreignness was a part of it, that became an advantage. And now, of course, it’s become my job. It’s my job to be curious – maybe, in a way, to be an outsider who’s inside. I’m more aware of that than ever, especially since [my son] Luca, who isn’t an ousider, was born here, which is interesting.
JN: What sorts of changes have you seen in the neighborhood in thirteen years?
RR: Lots of changes. Lots of renovation. Lots of shops that have closed, or changed completely.
RR: Yeah, there is; I don’t want to be kind of “doom, doom,” about it – Italy is struggling at the moment, and there’s a housing crisis in Testaccio. Prices have really gone down. Testaccio has a quite interesting demographic. There’s a lot of council housing, still – and it’s a lot of council housing in the hands of grandchildren. So, grandparents would have rented the house, then they would have had children, one of whom would probably have grown up to live there. Now, there are a lot of empty flats in Testaccio that are lived in by one grandchild. People are finding it’s difficult to sell. There’s quite a lot of empty property; very, very high rents here. So, in a way, I think Testaccio is struggling – but yet, you know, trattorias continue to thrive. Probably most of the trattorias I’ve known and loved for thirteen years are still here. Better ones are evolving. But certain shops still thrive. We live above a bakery called Passi, which is this wonderful Roman forno. That’s still one of the busiest bakeries in Rome, and I think one of the best bakeries in Rome. It’s a working family, opened in the 1970s. And that thrives, and it’s lovely – people drive from Prati to buy their pizza bianca. So, it’s lovely to see traditions. And I join in; I always feel a bit of a cliché, but I do – I absolutely relish these traditions and celebrate them and am happy to spend my money and live, and for Luca to grow up eating pizza bianca and mortadella and carciofi when they’re in season. It’s lovely. It feels important; it feels precious, really.
JN: So when you first arrived, you were learning Italian, and probably working here and there to pay the rent. What led you to start the blog in 2008?
RR: I was keeping diaries, and a lot of those were focused on food. But it wasn’t even a really conscious thing. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I played around a bit. Some posts were just a recipe; I just wanted somewhere to record them. A friend of mine who worked for Marie Claire online said, “Start a blog.” I had never heard the word before, and it took me a couple of years to do it. But I was reading blogs, and it was a combination of factors. I had always enjoyed writing, I had always written, but I suppose in a way starting a blog taught me to write. I had studied English, but then I had gone to drama school. I had quite a lot of experience writing, but not formal experience. I hadn’t gone to university to study English, which was initially what I thought I would do. I felt like a bit of a failure in that sense. But having a blog taught me to write. I still struggle with believing that I’m a writer, really. I don’t really consider myself a writer; I suppose I consider myself somebody who writes recipes with stories. I still struggle with that. But it was quite an organic thing, I think, starting the blog. I read some of those [old posts] and I go, It’s just embarrassing. But it was a document, and I just wanted to write these things down. I was fascinated by the food, and it was such a good way to look at the city; I thought, I have to write this down.
JN: At what point did you realize that people were paying attention, and how did that affect how you thought about the project?
RR: I learned from other people; I copied, I mimicked what other people were doing. Of course, then people start commenting. Quite early on, people obviously saw potential because quite a few people got in touch with me and said, You should write something, you should write your memoir, you should write more recipes. Food is at the heart of it, the recipes and the history and the geography. My number-one inspiration has always been and remains Jane Grigson, who was wonderful. She died [in 1990], but her work lives on. She wrote these beautiful essays about food, and they had everything in them: history, geography, politics.
JN: In moving from the blog to the book [Five Quarters, aka My Kitchen in Rome]: did you work hard to make connections to make that happen, or were you approached with confidence from an agent or publisher to take it to another level?
RR: The book was pretty much done in the blog; there were loads of articles. Initially it was a bit more general, but I was really starting to focus in on Roman food, and it was Testaccio-centric. In the beginning, it was like a black hole. I didn’t even really know what I was doing. Back then I didn’t have a guide book, I didn’t have a smartphone. It was like I was plunging my hand into something without looking. But I was getting a sense of discovering Roman food, and I’d covered a lot of classic Roman recipes, I had a nice narrative around it. When I was approached about doing a book, I still didn’t have a title. I was still doing my blog very devotedly. I wrote a blog post, and it became the introduction to the book.
