an interview with Katie Parla

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Katie Parla is a Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist. Originally from New Jersey, she has spent the past fifteen years in Rome writing and giving tours on such diverse topics as underground Roman archeological sites and the modern craft cocktail scene in Rome.

Katie has been my own mentor in all things Roman since my first visit to the city in 2010, and she continues to be my most trusted resource in the city. She is the co-author of the recently published Tasting Rome, and she is currently finishing up two new books, one on the cooking of Southern Italy and one of the home-milling of flour for baking.

In our conversation, Katie discusses how Rome has changed in the past fifteen years, what she learned from being trolled online, and why people should start planning a trip today to Southern Italy.

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Justin Naylor: Good morning, Katie! You’ve been living in Rome full-time now for fifteen years, and I imagine that’s been long enough to really see some significant changes in the city, both gastronomic and otherwise. Many people probably think that things don’t change much in Italy, but of course they do. So maybe we could start with some of the changes since you relocated from the US to Italy.

Katie Parla: Yeah, for sure. There have been so many changes – and you’re absolutely right, that there is this romantic idea that Italy is this place where the food culture and its food system is sort of trapped in amber, pristine and preserved. In reality, the past fifteen years have been pretty heavily influenced by the economy, which makes sense if you think that a little over fifteen years ago the Euro became the currency and the price of everything went up. That affects how people can shop and also how restaurants can source. In both cases, there’s plenty of data to support that whether people are buying for a restaurant or for their homes, they’re very frugal and often choose conventional products over artisanal ones out of economic necessity.

We had a number of difficult years, financially. Although on paper Italy is out of a recession, most people would report that they don’t really feel as though there’s been much relief. The 2009 financial crisis was really devastating, and not just for people’s finances – I think, also, for the morale of Romans, and Italians as well. I think part of that romantic stereotype of Rome is that people go out and they’re at restaurants and they’re spending time together and lingering over really long meals. That perhaps was the case for some people pre-Euro, but in the crisis economy people couldn’t go out as much, and if they went out at all, they were looking for deals or looking for value or looking to save where they could. Going back to that romantic stereotype, the idea that when people go out they eat an antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, and dolce, a wine-fueled meal that concludes with coffee and disgestivo – that’s like a special occasion today. It used to be more of the norm, and now when people go out, they go out for a couple of dishes. They might split a dessert, a carafe of wine rather than a bottle. People have to be really savvy with how they spend at restaurants. And this sort of carries over into other dining, as well. Fast food – which is a term that I use to describe the sort of indigenous custom of eating pizza by the slice or suppli’, as well as the more globalized brands – has become a really big feature of the local food panorama. We have both grim fast food options these days, as well as some really exciting ones.

JN: How have the chefs responded to this change? Is there anti-EU sentiment like in Britain?

KP: I think there’s not quite the same anti-European Union sentiment that there is in the sense of the Brexit debacle, but it’s not as though Italians went to a vote recently to see if they want to stay in or out. Romans, in general, have survived financial difficulties for 27 centuries. It’s not a new thing for them. They adapt, just like anyone else. And that also applies to chefs. I think that in Rome there are restaurants and trattorias where the places exist to serve really great food. Sometimes the owners are exceptionally bad at business, so rather than getting the cheapest raw materials they go for the more expensive things, the more time-consuming items. Those are the places that I really love, and I know you do, too. So, bad at business, great at food.

JN: Right!

KP: Whereas, the restaurant business since antiquity has been driven by demand for cheap food. I don’t think there’s been necessarily a cataclysmic shift, because there were lots of place serving not-great food before, and I think that continues to be the case. I think that people’s response ranges from indignant – some people have straight-up retired, preferred not to have to navigate the difficult margins that are the reality today in the business more than ever. But the silver lining is, you do have a lot of young people who went away from Italy to find work abroad, had experiences in the food industry and the beverage industry, have come back and put their knowledge and lessons to work back home, investing the money that they earned abroad, and also, I think, a bit more conscious of what Roman flavors are, what Roman food is. When you leave a place and then return to it with a little time and distance, you can actually reflect on things that as a full-time resident you may have taken for granted. I definitely see that happening in the craft brewing industry, in the street food industry, in the cocktail and bakery category. So that’s really exciting, and I think it’s also part of the very natural evolution of Roman food. Roman food has constantly been changing; if we were doing this interview forty years ago, we would be talking about a totally different food culture; thirty years ago, 130 years ago. The city’s food culture and the realities around it are constantly shifting.

JN: How have your own tastes changed in the last fifteen years? Are there restaurants that you really enjoyed when you first moved to Rome that now you’re sort of embarrassed to admit that you enjoyed? 

KP: [Laughter] I realize I don’t have the capacity for shame, so I’m not afraid to admit that when I got here, every gelato tasted amazing. I would go to, like, Giolitti and Della Palma. I spent a summer doing thesis research here during college and all those terrible, exceptionally bad trattorie on Vicolo del Cinque served what is objectively disgusting food, but it tasted so good to me at the time.

JN: Since you work with a lot of tourists who are in Rome for the first time, I imagine those experiences help you relate to where they’re coming from, when  everything just seems amazing.

KP: Yeah! Food tastes better when you’re in a beautiful street that looks like a natural movie set. But I think I did arrive here with already two decades of conscious food experiences. I did grow up in the restaurant business, I was always working in restaurants, I spent most of what I earned working in high school and university on food. When I went to college, of my work-study funds, half went to my Italy fund, and the other half went to eating Ethiopian food and Indian food and all sorts of cuisines. I learned by eating various national and regional cuisines that, yeah – maybe that first chicken vindaloo that you have blows your mind, it’s the best thing you’ve every eaten, but then you try another one and you start to create a frame of reference. The same is true for carbonara or trippa alla Romana. While I might have been predisposed to be thinking about the quality of food, I did grow up in America, where we don’t judge food based on its digestibility factor, which is certainly something that people consider here. So, yeah, that plate of tripe might have tasted really good, but if it sits heavily in your stomach, was it really a successful dish?

JN: Do you think that is was mostly just experience, or did you have a mentor along the way who helped you distinguish good cooking from mediocre?

KP: You know, it was kind of a combination of factors. Almost as soon as I got here, I enrolled in a sommelier certification course, and that came just before my Master’s in Italian Gastronomic Culture, so I was already thinking of food in a more formal and academic way than most recent arrivals. I worshipped, and continue to worship, Maureen Fant, who is the smartest human. I read every word she ever wrote, she was an incredible resource, and I’d like to think of her as a mentor. She’s been really generous with me. I learned a lot from her; I still do. It was a number of factors and ultimately a personal decision to treat food as a discipline, and not just as the object of some review or article or travel piece or blog post.

JN: You’ve written about how it was not food but archaeology and history that took you to Rome in the first place, but that you quickly got entranced by the city’s gastronomic culture. Once your interests shifted toward food, what kept you in Rome as opposed to another Italian city?

KP: Rome for me is a relationship with a city that sort of transcends any explanation. I am utterly obsessed with the urban decay of this place. The things that keep me here are actually not the archaeology and the food and the wine, it’s more like I feel really at home in dilapidated 1960s failed experimental housing projects.

JN: So not the famous tourist center, but the periphery that the tourists never see.

KP: Yeah, I mean, what is so fascinating to me is that just short of 150 years ago, Rome’s population was under 150,000 and it saw these huge booms in population. So you have all this stuff that’s happening beyond that central nucleus where very few today Romans even live. Like the Borgate, the housing projects of the ’30s, they could have been monstrosities or hideous but instead they are so elegant. All the tensions, immigration, and  political movements that drove the development of the city, I find that thrilling.