JN: Someone noticed your work and had confidence in it.
RR: It was Elizabeth Hallett, my publisher, who is just wonderful, wonderful. She’s quite visionary, and she saw it. But it was all there.
JN: I think you imply in the introduction to the American edition that you weren’t that crazy about the title of that edition [My Kitchen in Rome]? Five Quarters is a wonderful title, and it’s exactly right. But I understand why an American publisher would want something different.
RR: Yeah, they were worried. But there are five reasons for calling it Five Quarters. There was the reference to the quinto quarto tradition in Roman cooking; the reference to the shape of Testaccio; the reference to the general resourcefulness of Roman cooking per se; there was a reference to the five parts of an Italian meal; and then the most important fifth quarter is you, because you’re going to cook the recipes.
JN: You mentioned the quinto quarto tradition, and you also mentioned that when you first came to Testaccio, you knew nothing about Roman cooking. Can you tell us about your first impressions of Roman cooking and the cooking of Testaccio, and what you eventually found compelling about it?
RR: I just thought it was so… salty! I thought it was so salty and fatty. I mean, not in a bad way. I always remember being in a restaurant in Trastevere, sitting one very warm night — it must have been the first summer. I had gricia, an old-school gricia. We’d been in a bar before and we’d had peanuts, and I think we’d had prosciutto that day – I remember feeling like a dog! Just so much salt and pork. Then I remember talking to a friend later, a really good cook, and them saying, “Well, that’s the thing, it’s the pecorino, it’s the guanciale, it’s these elements.” But yes, it was so beige! Now, of course, I sit and I tell people, Have a gricia, have a carbonara, Amatriciana, etc. At the time, they were just kind of coming. I remember having artichokes, which were just very, like, that kind of dull khaki – wonderful, but very overcooked. Puntarelle – I really like anchovies, all those strong flavors. I couldn’t – it just seemed so kind of plain and functional. I quite liked it, but I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. And then, of course, there’s the quinto quarto and pajata, which I was interested in. Roman food can be a bit dirty in a way – I mean that in a good way.
JN: I know what you mean, yes. Not literally, but —
RR: It’s gutsy, isn’t it?
JN: Yes! Literally gutsy.
RR: For example, those kind of stracotti stews, and really cooked vegetables. Then slowly, slowly, I started eating in people’s homes, as well, and then I started eating at a little tavola calda called Volpetti. That was really a vital part of my education.
JN: Your first reaction to Roman food was, This is salty, it’s porky, it’s beige, it’s plain. How would you define it today if someone asked you, What is Roman cooking like?
RR: Salty, porky, beige. [Laughter] Romans do have wonderful greens because it’s so temperate. Things like puntarelle, the kind of misticanza with little cherry tomatoes in it, the vegetable side dishes. The wonderful spinach.
JN: So the beige starts to turn to green, if you dig a little deeper.
RR: Yes, and then I started to understand the minestra. Because in the beginning, there’s pasta e fagioli, pasta e ceci, all these beige soups. It was almost like I could start seeing detail. There was also something about me being able to start seeing detail in the city I was living in. Before, remember, I didn’t speak any Italian, so it was all a big blur. It was all a big salty blur! Things just got a bit clearer. I think that was how I understood it. I remember thinking about the different sorts of pasta e ceci, some with the anchovies in the bottom, some without, as if things suddenly had color. The artichokes could be cooked differently: they were beige, but they’re kind of purple before they’re trimmed. And then, of course, being very inspired, starting to have courage – I’m quite a capable cook – being able to make recipes my own. For example, the soup I made today; there are many versions of how to make this broccoli soup. I like something quite brothy. I’m constantly inspired; in fact, I’m more inspired than I ever have been by Roman food. I just find it wonderful: I love the ingredients, I love the simplicity, I love the way that Romans make minestra or a broth, whether it’s bits of fish suspended in a broth, or egg yolks and breadcrumbs for the straciatella, or whether it’s the way they do wonderful things with artichokes, or the way they treat anchovies, baked anchovies. I just feel I have more to learn than ever about it.
JN: Could you take one or two traditional dishes that you especially love and say a little more about how they’re prepared?