JN: How soon after you moved to Rome full-time did you start the blog?

KP: I started my very primitive Apple first generation website in 2006. It wasn’t anything like what it is today. It was about underground archaeological sites, and wine, and random trips, and museums, and snacks, and all sorts of random things, and no one read it. While I was doing my Master’s the following year, I bought the domain parlafood.com, which was meant to be the website that accompanied my thesis, and once that was done I thought, I should probably use this for something. The name was super dumb, but, whatever, who cares? What did I know at the time, that it was important to have a cool name? So, in 2007 that’s when Parla Food was born. Back then, I didn’t think my name had or would have any type of real recognition, so I also had a personal website, katieparla.com, and eventually – this is probably about four years ago – I ditched Parla Food and moved all the content to katieparla.com. This might be a really boring part of the interview.

JN: People are really interested in this, though – we live in this strange age where, as you say, you start writing, you have no reputation, no one knows who you are, and it’s very difficult. But once you reach a certain tipping point, things go viral, and someone can go from being completely unknown to being well-known very quickly. What do you think the turning point was for you?

KP: It had to be in 2009 when I had my first by-lines in the New York Times, which came about because I had been writing so much on my blog and for some other smaller publications. I was banging out so many articles about so many Rome things, and that got the recognition of a New York Times editor, and that really catapulted my public profile. Back in 2009-2010 I was filing a lot of travel stories on Italy and Turkey and the US, just writing whatever I could for them. That led to a lot of other writing gigs. So it really snowballed, and now I write for a pretty wide swath of the food world.

JN: How did you connect with the New York Times initially? Was it the result of good luck, or did you reach out to them?

KP: I had zero confidence that I would ever write for the New York Times. It never occurred to me even to ask. In 2008-2009 they were developing their now-defunct In Transit website, and the travel editor was talking to one of the Metro section editors, saying, “I need a Rome stringer, do you know anyone in Rome?” and the editor responded, “Yeah, Katie Parla.” I got an offer and I was like, What the hell, this is crazy. Of course this is insane. Unbeknownst to me, people were actually reading my blog and the articles that I had been filing for other publications. I didn’t know that anyone had been reading them. So, that was a nice surprise.

JN: And I imagine your advice to anyone in the position you were in then would be to keep working and make sure your content is super high quality, and just keep at it?

KP: This is probably terrible advice, but I would say never say no to a paid writing gig as long as you are able to maintain your integrity. Never say no, and write until you are on the brink of mental breakdown. Forsake a social life. Something good might happen. Again, this is very bad advice! [Laughter]

JN: As you developed a more prominent reputation and profile in Rome, how did Romans eventually react to this when they figured out there was this American woman writing about Roman food culture, developing a lot of influence in the English-speaking world? 

KP: It totally depends on the venue, because there are some restaurants that are very much online, following the food press, and others that literally don’t care that I write about them for major publications – all that they care about is that I’m a regular and I have been for a long time, so my occupation is completely unimportant to them. But, yeah, I had a pretty violent entry into the Italian food press world. [In 2010] I wrote a take-down of a restaurant called L’Arcangelo; I wrote what I thought was a super-funny, very interesting take-down of the place. Then, a year later, one of the big food blogs basically wrote an article saying, Who is this bitch writing about our food? Clearly, Americans should be eating spaghetti with ketchup on it. I’m not joking – this is basically what the article said. And the response in the comments section was basically, Who does this person think she is? She can’t know anything; This restaurant is untouchable; She ordered wrong – that last part is actually true; in Roman restaurants you don’t order what you want, you order what they’re good at. I got really, really viciously trolled by a lot of men – I now know who they are because I figured it out – anonymous avatars who just like nothing more than degrading women, foreign women as a bonus. That was a very painful moment, and this trolling lasted a good two weeks, with all sorts of personal messages to my email. It was really f—ed up.

JN:  I know you have a thick skin, but it must have been really difficult. I can’t even imagine. 

KP: The reason I do [have a thick skin] is because this happened. I was like, OK, that sucked, and now I’m totally over it. I’m disappointed that it had to take something like that. I didn’t sleep for two weeks; it was a nightmare. But then I was like, I don’t care what anyone thinks about me. These people didn’t read what I wrote, they don’t know where I come from, they don’t understand me, they have no interest or intellectual curiosity in my origins or my credentials. While maybe at first my confidence was shaken a bit, I now can take anything. I think that’s important, because I don’t work for L’Arcangelo, I don’t work for trolls. I promote Roman food culture as I see it, and try to teach people about it. I work for my editors and my readers, not for anyone else, and I’m not trying to impress people who have no interest in fairly judging what I do.

JN: There’s a happy ending, though, insofar as you eventually developed a very good working relationship with Arcangelo, right?

KP: Yeah, I mean, no one really wants to be in a long-term fight here. They want to be in a short fight, and then make peace. People are into arguing, they’re into drama – especially in this very incestuous food world – but they don’t want long-standing feuds, they just want a passionate fight and then some sort of resolution. And that’s exactly what happened.

JN: I watched the presentation that you did at Google a few months ago, and in the question period someone described you as their hero. I understand why this is, especially to a lot of young people who are interested in writing about food and wine as you have. You’ve been very successful, but I imagine that you’re not really comfortable being anyone’s “hero”. 

KP: Sure. Yeah, being someone’s hero, I feel completely unqualified for that. However, if I take a step back for a moment, I have worked very hard in a sometimes-toxic place, and, yeah – I work my ass off. I write a lot. I don’t do press trips or go to openings or accept invites in exchange for access or free food. I’m proud of that. In terms of my output, I know I could do more, I could always improve, but I hope that the fact that I’ve really, really tried to make it in a difficult city and have succeeded can provide some sort of hope to other people wanting to do the same. I could be a better role model, and a better hero, but taking myself out of the equation, it’s really important for people to have someone to look up to. It’s not a given that someone has this dream career and someone has that career already, but if a younger or less-experienced person can look at what I have accomplished and find some inspiration in that, awesome. I always am looking to friends and colleagues and assessing how they’ve been able to achieve what they’ve done, because working is hard, freelancing is hard. Just surviving can be hard sometimes. So, having heroes is important. I was super uncomfortable being called a hero, but I’ll take it.

JN: You were at Google as part of your book tour for Tasting Rome (2016). Could you talk a little bit about how that book came about?

KP: So, I was at lunch with Kristina Gill, who is the photographer and co-author of the book. She told me about a book that she had been trying to sell for four years, about the favorite recipes of Roman taxi drivers. I thought, That’s a terrible idea, no one likes Roman taxi drivers. So I was like, “Hmmm. Why don’t we do a profile of the city of Rome through its food instead?” I had been writing about those very topics for years, so it seemed like a great opportunity. We got together a proposal – actually, on my website there’s a very detailed post about how to write and sell a cookbook proposal – our agent, Alison Fargis, gave us a template, and so we basically said, this is what the book is going to look like, this is what the book is going to sound like, these are some of the concepts we want to cover, and here’s how we’re going to sell it. That was a really important feature of the proposal, and really critical to selling it for a very nice rate. Because one way to become extremely impoverished is to write a cookbook. Getting paid for it is very important. But I digress.

JN: So, one reason that you were able to get a good rate – not only was the proposal good, but you already had a pretty significant platform. People I talk to who would like to do something similar are frustrated because the first thing any agent will say to them is, “Before we develop any proposal, you need to have a pretty massive platform.” Is that your experience as well?