RR: I do love that whole family of bean, legume, and lentil soups and stews, the various ways to make them. They say there are as many ways as cooks, but with pasta e ceci you cook some chickpeas so you get that nice, cloudy broth, and then in another pan you make a little soffrito. You could use carrot, celery, and onion, or you could just do garlic and anchovies, with the garlic just squashed, so it’s just a very sunny fragrance, as opposed to an angry one. And then, a bit of rosemary.
JN: Almost always rosemary in pasta e ceci in Rome, right?
RR: The thing about herbs is, you do find these recipes all over Italy, and the defining ingredient is often the herb. So, in Sicily you’d put oregano in, in Tuscany you’d put sage – I’m generalizing – and in Rome you often have rosemary. It’s amazing how that can completely transform a dish. Romans use lots of rosemary, lots of mint. So, you’ve got your soffrito, and then maybe a couple of tomatoes or a spoonful of concentrate, and then you unite the chick peas in their cloudy broth, and let that bubble for about twenty minutes.
JN: Using the broth from the chickpeas, as opposed to a separate vegetable or meat broth?
RR: You could make a meat broth, but the fringe benefit of soaking your own beans is that you get this broth. Unite the two, and then in the last ten minutes, throw in a handful of pasta, so you’ve got this enriched, herb-scented broth. You could purée some of the soup to make it creamy, you could pass it through a food mill, you could have it brothy, you could put in more tomato if you want it blushing more. The possibilities are endless. Very similar for pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans – and the same with pasta and lentils. You could, of course, have guanciale in the foundations, if you wanted. I love those.
Of pastas, I love carbonara, Amatriciana. But probably my favorite is cacio e pepe, which is pasta with pecorino cheese and black pepper.
JN: There are different ways to make cacio e pepe; it can be a disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing. The technique, compared to a lot of pasta dishes, is really difficult and important.
RR: It’s really difficult!
JN: Can you walk us through how you make cacio e pepe?
RR: Cacio e pepe is an absolute bugger. In fact, I’m writing about it for The Guardian now, and I’ve been asking around in restaurants. It’s pasta, cheese, and black pepper, and then you emulsify it with the pasta cooking water. It’s really tricky to make. I think the best way to do it is to make it for two. Because the cheese goes into clumps, the best way to do it is this: you get a warm bowl, you cook your pasta and drain it and you save the pasta cooking water. You put a ladleful of pasta cooking water in the bottom of this bowl. You then throw on your cooked pasta – a fresh pasta like tonnarelli, because that’s got very starchy water, and fresh pasta’s got lots of semolina clinging to it. Then you put loads of cheese. You want it grated fine; not using a micro plane, you want that old-fashioned bugger of a grater.
JN: When I first started making it, that’s exactly what happened: I would just used the regular micro plane, and it would clump. It’s really the powder grater that you want, so I’m glad to hear you say that. It’s such a important detail, because without that, maybe some people can do it, but not me. The powder is the essential part.
RR: It’s the bastard side of the grater that you never want to use. So, use the bastard side of the grater. In Felice, a very famous trattoria just where we live, they do it at the table, they do individual servings. So, you toss – more cheese, maybe a bit more water – and a spoon and a fork is the very best for tossing. I want to do a little film; I’ve resisted writing about about it, actually, because it’s really hard to do well.
JN: And it’s hard to learn from a book. I learned to cook from books; I didn’t learn to cook growing up, I didn’t learn to cook in Italy. I mostly benefited from the writings of Marcella Hazan.
RR: Yes, I really like her too.
JN: That’s how I learned to cook. But as much as I benefited from that, it’s no way to learn to cook. Even though I love cookbooks, and obviously you love writing, learning to cook from a book is a very strange way to learn to cook, as opposed to learning to cook at the side of someone who knows what they’re doing.
RR: And of course, here, Romans eat Roman food. Of course, there’s other things, there’s wonderful Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Japanese food, though not like London. But essentially, Romans eat Roman food, and it’s what’s around, so people are still making these dishes and they have very strong opinions about it. I’m quite self-conscious, I think, because I’m aware that writing for a newspaper and feeling like I say the same thing every day, that I do maybe lean into cliché. But I do go to the market every morning; it’s my job now, it’s my privilege to do that. I go to the same stall, I buy vegetables and every time I buy something there’s some advice, either from Filippo, the guy who sells me vegetables, or somebody shopping. Chances are, the people shopping there will be making Roman-style cooking. Now it’s carciofi [artichoke] season, and everyone’s cooking. Romans cook carciofi alla Romana, and everyone has an opinion. I suppose it’s like the traditional cooking of anywhere, but it still reigns supreme here. I have to remind myself; I’ve had a lot of just going back and listening to people, letting people show me how to cook things. I haven’t done enough of that lately, and I’m about to start doing more again – just going and watching people cook. It’s funny – sometimes people have shown me how to do things that I knew probably better than they did, not because I’m better than them, but just because I make them more. But it didn’t matter, I just need to shut up and watch, because you always learn something.