KP: I think if you have a massive platform, you can sell a book that is not a good idea. Having a massive platform gives authors a lot more in the way of leverage in selling a not-interesting idea. But if you have an interesting idea and you can argue in favor of being able to sell it, that’s important too. Selling isn’t just having 1 million Instagram followers. In the proposal, I wrote, “I’m going to go on a very aggressive book tour, selling this book through events.” I already had lots of experience running and selling out events, so I knew that with some organization and planning, and a lot of caffeine, I could sell the book, which is exactly what I did. In my next proposal, I’ll have to add that my mother will sit in front of Whole Foods with a trunkful of cookbooks and hand-sell them to people, because that’s basically what she does! [Laughter] She should get a cut.

JN: I love it – there’s nothing like mom. So, speaking of social media and having a significant platform, do you enjoy that aspect of your work, or do you feel it’s a necessary evil?

KP: I love Instagram; I’m an instant-gratification person. I love Twitter, but for politics more than food – if there are any readers that are easily scandalized, do not go on my Twitter feed. And Facebook for me is a necessary evil. It is absolutely the number-one way that Italians communicate, especially Italian food businesses. I don’t have a passion for it, but I do use Facebook. I use my personal page to post the larger articles that I write, and then I do a lot of visual stuff on my Katie Parla professional page, and some event promotion there too.

JN: I’m sure you’ve been gratified by the success of the book, and you put obviously a lot of effort into the book and the proposal as well. Have you been surprised at all – I guess no matter how much you believe in a project, it’s always a roll of the dice as well. Have you been pleasantly surprised by the success of the book?

KP: I was completely delusional, so I thought we were going to sell 100,000 copies. I’m very happy with the sales now. The reason why Clarkson Potter bought Tasting Rome is that they saw this as a book that will be relevant for a long time. The sales have been really consistent, I continue to tour – I’ve got events coming up in the summer, so two years after the book came out, there’s still interest. I’ll be able to sell the book, and share the book with people. But honestly, when you write your first cookbook, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what good sales are, what bad sales are, if your launch is successful. All of that stuff is stuff you figure out later. In retrospect, yes, I learned a lot, definitely, marketing and selling Tasting Rome. I’ll hopefully be able to apply some of those lessons to future publications and do even better numbers.

JN: Especially for a cookbook, in a completely inundated market. It’s interesting to me, because when I started paying attention to Italian cooking about 15 years ago, around the same time you moved to Rome, there were books on Tuscany and books on Italian cooking in general, but Rome seemed to be under the radar. In 2007, Maureen Fant’s great book came out, published by Williams-Sonoma, and it seems in the last ten years, and especially in the last five, interest in Rome has exploded – there’s yours, there’s Rachel Roddy’s wonderful book that I love so much. How do you account for the sudden explosion of interest in Rome?

KP: Rachel’s book is so good! I attribute it to two things. In cookbook publishing, a book is considered a “competing title” if it’s been published within ten years. So, there weren’t many Rome books with large distribution that had been published within ten years. Maureen Fant’s book is such a good book, but it’s so hard to find – Williams-Sonoma makes it hard to get. But it’s awesome – I love that book so much, it’s my most-stained cookbook. So, it was time for another Rome cookbook. I love Rachel’s book as well, but the fact that it was a British title meant it wasn’t seen as a competing title in the American market, even though it now is available in the US under a different title [My Kitchen in Rome]. And then Jerusalem was a really transformative title – that’s Ten Speed’s book about the city of Jerusalem, really using the city as the anchor for the subject, for the recipes. In 2013 and 2014, a lot of books about places and regions and subregions were coming out, and so it was sort of the right time. Definitely, those two things.

JN: How do you distinguish Tasting Rome from some of those other books?

KP: I think Rachel said it best: her book and my book are friends. There are maybe a few recipes that overlap, but they’re really different stories of Rome. Rachel’s is her personal story, rooted in her life here, her building a family here, her partner and his relationship to Testaccio, her relationship to Testaccio. Instead, Tasting Rome – it’s not academic, of course, but it’s a little more rooted in history and interviews, and it’s really connected to individual people, like Flavio de Maio’s carbonara or Claudio Gargioli’s gricia – individual stories. While Rachel’s book is more of a personal account, Tasting Rome gives a voice to some of the people who really define Roman food but don’t know English or don’t have a platform. So, the book speaks on their behalf.

JN: Chefs are traditionally protective of their recipes. Were the chefs you profiled happy or reluctant to share with you?

KP: Both. The reason people are so generous and open with me is because I go to their restaurants. I don’t take free food, I pay for everything, I am a devoted regular, so they’re willing to share their recipes with me. Except Arcangelo, who deliberately gave me the wrong recipe, so I made him go into the kitchen and make gnocchi in front of me while I followed him around with a  scale.

JN: And now you’re just finishing up a new book. I would love to hear about that book, and when it’s coming out, and anything about that process you’d like to share. 

KP: Actually there are two!

JN: That’s even better news. Do tell!

KP: My solo title – are you ready for it – is called “Untitled South Italy Cookbook”.

JN: It’s been untitled for a while, I think. Is that changing soon?

KP: No. It won’t change soon, because the publication date has been pushed forward. In the publishing world, they don’t decide or sign off on titles until a certain period before the book is published. “Untitled South Italy Cookbook”, which is finished – the photographs are shot, all that is done – will come out in Spring 2019. The titled Flour Lab cookbook, which I am coauthoring with my friend the chef, miller, and baker Adam Leonti, formerly of Vetri, is coming out in the fall. It’s about milling flour at home for pasta, pizza, bread, and pastry. The photos were shot in January and I’m just about to receive my copy edits back.

JN: That’s so exciting!

KP: It’s about 25 archetypal recipes, so there’s how to mill flour at home for certain shapes of pasta in order to get the best extensibility, or whatever the characteristic is that you need. You can mill at home or go to your local mill – like Castle Valley in Doylestown – and choose the grain based on what you need to make or bake. The South Italy cookbook, on the other hand, is similar to Tasting Rome, in that it’s about 85-90 recipes, each preceded by a headnote, and then lots of features. But rather than focusing on a single city, it focuses on various aspects of Southern Italian food culture, and I define “South Italy” as the lower peninsula – Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, and Puglia.

JN: The Rome book took a lot of research, I’m sure, but it was also very familiar already. This book, I imagine, required a tremendous amount of research, travel, etc. What are some of the main takeaways of the experience?

KP: In a way, the Rome book was already written in my head, because I had been researching so many of these topics for so long. Naturally I had to spend some time tracking down recipes and developing recipes. That was not super time-consuming; I wrote Tasting Rome so fast. The South Italy cookbook, on the other hand, was a lot of travel, a lot of driving, a lot of taking photos of terrain and really trying to distill a very, very vast and varied landscape into a sort of South Italy 101 container. I want people to read the South Italy book and immediately start planning a trip, and feel immediately connected to those places and their flavors. It was a bit challenging to stuff a lot of information into the same amount of space as Tasting Rome.

JN: Despite the diversity of these Southern regions, which have their own character, what are some things that tie those regions together? Does anything unify the cooking of the regions you wrote about?

KP: There are a lot of vegetables, a lot of dishes that are just inadvertently vegan, tons of pulses and legumes, and pulpy, brothy soups. Until the mid-1800s, all the regions I mentioned were under Bourbon rule. Now, of course, they’re under Italian rule for the moment, but who knows what’s going to happen next. I think the intensity of flavors – especially from Calabria – I like to communicate that; the variety of things you might find on a Pugliese table, with lots of coastline with interior land; Campania having a tradition of pork, but using it as a flavoring – there are individual characteristics of each region, and of course of the subregions. It’s a veggie-driven society.

JN: Which I guess is connected historically to the fact that these regions were often poor, compared to some of their Northern counterparts, and of course meat is expensive. So it makes sense that veggies and legumes play the dominant role. 

KP: And a lot of the meat dishes were holiday-oriented.