JN: By the way, this carciofo we’re eating is delicious.
RR: I love this trattoria; not everyone does. It’s never going to be a perfect trattoria, or particularly trendy.
JN: Those who aren’t as enthusiastic about it, what is their criticism?
RR: Sometimes it can be a bit school-dinnerish, maybe, especially if it gets busy, and Augusto can be a bit brusque in his manner if he doesn’t know you. The menu never changes. But I think he does certain things very well. I think his artichokes are delicious, his anchovies. He goes to my fish guy. Really old-fashioned ways of cooking, though, like boiled cod and potatoes, and certain things on certain days. But I like it very much, we come here a lot. Luca’s six, he’s grown up coming here. I think his fried anchovies are some of the best.
JN: Speaking of Luca, as you said, he’s not an outsider. You still feel like an outsider, but he was born and raised here. What have been some of the joys and also some of the challenges of raising your son here? Did you wonder, when he was born, whether you wanted to return to England?
RR: I suppose it did cross my mind, whether we would stay or not. I never really imagined that we would leave. It’s how I imagined: he’s born into this little villagey world. We live in a very geographically clear area, the boundaries are clear. He now goes to school on the Aventine Hill, so we go out of Testaccio. It’s beautiful; he goes to the most beautiful school right in front of the Giardino Lidia Paranchi. It’s a state school. We walk up there every day, we walk back down, we cross via Mammarata. We come to Testaccio, and the first thing we see is the piazza. The streets are punctuated with bars that we go to. I suppose, like me, he’s been born with this sense of place. We cycle and walk everywhere. He’s very clear about the boundaries, he knows the area. There’s a local library. I suppose children have a clear sense of their surroundings, but he must be very aware of where we live, where the forno is – I think life here, especially around food, is very traditional. Children, of course, often appreciate it more than adults. Children are very welcome in restaurants. They’re expected to behave well, but you know they just are. The children will be fed first – the first thing they say is Red or white pasta for the child? And it will be there. Children are accomodated in that way, so I think Luca has grown up with that sense.
JN: And he’s an adventurous eater? He’s only six…
RR: He’s being a bit of a pain in the ass at the moment, but I’m hoping it’s a phase. But, yeah, he is. Luca loves going to England. He has no snobbism about that and I don’t either, but he says, “Mum, these oranges have no sunshine.” You know?
JN: Is there anything that he can’t get here, that you wish he had, that he would have in England?
RR: I worry about his school; I worry about the traditional nature of the education here. He’s quite rebellious, Luca. I think if you’re good, you can thrive. Luca is quite cheeky, he’s quite naughty, he’s quite rebellious. A good English friend of mine runs the English school; when he met Luca – this was as a friend, not as a headmaster seeing a potential student – he said, “Please send Luca to me.” His view was, Luca will struggle in the state system here. He’s quite a little – he’s a cheeky monkey. And also, he’s bilingual, so he’s struggling. And he’s not reading yet; he’s six, so actually I’ve got all sorts of concerns about that but I’m not letting them get out of perspective. Schools are struggling economically here, massively. They don’t have facilities. I go back and I see my sister’s kids at a school in London – a very, very good one, but a state school – and it almost makes me weep, the kind of facilities the kids have there. But at the same time I know that Luca has other things here, and we have such a good quality of life here. We live a good, good life, and very happy. I don’t find life in Rome stressful, the way I found life in London. The pace of life here is completely different. It’s not just my choice to live a different pace of life, it’s the way life is here.
JN: Because your partner is Sicilian, you now spend quite a bit of time in Sicily. Could you say a little about how Sicily is a contrast to your life in Testaccio and what convinced you all to start spending more time there?