JN: Is there a lot of hot pepper as well?

KP: There is quite a lot of pepperoncino, especially in Calabria and parts of Campania, and they’re sort of smoky peppers in Basilicata, but a lot of the ingredients that you find are the New World ingredients. There are the things that define the South – peppers and tomatoes, eggplants that came from North Africa and the Middle East, artichokes – those things that now have been absorbed into other parts of Italy, but really have been rooted down in the southern regions much longer.

JN: And you hope your book convinces people to go to these places, which could really benefit from more tourism. 

KP: Completely. Rome, Florence, and Venice have become so insanely packed. I think visitors to Italy are looking for an experience that feels, for lack of a better word, authentic and real. And with full insurance coverage, you can do anything to the car! You can drive it down a mountain if you want to.

JN: [Laughter] Good to know!

KP:  That’s going to be maybe the subtitle of the book: Get a car, get full coverage. You can drive to all these incredible places. Literally, all over Cilento, you’ll encounter more cows than humans, on the road, free grazing. It’s so amazing. There’s all this crazy delicious food. The interior of Basilicata is so unspoiled. These are regions that have been depleted of population, so there’s this sort of haunted mystery around them. They’re really, really special, so I do want people to travel there.

JN: Speaking of grazing, what did you learn about mozzarella di bufala for this book? 

KP: Mozzarella di bufala is produced in several parts of Campania. The flavor of the cheese is the product of the fermentation and the diet of the buffaloes, and the salinity of the cheese, which can be manipulated by the producers. I actually don’t eat that much buffalo mozzarella because there are only a few places where I know it’s coming from very happy animals. But when I do, you can taste it – the flavor of the mozzarella changes throughout the year. It shouldn’t be too acidic or too tangy, but it should have a little bit of that brightness to it. It should be juicy, and milky, and squeaky almost. It’s something that we can’t even get here in Rome, with very few exceptions. It’s a process that’s best experienced at Taverna Penta, where the animals are eating wild herbs and a sort of cocktail of different things that grow on the property, as well as Tenuta Vanullo.

JN: When I’m talking about mozzarella di bufala, I often find myself defending the wonderful city of Naples. I realize it’s not for everyone, a little rough around the edges, but I know you love Naples too. What would you say about Naples to someone who has never been there, and is thinking about visiting? How would you describe the city and characterize its food and culture?

KP: Naples is like all those great cities on the water: there’s chaos but also calm at the same time, in a strange way. It’s the global pizza capital, so people are into carbs. And it was the capital of a kingdom, so it has palaces and chapels and avenues, all the things that went along with being not just an administrative capital but a culture capital, an art and music capital. It’s so amazing and has such terrible PR, it’s kind of shocking. Admittedly, on my first trip I was a little nervous, because it was very chaotic, it was a lot. But with every trip, I become more infatuated with the city. It has more character and more soul than Florence could ever dream of having – no offense to Florence fans.

JN: I often find myself defending it for those who think it’s a dangerous place.

KP: It’s not. Have you been to Philadelphia?

JN: [Laughter] Fair enough!

KP: I love Philly, but Philly’s more dangerous than Naples, a million times over. But if you are afraid of encountering organized crime, don’t come to Italy at all, because it’s absolutely everywhere – whether it’s the stereotypical mafia goons, or the incredibly entrenched extortion for protection racket that is absolutely pervasive, to the deep corruption within many levels of government controlled by mafia families. It’s absolutely ubiquitous. Maybe because of Gomorra and because these stories that come out in the media, Naples seems to be more wild and dangerous than it is, but it’s not as though every other part of Italy is mafia-free. On the contrary.

JN: Does the presence of that sort of corruption – at this point, you’ve been there fifteen years – are you stoic about it, or does it still kind of creep you out, knowing that these things are going on? 

KP: I mean, I think about it all the time. You know, in Italy you can’t really change things, except with your consumer choices. So I like to go directly to things, I like to see the land they come from, I like to have an understanding of how things are being made, and I know that that is a really time-consuming endeavor that not everyone can handle, but I think it’s really important to acknowledge that if you’re eating food, you’re probably contributing to the mafia at some level, and all you can do is try to lessen it through specific choices. So, when you go to a market and you see that oranges cost 1.5 Euros a kilo, that’s probably because the mafia has enslaved African men to pick them. If artichokes are super cheap, the ones that come from Puglia may have been plucked out of the ground by enslaved Romanian women. So, understanding the food system, understanding the extent to which the mafia is involved in the food system, and making your choices accordingly, acknowledging that it’s going to cost more to avoid that system, that’s the only way to do it as a regular consumer.

JN: We haven’t talked yet about wine, even though that’s a huge part of what you do; as you mentioned before, you have your sommelier certificate. I know this is a big topic, but how would you describe your approach to wine in general? For people who are new to Italian wine, how would you describe the Italian wine landscape at the moment? What kind of wines do you seek out, what philosophies of winemaking do you most admire and try to promote?

KP: I do offer wine tastings; in addition to the private food tours I offer, I also do private wine tastings for groups up to six people. My approach to wine is to give a panorama, not necessarily of the whole Italian wine scene or market, but more to get people comfortable with the geography, and the grapes that come from the geography of Italy — because Italy has twenty regions, they are vastly different economically, linguistically, topographically, and not everyone is going to be able to visit all of them and see where grapes are grown and see how the food and wine interact with each other. I try to lead people through a tasting that focuses indigenous grapes, that focuses on how wines are made, and to some extent tries to demystify wine. I like to stick to really traditional wines, ones that haven’t been manipulated by a lot of intervention from the winemaker, whether that’s a lot of wood in aging or the use of reverse osmosis to change the alcohol by volume or the acidity levels. I personally drink almost exclusively natural wines, wines that are made not necessarily in the total absence of sulfur dioxide, but with very small, minimal amounts, and indigenous yeast, rather than lab yeast. My natural wine palate can even tolerate some volatile acidity, so sometimes more extreme wines, but also really clean wines that you might not think fall into the category, because they don’t have some of the defects that you associate with natural wines. And in the US right now, because a lot of sommeliers are interested in these smaller, artisanal producers who are using less intervention and really showcasing local grapes, you find tons of examples of natural wines in smaller shops, especially, like Moore Brothers, which you know well.

JN: We probably should wrap it up there, then. I really appreciate your time, Katie, I appreciate all the mentoring you’ve done for me over the years. 

KP: For sure.

 

spaghetti with pancetta & onion

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We don’t serve much dried boxed pasta – spaghetti, penne, etc. – at the restaurant. This isn’t because it’s inherently lesser in quality than fresh pasta like fettuccine and ravioli (it’s definitely not!), but its long cooking time makes it hard to fit into the context of our multi-course meals, modest kitchen, and decision to work without employees.

When we’re cooking for ourselves and the family, high-quality dried pasta can be just the thing, especially at the end of a long, busy day. Even we can’t always find time to spend an hour preparing dinner. The most important thing when buying dried pasta is to make sure to buy imported Italian brand. Although there is a wide range of quality, even in Italy, Italian-made pasta is far more likely to cook correctly than domestic. I’ve always taught this in my classes, but my conviction was strengthened recently when I had no choice but to cook a famous domestic brand and ended up with gluey mess impossible to properly toss with its sauce. The brand De Cecco is available at almost every supermarket these days, and though it’s not absolute top quality, it’s very good and readily available.

When I was first learning to cook from Marcella Hazan‘s wonderful books, I loved one of her sauces made with slow-cooked onions. A heaping mass of onions are placed in a covered pot and slow-cooked for an hour, then quickly browned over medium-high heat and tossed with parsley and parmigiano. It’s a great sauce, and wonderful for vegetarians.