RR: Vincenzo was born in a town called Gela, which is on the south coast, a very industrial town.
JN: I think you said in your book, “…known for the Mafia and oil refineries.” Just to dispel any romantic notions!
RR: Really, really shocking. Interesting town – one of the first colonized towns [by the Greeks]. Kind of disappeared under the Roman empire, but then was very important during the Arab reign and then during the Normans. In the 1950s, they built an oil refinery and it became the tenth-biggest town in Italy in the course of about five years. You can see that – the town exploded. It’s kind of a tragedy, really, Gela. It’s been used as a case study for economic development without any growth whatsoever.
JN: So, the kind of place you usually think of people wanting to flee, whereas you have decided the opposite, to actually make a commitment to that place.
RR: Well, the thing is, Vincenzo’s grandparents were there; his grandfather was a tomato farmer. They farmed, they were incredibly traditional. In a way, they were a typical Gelese family. His mum and dad both went to work for the oil refinery – in a way that was their escape, but in a way it killed the town. The house was empty; all the cousins own the house. It’s an extraordinary town, Gela. I just feel I’ve scratched the surface. We’ve taken over the house. We’d like eventually to live in Sicily, I think. I think we’ll probably move there full-time. This is kind of the starting point. We opened up the house; I want to write more about Sicilian food, Vincenzo wants to spend time there, see some of his elderly relatives. Even though he came to Rome when he was twelve, he grew up with long summers in Sicily. So, yes, we’ve been looking after the house, which is quite a struggle.
JN: That’s remarkable to hear, that as much as you’ve come to love Testaccio, the pull of Sicily is strong enough to even move permanently.
RR: The idea is that we’ll always have a base here. We have this little studio flat here. We’ll hopefully buy something in the country, and start spending more time there. I’d like a garden. Maybe not in Gela but probably on that coast. The temptation is to explore a bit more.
JN: You mentioned the Mafia influence, which of course is a sad reality in many parts of Italy, sometimes on the surface, sometimes hidden deep below the surface. How have you personally come to terms with that aspect of life there?
RR: My experience is very much seeing how a town has been damaged by the last hundred years. I don’t think I’ve done justice to Gela yet, honestly. Good lenses to look at the city through are, for example, what’s happening with tomato farming. Sicily is like a fairground mirror on the whole of Italy: everything is exaggerated, including corruption. The south coast is where all the boats are arriving from Lampedusa; there’s a huge amount of immigration. In Gela, we hear these terrible stories, but in fact the Gelese are extraodinarily accomodating. My brother-in-law, who is such a simple man, such a good man, he’s working with young refugees, and they’ve got them at the house. They’re the ones welcoming boats. Yes, there’s a lot of hostility about refugees but at the same time the Gelese are coping with it every single day. There’s so much happening there, but good and bad.
JN: What’s an example of the corruption in the tomato farming? Is it in the exploitation of labor?
JN: So that Romans, or whoever, can have tomatoes cheaper than they should be?
RR: Absolutely. The demand for small, sweet, on-the-vine tomatoes, all year round (by Italians, mainly) has completely transformed farming. It’s an area of intensive greenhouse farming. I was reading in The Guardian about Romanian women being kept in almost slave-like conditions.
JN: And that’s where the Mafia comes in, because obviously it’s against the law to do that, but they find a way to circumvent the law.
RR: Exactly. The Mafia is so part of the fabric of society, and has been since the 1960s and ’70s. Gela was known as being completely controlled by the Mafia, and Vincenzo’s parents left because of it. They will never go back. Sometimes you can look at Gela – and I’m looking at a very negative side of it – when I say I love the town, there’s lots of relatives that live there – but actually when you go, there’s nothing hopeful. There’s no hotels in Gela, there’s all these half-finished projects. You realize that, to keep the status quo, anything that could possibly involve making money is sabotaged. It’s as though people keep things at a base level.
JN: The control comes first, as it might in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – keeping the status quo, as you say, is more important than anything else.
RR: On one level it’s really upsetting. On the other, there are lots of young people, and there are new initiatives, land that’s been confiscated from the Mafia. There are these new laws by the rather charismatic mayor of Palermo. There are things happening. I have felt, much more than Rome, the need to understand things better there. It feels like such a vanity, but I would like to understand a bit more. The way that I can do it is to write some pieces about tomatoes and oranges – taking the lens of food, but as a way of understanding more [about Sicily]. And also, immigration. It seems now to be the point in my career where I can start trying to understand things better, but rather than trying to understand the whole story, looking at it through a specific lens. Tomatoes seems like one, because Vincenzo’s parents were tomato farmers. Through storytelling: that always seems the best way.