I hadn’t made it in probably 10 years, but something got me to thinking about it the other day. But I didn’t have an hour, and I also had some lovely home-made pancetta in the fridge as well. I decided to make this variation, and I’m so glad I did! This is one of those sauces that cooks so quickly you can begin it after putting the pasta in the water to boil.

Spaghetti with Pancetta and Onions (Serves 2)

  1. Begin by by dicing about 25 grams (¼ cup or so) pancetta, the best quality you can get hold of.
  2. Brown in a little olive oil and then add about a cup of thinly sliced onion and ½ teaspoon or so hot pepper. I cook exclusively with sweet onions, but it’s not make or break.
  3. Stir everything around and add a generous pinch of salt. Salting correctly really is the most important part of cooking after all. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 10 minutes.
  4. When your pasta is nearly ready (100 to 120 grams for two people, cooked al dente in luxuriously salted water), raise the heat to high on the onions and cook until they’re lightly browned but not too dark. Add a tablespoon or two of the pasta cooking water to loosen things up. Add some parsley, chopped or whole.
  5. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the sauce pan, quickly tossing the pasta with the sauce to make them one.
  6. Garnish with parmigiano-reggiano and a little benediction of fresh olive oil, and serve immediately!

tiramisu, a new approach

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A lovely Italian moka pot

One of the first blog posts I ever wrote was on tiramisu. My introduction to making Tiramisu came through the recipe of Giuliano Hazan in his useful book Every Night Italian. What I liked about it so much was its use of Strega as a liquor, which Giuliano says is classic, even though I’ve never come across anyone else using it. I made that tiramisu for years. I loved it, friends loved  it, and customers loved it.

But it’s natural and healthy to evolve, and over the years my approach to tiramisu has been transformed significantly. I no longer use any liquor. I make it in individual serving goblets instead of a large cake.  I have reduced the ratio of ladyfingers and increased the ratio of mascarpone cream. And finally, I found a workaround to the problem of using raw eggs (even though fear of raw eggs is largely unfounded). All of these changes, except perhaps the last, reflect changing practices in Italy as well. More and more the tiramisu I make resembles the tiramisu I’m served in Rome, Bologna, and Venice.

There’s nothing wrong with the version I used to make, but change and variation are usually healthy. Here’s how I make it now.

Tiramisu (Makes 18 portions)

  1. Begin by beating 6 large eggs yolks with the whisk attachment in a stand mixture until thick and pale yellow, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  2. While the yolks are whisking, heat 150 grams sugar with 100 grams water over high heat until boiling vigorously.
  3. Very slowly, drizzle the boiling sugar syrup into the egg yolks with the whisk going at high speed. This should raise the temperature of the yolks to 140 degrees or so, cooking them without curdling.
  4. Turn down the speed one or two settings, and beat for a full 15 minutes until light and very much expanded.
  5. Add 2 half pound packages of mascarpone, and then add 100 grams of sugar dissolved in a cup of cream (225 grams).
  6. Mix until thick, about a minute or two depending on the speed. Turn off the mixer.
  7. Scoop about 2 tablespoons of mascarpone cream into each of the 18 dessert goblets. I use a small ice cream scoop.
  8. Prepare a cup or so of very strong coffee, preferably with an Italian moka pot, a staple of home coffee making in Italy.
  9. Cut 18 dried ladyfingers in half and briefly soak 2 halves at a time in the coffee, adding a little milk if desired. Then place each pair of halves in each of the 18 goblets. Each brand of ladyfingers varies in how much soaking is needed. The temperature of the coffee also makes a profound difference. Sometimes 2 seconds is too much. Other times 5 seconds is not enough. It just takes a little practice and experience. What you don’t want is for the ladyfinger to be sodden at this point. If it is moistened on the other portion but still hard inside, the moisture will wick its way into the center and tenderize the whole cookie over the course of several hours.
  10. Add about 1/4 cup of mascarpone cream (I use a large ice cream scoop) on top, smoothing it out with a spoon.
  11. Finish by dusting with cocoa. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerated for 12 to 24 hours.
  12. Serve cool, but not right from the fridge.

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ten years on…

Ten years ago tonight – December 31, 2007 – Old Tioga Farm was open for the first time as a restaurant, though I’m quite sure we didn’t yet claim that lofty name for it. We had purchased the farm almost a year earlier, and we’d moved in August 2007, with a one-month-old infant in tow, Peter, whom some of you might have met on one of the rare occasions that he’s helped Dillon during service in the past year. I was teaching full-time off the farm, a 45 minute drive away in Kingston. Dillon was home with the baby, adjusting to a new and unfamiliar home, life with a newborn, rural isolation, and a husband gone for 10 hours a day. It was cold in the drafty old house, and oil to heat the radiators was expensive. I slept with a winter cap on at night.

It wasn’t, perhaps, an auspicious first winter. Indeed, toward the end of it we considered a return to our former city life. But a vision had brought us to the farm. We saw so much potential and character in the old empty house. Would it be a B&B? A venue for cooking classes? I had a dream to raise vegetables, and Dillon’s family lived only a mile a way. I  began offering cooking classes to friends, and friends of friends. Word spread a little, and we received a request to cater a private family dinner at the farm on New Year’s Eve. I don’t remember what we served or how it went exactly, but somehow within a month or two we’d repeated the experience, this time open to the public. The details are hazy, but we kept at it, and soon enough when we advertised an event it would sell out rather quickly.

We had no extra money, so we used the same old rickety secondhand furniture we used for our family meals. Italian cooking is home cooking, so we didn’t see any need for a fancy stove or expensive equipment. Dillon had little service experience but excellent instincts and a natural desire to make people comfortable and feel cared for. At first we offered a choice of dishes for each course, but soon enough people were expressing confidence in the cooking and were happy to eat whatever we wished to prepare for them. There was a wonderful community of local farms from which we could source meat and dairy, and we were growing our own vegetables. We doubted there would be enough people in our rural area to support a restaurant like ours, but we learned that there are all kinds of people everywhere, and that good, straightforward cooking appeals to people from many different backgrounds.

By 2014, we were doing about 30 events a year: too many to do justice to both the restaurant and my teaching. We knew we could survive without my teaching salary if we could be open 100 nights a year — every Friday and Saturday — but trying to triple our business in one year seemed like a suspect proposition. At some point you have to jump, though, so I resigned my position that year and committed to full-time work on the farm:  the restaurant on the weekends and our small vegetable business during the week. Miraculously, we’ve been sold out every night since.

Old Tioga Farm has been a gift, certainly a gift to us who are blessed to make a living dedicated to such a special vocation. But I hope it is also a gift to the community, an opportunity for fellowship, hospitality, and cooking that comes from the heart, that has soul. Our business has been made possible only by the support of so many customers, customers who believe in our vision and who value it enough to spend precious time and resources dining with us. Some customers we see only once. Others have become friends. Still others have helped us weed vegetables and skin a plastic greenhouse. We’re grateful for all of them.

If you’d asked us ten years ago if we’d be doing what we’re doing now, we’d have thought you crazy. Life is always full of surprises. I can only imagine what the next ten years will bring!

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From an early event, circa 2009.

 

 

 

an interview with Luca di Vita

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Luca di Vita is the co-proprietor, along with his friend and business partner Bruno Gavagnin, of Osteria alle Testiere, a tiny 22-seat restaurant in Venice. It was an honor to interview Luca because Alle Testiere is my favorite restaurant in all of Italy, which I’ve written about here and here. For more about Bruno, see this 2015 profile in The Wall Street Journal.