JN: This soup we’re eating is delicious, and you mentioned a few times that what defines Augusto’s cooking here is that it’s no different from the cooking that he or his nonna are doing at home. I wonder if you can talk a little about the importance of home cooking in Italy, and how home cooking differs from restaurant cooking. Maybe in the best cases, it doesn’t differ – that’s my perspective, that I learned from Marcella.
RR: I suppose you would look at the different sorts of places to eat, and their history. In the way I understand it, Rome has always been a city where people have come and needed shelter and something to eat, because it’s a city of pilgrims, particularly in the last 300 years and after the unification of Italy. Osterias, the way I understand it, were originally a bed and a place for your horse. You would probably get something to drink, and you might get something to eat. That was where the osterias came from, and they were essentially places to drink. I’ve always said it’s better to compare osterias and trattorias with pubs and cafes than restaurants. Because they are really functional places. My granny had a pub, a wonderful pub in Manchester. Trattorias remind me much more of that than of a restaurant. Trattorias were, essentially, people’s homes where people had home restaurants in the beginning. They were absolutely extensions of people’s homes; it would be mom or dad in the kitchen, or grandma, and mom or dad out front. They would essentially be serving traditional, local, pub-style, homestyle food, and that’s the spirit that lives on in places like this. And it’s the reason I love La Toricella. It’s still Augusto in the kitchen – with his wonderful Bangledeshi chef, whom he treats brilliantly, another reason to love this place – and he makes homestyle, Roman and Abruzzese food for anyone who cares to come.
JN: Of course, some people in the US might wonder why one would go out to eat if it’s the same sort of food one would cook at home.
RR: Yes, some would say that. I follow a lot of food people in London who are going out to these fancy restaurants and lots of ethnic restaurants. I love that you come here and there are tableclothes and proper glasses, but I don’t mind that I’ll get the food here that I would make at home. There are about four trattorias we come to and I’ve been coming to this one forever, and I love the fact that I eat the same sorts of things.
JN: Sure. Even a talented cook wants to go out and relax and have a night off, and yet enjoy the comfortable flavors of home. And it’s hard to cook and entertain at the same time, of course. A moment ago you coined a wonderful phrase that I think I have to start using: “chef-y” food. How would you define or describe “chefy” food?
RR: Well there are certain techniques. I think of home food as being the most simple and basic preparations, while for a chef the food would be elevated to a more elegant level. There might be double-filtered broths, or instead of poaching a whole fish as Agosto has done here they might pan-fry fillets of fish for a more elegant presentation. That kind of food is lovely, but it is rarely how I want to eat. And [my partner] Vincenzo hates it.
JN: What about it is off-putting to him?
RR: He loves delicious food, but not anything that looks messed around with. I know I’m going to sound like a twat; I love the efforts and the skill of chefs, but when it looks tortured on the plate, it just doesn’t give me any pleasure. I want lovely food and I want it to taste delicious, but not fancy. People sometimes say I’m a sort of pretentious reverse snob, but I can’t stand food that is exclusive.
JN: I get it. There are some people who enjoy wearing tuxedos or evening dresses, but most of us would rather not dress that way, at least not often. I certainly like to dress nicely – not sweatpants or ratty old t-shirts – but you can do that without going to the point that the clothing seems or feels stiff or excessive.
RR: That’s nice, yes.
JN: And of course with both food and clothing there’s a continuum and the edges blur. You used the word “tortured,” which is perfect. It’s just not at ease.
RR: Which maybe has to do with us, doesn’t it? Just our preferences. And I like the tuxedo metaphor. I just happen to loath food snobbism, and in England at the moment there’s a bit of backlash. Of course we need to address food banks and the fact that people are starving, but there’s a great polemic lately. For example, recently there was an article about a place selling “cauliflower steaks”, essentially slices of cauliflower. There was uproar about it, because it did cost about three times what it should cost. It opened up a whole polemic with people being very righteous about the fact that we should be preparing our own vegetables. Then of course, people came in and said, Well, what if you’re old and arthritic? Like any discussion, there were many, many sides to it. Of course I say to people, Prepare your own vegetables! Of course, there are gray areas. There’s my grandma: she’s an old woman and loves buying individual portions of cut-up vegetables. There’s just all these opinions about cooking from scratch. You have to be so careful. I firmly believe home cooking from scratch is a skill we should all be encouraged to learn and teach and share, and I think it’s something that still exists here in Italy. This basic, intuitive cooking.
JN: I completely know what you’re talking about when you describe this sort of cooking as “plain.” But at least in America, if I talk that way, there would be misunderstanding. In America, for example, “plain cooking” might imply something like poorly seasoned, flavorless or tough steak and potatoes. Or overcooked pasta with canned sauce. Or maybe the old stereotype of dreadful, bland English food. That could be described as “plain” too. So how do we distinguish between that and Italian cooking, simple but delicious?
RR: I suppose if you look at traditional English cooking from 200 years ago, you might find it to have more in common with Italian cooking. But one difference is the sheer abundance of types of ingredients in the Mediterranean. There were olives and grapes, grains, sugar from the dried figs and raisins. The riches here are quite extraordinary. It has evolved into having good taste, which is so characteristic of Italians. I see my son being taught it at school. It’s completely different from England. I mean, the kids at school here are given a five-course meal. They have pasta, and it’s red or it’s pesto, and they have their bread and their napkin.
JN: So it’s every day, and it’s five courses?
RR: Yes. You see these little creatures are learning to eat with bread and a fork. They’re learning that bread is always on the table, and water is there, and their pasta will be red, white, or pesto, and they’ll have their secondo, meat or fish, or a frittata. My son says “Fa schiffo la frittata,” [“Frittatas are disgusting,”] but they learn. They’re getting chicory, they’re getting fennel. In some English private schools, they might have wonderful food from organic kitchens, but maybe they’re not taught about food culture the way they are here. And now Luca eats just like Vincenzo. Where’s the fork, where’s the napkin? That’s not me teaching him; it’s his school. And they don’t always like it – chicory for example – but they keep giving it to them. It’s not perfect – I mean, there’s the obesity in the South – but the attempt at developing a healthy food culture and healthy rituals begins at home and is reinforced in the schools.
JN: I wasn’t aware there was obesity in the South. What’s up with that?
RR: I suppose it’s the industrialization of food which is causing problems.
JN: More in the South?
RR: There’s always been a huge dependence on carbohydrates in the South – think of pizza in Naples – but it’s also industrial snacks. Sugary snacks and drinks.
Photo of our fish soup, taken by Rachel
JN: To wrap up, I’d like to ask about salt. The soup we’ve been enjoying during this interview has been seasoned perfectly. If Augusto did everything else right by choosing the best ingredients and cooking them with care, but if got the seasoning wrong, the dish wouldn’t be pleasurable. I think of this a lot with cookbooks, too. No matter how carefully you write a recipe, if your readers don’t use salt correctly, the dish won’t meet its potential.
RR: Absolutely. For me it’s salting in small amounts but often. That’s something I learned here. When I do my initial soffrito, I’ll always add a little pinch of salt. And I’ll salt all throughout the cooking. I have three types: a very fine salt, a coarse one for pasta water, and English Maldon salt for finishing. I think it’s true: it’s how you bring out flavor. When you salt lentils, it makes them taste more like lentils. It’s a magic moment. I know you admire Marcella Hazan, and she’s such a good teacher on this. When I’m working on something, I might check out the versions from ten different books, and Marcella is always in that group. There’s a good chance I won’t follow any of them, but I’ll look.
JN: Of course.
RR: Her books are especially inspiring, and I’ll often look at her writing if I want to be inspired.
JN: Like your book, her books are personal. You get a strong sense of who she was. A strong voice. And it is inspiring.
RR: She’s a pragmatic writer, but there’s real beauty in the writing as well. There’s no pretention or froth, which makes me seem a little bit frilly in my own writing. But nothing gives me more pleasure than reading cookbooks, both for the recipes and the stories. To see what different cooks think about bay leaves, and what they want to say about bay leaves. It’s always been my favorite sort of reading.
JN: That’s a great place to wrap up, I think. Thanks again.