I interviewed Luca back in September, when we met for aperitivi and cicchetti at Aciugeta in Venice. I hope the fellowship and camaraderie comes through in the text below. During the interview, Luca and I discussed his childhood in Venice, how tourism has transformed the city, and why Bruno’s cooking is so spellbinding. Enjoy!

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Justin Naylor: Luca, thanks for making the time to meet this afternoon. I’d like to begin by asking about your childhood. Did you grow up in Venice? 

Luca di Vita: Yes, I did. I was born in the Vivaldi church, in the Chiesa della Maria della Pieta. Then, in fact, I was living here with my parents, just around the corner near San Zaccaria. From there I lived for a few years in the Giardini, and then back here. I am living just in the front of my birth house.

JN: What are some of your earliest memories of the city, as a child? 

LD: First of all, I remember when we used to play as children. Where are the playgrounds of Venice? The squares! Santa Maria Formosa, that you know very well, San Zaccaria – they were our playgrounds. It was like a wild football game all afternoon. This was the 1960s-’70s. I do remember some strange presence around us, some people speaking strange languages. Looking around you, you say, Who is there? Sometimes wearing strange colorful dresses or shorts in the middle of the winter… who are they? They were tourists. That was the very beginning of the whole thing: a few lost people around Venice that you could notice. You could say, These are not of ours. Venice at that age had at least 100,000 inhabitants.

JN: Now it’s 60,000, correct? 

LD: Yes. So you can imagine all the shops that now are transformed into tourist stuff, they were shops for inhabitants, for the city. Shops where you could buy milk or salami, where you could repair your shoes, all things that now you cannot do anymore because all of these things are transformed, due to the massive attack of 20 million tourists a year.

JN: Was that a gradual change, or was there a time when it really exploded? 

LD: I think everything happened in fifteen years, 1980-1995. At that time, we had a very big house on two floors. I remember when I was eight or ten, there was a small hotel that is still there, that is slightly bigger. The owner of the hotel, who was a lady going to the mass with my mom – so they were very good friends – asked my mom, “Why don’t you give me two or three of your rooms? I often have some requests. You have a big house, only three at home, your big son has left.” My mom said OK. We started our B&B thing related to this hotel, because of their request in the middle ’70s. There were so few hotels. As you know, the phenomenon of tourists in Venice started in the Lido as a residential holiday area for tourists in the 1920s, ’30s. In that age, the Lido was very popular, very chic. The upper class has been always traveling. But something else was moving – the middle class and the cheapest class. That’s why people were looking for cheap rooms. I remember the length of the stay was something like 12 days, 20 days, or a month and a half.

JN: A longer trip, whereas now it’s a week or three days? 

LD: You know, now it is less than one day.

JN: [Laughter]


LD: So you can imagine how the whole thing has changed. Do you know how many visitors we have now in Venice each year? 20 million.

JN: There’s probably no city in the world that has so few residents compared to so many tourists. 

So when you and Bruno [Gavagnin] opened Alle Testiere in the mid ’90s, what did you want to do with that place? What was different about it, what was your vision when you connected with him and decided to open a place of your own? 

LD: The older things of Alle Testiere started with Bruno; I started a little later. The first steps are dated from 1993. When he found the place, at that time he was leaving Corte Sconta. We got together and we started to talk. I said, “What are you doing?” Bruno said, “I’m opening a place.”

JN: You met him then for the first time? 

LD: We knew each other since military service; we [served] together, in fact. We had a bunch of common friends, all in the food and wine – it wasn’t business at that time, it was more like fun, a way to enjoy sharing nights and experiences. I was in the hotel business; I was working for a big Italian Hotel Chain opening several hotels in Venice, Florence, Rome. But my big passion was food and wine. So I started to study wine and I became a sommelier and then a professional sommelier, then Degustatore Ufficiale, all the degrees. I was very excited, I was very young. I started to invite people home every night, to drink beautiful wines and share experiences. One day I thought, I’m working! This is like, work. It’s a beautiful work, it’s a beautiful matter. We had a small little group of good friends, food lovers. We were traveling in Italy, but not only in Italy – like, one day in Catania to have lunch, and come back. Go to Lake Garda, go to not only the Michelin restaurants, but also to the simple, amazing trattorie that you find.

I didn’t have any experience of cooking, but then when I was working in the hotel, they discovered my passion and they said – in the last year I was working at the hotel – “Okay, you are in charge now to make lunch.” Because the restaurant of the hotel where I was working wasn’t very good. So they gave me one hour free to go the market, buy stuff, come back, and cook lunch for them. They were covering me at the reception. It was fun, it was like a mix-up of your life in which you discover a new talent. And then I found Bruno, who had the talent inside him already. After a few years’ work at Corte Sconta and some other very, very hot restaurants –

JN: Are those Venetian restaurants? Are they still around? 

LD: Certo. Two of them, very still around. So, we started a new life, a new experience.

JN: What was different or distinctive about the alle Testiere? What did you want to offer to your customers? 

LD: First, at that time, I must admit there were no bad restaurants in Venice.

JN: Really, that recently? That’s amazing. 

LD: The number of restaurants was probably one-tenth of what it is now. But a restaurant was a restaurant. Their job was very professional. There were the historical places, that were maybe too expensive to go to, but they were all serious. Very serious. Everything was very, very – I would say, stylish, also. No crap. No bad offers. There was no reason, because you were working for locals ninety percent. Locals, if they don’t like your business, they don’t go, so you get empty. I mean, it was a completely different kind of offer, kind of concept.

So, we started to say – I knew Bruno from friends and I knew how serious the place was, where he was working, Corte Sconta. An excellent restaurant. So, I had no doubt. I knew exactly that he was doing the right thing. I was probably just a good host because of my job after 18 years of hotels and reception.

JN: Plus, your passion for wine. 

LD: My passion for wine, and for food. I was sure that was the right place. What was changing in Venice – and I think I was the right person at the right time – was to know languages. That’s what I did in my life; I speak English, German, French, Spanish, a bit of Japanese. What we really needed was to go and to agree on our concept without thinking too much of the final result – just put your energy together and see what happens.

JN: So, from the beginning it was a tourist-friendly restaurant? It had very high standards, as it does now, but it was also tourist-friendly in the sense that you were going to speak fluent English? 

LD: We could explain what we were doing.

JN: How else was it similar to and different from other Venetian restaurants at the time that it opened? As you say, at the time there were very few bad Venetian restaurants. It’s hard to believe, but that was such a different time. 

LD: I think that the key of this was the communication. We had excellent communication immediately, from the very beginning. The people who worked in the restaurant business until that time, they mostly had a restaurant background, which didn’t ever give them the possibility to do this communication. As you know, chefs often are very closed, very much in their world. They’re not extremely – how can you explain – they’re normally not very able to communicate with people. They often are shy, so that even if they have a lot to do and a lot to say, and they’re very talented, they don’t have the possibility to inform the world about that. So, I think our meeting was the right combination, the right moment in which we could put together Bruno’s ability in the kitchen and my ability in offering it.

JN: Customer service, as we say. 

LD: We had so many other restaurants opening at that time; I’m not here to talk about them. They’re still there and they’ve been adjusted. And then the internet started to change everything.

JN: In good ways and bad ways! 

LD: In any case, it’s a beautiful way to inform and interest me to your message, so it’s absolutely very, very helpful. Sometimes it’s too tight, I would say, it’s not enough to write two or three lines to describe the life of someone else. What is really bad for me – and I’m talking about guides, more or less, now – is to reduce an entire life of 15-18 hours of daily work for many years to a number. How can you describe my work with a number? What do you know from it?

JN: Absolutely. It’s not unlike the terrible American contribution to wine, which has been to take a wine – which is ultimately mysterious and indescribable – and put a number on it. You say it’s a 94, whatever the hell that means. It means nothing. It’s ridiculous, right? It’s ridiculous. 

LD: What do you think, a 94 is the sum of my work on my land, or how I grow these things against the weather using maybe organic or biodynamic, or risking the emotions I have… this is 94?

JN: And how do you compare Barolo and Bardolino? 

LD: How can you put the same classification on Osteria alle Testiere, which has ten tables – ten people working for ten tables? As you know, we do the pasta, we do the dessert, we do everything else. We give the possibility for these six families to survive, so it means that we work to earn money to survive. A two-star Michelin, or a three-star Michelin, behind it there are investors. The place is opening just to get there, to get the stars. There’s no profit at all, sometimes they lose up to one million Euro a year to be there, because obviously they store hundreds thousand wines in the cellar, use dishes that cost 150 Euro each – but the thing is, they don’t do this job to live. They do it to show off, to see how good they are, and they pay maybe 100,000 Euro for the best chef to be there. You put us in the same line and you say, OK, these people are 92 and these people are 89? I’m sorry.

JN: It means nothing. Yeah. 

LD: So, the whole thing regarding internet, or following up guides, or classifications, for me it’s absolutely meaningless. That’s why I don’t follow it. I really don’t care.

JN: I’m surprised to hear that in the early ’90s there were very few bad restaurants in Venice. Obviously, things have changed. How would you describe the state of Venice today, both the restaurant and also Venice in general, how it’s changed since Alle Testiere opened fifteen years ago? 

LD: I must say that the number of restaurants probably has multiplied twenty or thirty times.

JN: That’s an amazing change. 

LD: I don’t have the real number, but it’s not less than 1500, and as you know, Venice is a small place, you can walk from one side to the other in 40 minutes. The offer is basic because the offer must be – it’s based on prices. There are some areas in the city where you can open a place even if maybe the day before the chef was a shoemaker, and the waiters were working in – I don’t know, a plastic can business – and the day after, you open a restaurant. This incredible legend around architects becoming chefs – there’s no relation, but it’s cool. People, they say, “Ah, after my career, my dream is to open a restaurant.” Why? What do you have to say? It’s just because you cook good pasta e fagioli at home, and you think of doing it? So, I think that the big mistake there is to not recognize  a professional register.

Like lawyers or doctors they are part of a limited number of professionals who work because they have a background, because they know what they’re doing. Our work is extremely delicate. We are putting things inside the body of somebody else. It’s so delicate.

JN: It’s very delicate, yes – intimate, personal. 

LD: Absolutely. So, I think quality things have been lost, due probably to the business. How can you work well in a place that’s just a business? I want a very severe selection for people doing this job. I want people to understand what they’re doing. Not just following instructions. There’s a big difference with people like the restaurants in our association, who are working on ingredients, who are looking for local fish or meat or vegetables. Like all the other friends you have, they are getting ingredients from Sant’Erasmo, La Giudecca. You know these guys. And, obviously, these things require work, to be attentive. You receive your fish, you have to check it, fish by fish, clean it, wash it if something is wrong. And try to keep these materials, these ingredients as healthy as you can. The moment that you have a doubt, just throw it away. And now you have people in Venice who’ve decided to be a restaurateur just buying frozen, ready food and warming them up. So now you have places called ristoranti that don’t even have a kitchen. It’s a big problem. In Venice there are plenty of these places.

JN: How many, would you say? As a percentage? 

LD: It’s a very sad number. It’s for sure that more than half are pure crap. The rest is half and half, but if you walk along San Marco, the places that you know, and you find a restaurant every twenty meters, not many can be very good.

I went to Japan during last Easter, and I was absolutely amazed by the quality of the street food. The street food was even better than the restaurant food. Every single door was a kind of surprising, beautiful artisan work. Cutting properly the fish, lovely sauces – it could be a place like this, no? The people were just following a kind of law of passion. Most of the restaurants in Venice now, they don’t follow their passion, but they’re just a business. They’re there to do some business.

JN: I find Bruno’s cooking to be absolutely spellbinding. In about six or seven visits to Alle Testiere, eating multiple courses each time, everything that he’s ever cooked for me has been perfect. I can’t think of a single exception. But in some ways I would focus on the grilled radicchio tardivo. 

LD: Wow.

JN: It’s easy to be impressed by cape sante, or cape lunghe – these things are just amazing. It’s even harder, I would think, to make radicchio tardivo spellbinding. 

LD: Certo. [Definitely.]

JN: So I’m wondering what it is about his cooking, why is it so spellbinding? Why is it so mesmerizing? Because it’s so pure, right? 

LD: Certo.
JN: It’s pure and perfect. How does he produce that result? 

LD: What do you think? Probably also in America you say, È come la cucina di casa, come la cucina della mamma [It’s like home cooking, like your mom’s cooking]. 

JN: Absolutely. 

LD: Alle Testiere is in fact una piccola cucina della mamma. Bruno, when he was a child, his mom was a chef in a private family. Private chefs at that time – we’re talking about 50 years ago – didn’t mean like you can imagine now, a rock star. The private chef was a chef – un cuoco. The word “chef” didn’t exist. Era una cuoca [She was a cook]. Cuoco means someone who makes his best in preparing some food for some customers. And this is the key. Bruno is not a rock star. Bruno is not a chef. E un ottimo cuoco. He’s working with piedi per terra – how do you translate that? With feet on the earth. He’s working naked food in a naked way, because this is the only thing he knows.

JN: Even though he was working at some of these impressive, high-end restaurants, his grounding was still in the cooking of the home, of his mother? 

LD: Yes, because when he was a child there was no Papa attending him at home, so the idea of him – I see him, agrappato… 

JN: Just hanging on, right. Overlooking. 

LD: And looking at his mom doing things. So I have this idea still now. If I do a little drawing of Bruno, I will draw a man with a chef hat like this peeking over at his mom cooking with two big eyes.

JN: Just peeking over, and observing everything. 

LD: Exactly. This is my description of this man. As you know, he is not a big traveler.

JN: He also was born and raised in Venice, and he has lived his whole life in Venice. He’s Venetian, through and through. 

LD: He likes, obviously, to try other things, but what I’m doing in these years is, I’m exactly the opposite, I’m the one who is running around the world. I’m just bringing him influences, spices – that I know he likes so much. Now, you know, it’s very easy, when you are in Portugal, you can just take a picture of what you are having and send it to Bruno and say, “What do you think of that? What do you think it is?” Things are very immediate.

JN: I learned this lesson from the writings of Marcella Hazan, that in Italy – at least of her generation – the cooking of the home is the standard. It’s very different from America, where the cooking of the home is dismal and the restaurants are OK. What is it about the cooking of the home that is superior? Why is it the home cooking that should be imitated? How is home cooking different from “restaurant” cooking? 

LD: Do you think my mom, who was born in 1929, ever bought some gnocchi?

JN: No, of course not! 

LD: She never did. Do you think my mom ever bought a can of ragù? Do you think that Bruno’s mom ever bought any dried tagliatelle? I mean, this is the point: we grow up with this background. There’s no way to buy something that is made from the others. If I’m doing ragù, I know that I will occupy this fire for the next four hours. Obviously, they had the mentality of housewife. They were staying at home all day. Do you think that my mom – because I see that you like this – do you think that my mom ever made la spesa – shopping – for more than two days? Never. What happens now? Now, you go to the market with your car and you fill it and you say, for a week I’m OK. I was going out of the school and meeting my mom at the maccelaio’s [butcher’s]and buying meat fresh to be eaten that day. This is the same thing we do now. We buy the fish we need every single day, the vegetables we need every single day, the fruits we need every single day, and we put them together.

JN: Right, whereas in many restaurants, if you’re serving ragù, for practical reasons you might make it on Sunday and then every day you’re basically reheating it. It’s basically leftovers. 

LD: Assolutamente. [Absolutely.]


JN: That’s what passes for restaurant cooking. And you can taste it! 

LD: Certo. The key is there. For us it’s not understandable, but not because we are VIP or because we are particularly chic. It’s just because our experience in our blood, in our life – we never saw that differently.

JN: I love the idea of la cucina di mamma. But earlier you stressed that restauranteurs and cooks should approach their work professionally, like a lawyer or doctor. How do we balance the idea of la cucina della mamma with the idea of serious professional training?

LD: When I say that Bruno is cooking Mama-style I mean that his kitchen is very simple and clean based on fresh ingredients and season. But his talent is more on being able to reproduce his dishes 10, 100, 1000, 10,000 times always in the same way while he’s doing 1000 of other dishes; that is not granted for any good home cook.

JN: That helps explain Bruno’s work in the kitchen. Could you explain a little about your philosophy in the dining room? Why did you set it up to have ten tables, twenty people max? What is your philosophy? Because oftentimes, to me, as great as the cooking is – and I adore Bruno’s cooking – people overemphasize the cooking of a restaurant and don’t think enough about the experience of the dining room. So I’m curious what your philosophy is and how you think about your work in the front of the house. 

LD: My work is, again, naked. In fact, the easiest way to offer the welcoming of a family. We provide this twenty square meters room in which everything happens, and that makes people feel very much friends and close to each other, and that helps also. My idea of my job is hosting people in my home, my dining room.

JN: So, although it’s a restaurant, I think you told me once before that you don’t even think of it as a restaurant. You described it once with the French word atelier [studio]. 

LD: Without being fancy, it is no more than a room. It’s something happening in there, and often you get people eating very close to each other, not knowing them at the beginning of the night, and going out being the best friends ever. You know these things, atmosphere and change, it’s bustling and moving from one table to the other table, and it’s a very friendly and I would say informal atmosphere.

JN: Really comfortable. 

LD: I really hope so. It seems like people love it.

JN: Because it seems to me, a lot of restaurants I experience – especially in the US, but even in Italy too – they might get the cooking right, but they screw up the front of the house. Either they’re too formal, or maybe they don’t care enough. You know, you often get the sense from a server that they’re just doing a job. 

LD: What we really like to declare is that we treat all customers in the same way. There’s another little defect in Venice – but not only in Venice, it’s probably more – there are different kinds of attention for different kinds of people.

JN: Yes, because you get all types – you get people who know nothing about Venetian fish, for example. 

LD: Or you have locals, you have friends. We like to keep them all on the same level. And we like that everybody feels the same way in there. The person who has been traveling 12,000 kilometers to get there, and waiting for his great experience – we have the same treatment for the friend who lives upstairs on the second floor who comes every night there. I don’t think it’s right to treat people in different ways. In fact, it’s a nice little room where people are trying to enjoy themselves. It’s my space,but it’s also their performance when they’re there. It’s one thing. I think that it’s a good theatre act when actors and public are good actors and public.

I have so many people, wine lovers and producers who come there, and since we started to feel very much friends and very much inside this world we’ve been respected by these producers and we still have so many of them coming from all over the world. What I always like to say to my customers is that there is no one producer of any bottles from my cellar which I don’t know personally, with whom I never had a lovely drink, with whom we never had fun together. All the people that you see here represented by a label are friends, or at least people that we know and that we can talk about, so we can explain.

JN: It’s personal. 

LD: I would say it’s closer to the philosophy of Bruno, who knows his fishermen, who knows his producer of vegetables. Sometimes we visit, we go to Chioggia to see the fishermen’s boats, they invite us out. And we go out in their boat for the Redentore. How can I compare this kind of absolute feeling we have with these people to someone who buys frozen fish, unknown bottles of wine and just pours them? It’s not pouring, it’s not serving – in fact, together we are having an experience, a moment. We’re sharing some life, no? Different lives, together.

JN: In the US, once a chef has a successful restaurant, it seems like the first thing he/she does is open another, even if it means less personal attention for the first. This doesn’t seem to happen in Italy. Why have you chosen to be content with a single restaurant?

LD: Who is the crazy investor who will invest in a country like Italy where your pay 62% of taxes and you have 22 tax obligations now? It’s too difficult a moment to invest!

JN: I’d like to transition to talking about wine. How do you choose the wines for your list? In addition to having a relationship with the producers, what approach are you looking for? 

LD: For the first time, a couple of years ago, I started to write something about wine.

JN: Just for yourself, or to publish? 

LD: It’s for myself, but it has been requested, so maybe one day. The first thing I wrote was a kind of small introduction to my wine list. Being in this exciting moment of orange wines, or biodynamic wines, or unfiltered wines, to many people it seems like all the others are shit. I just wanted to make the point on my position. The first line of this little introduction says, first of all, that I like good wines – wines that give me emotion, that tell me something, that are in the position to transmit something to me. Then, obviously, we have a preference for wines that are definitely naturali, definitely respecting the environment, which is something that is extremely important for us and for our children. But I am not a Taliban sommelier.

JN: [Laughter] Of course!

LD: I know so many producers who have worked in biodynamic since they started, and they never say that. They never need a flag.

JN: They let the result speak for itself. 

LD: I know a big number of extremely good producers that are just producing incredible wines. When you talk to them and you say, “What about biodynamic?” They look at you and they say, “What are you saying? That doesn’t exist. Non existe. È una cosa impossibile. If you don’t want to eat and drink vinegar, you cannot do this. There is no sense.” I know them all. I know so many people, so how can I exclude their work and their life?

JN: There’s room for different perspectives. 

LD: Assolutamente. Obviously, who is not in my list? The massive industry wines. The word industry doesn’t match with the word wine, in my opinion. I would never buy an Italian wine that’s produced by someone who does 4 million bottles. Which is not valid for all over the world; for example, as you know, in Champagne, there are some very, very, very good things of which they produce one million excellent bottles. But here, it’s not possible. I like people who produce biodynamic, organic, unfiltered, orange, in long maceration, in amphorae, as long as it gives me some emotion. But sometimes a producer who works conventionally – how we like to describe people who are not following those kind of natural practices – produce a wine that gives me beautiful sensations and beautiful emotion. So, I have a place for everybody in my list. Obviously, being a ten-table restaurant, I exclude producers who make ten million bottles, because there’s no reason for it. I really don’t need them.

JN: Do you have room for a modern producer, however, like Angelo Gaja? Victor [Hazan] said in our interview that he drinks a Gaja wine when he wants to drink something beautiful and well-made, but Gaja wine doesn’t taste like an Italian wine, and he described it as having “no soul,” because it’s made in an international style which doesn’t reflect the place it comes from. 

LD: Gaja has never been on my list, in fact. I never had a bottle of Antinori Tignanello, either, on the list.

JN: And those wouldn’t work with your fish menu, either. 

LD: I sell 75% of reds, so there would be a place for them.

JN: OK, there would be. 

LD: But, the fact is, either you sell a brand or you sell the fruit of your work. It would be the easiest thing to do to sell a bottle of Gaja Barbaresco, but I honestly prefer to give an alternative to my gastronomes, who have been choosing Alle Testiere instead of some more known and famous restaurant. I think I need to respect their effort of searching a place like mine, offering them my effort of research on wines, for example. I like, in a certain sense, to be able to help this effort. So, no big names, no big labels, but just true people.

JN: True people, yes! My interview with Victor affected me very much; one thing he said that was so profound is that he’s looking for cooking and wine that forgoes image for identity. 

LD: Bravo. Yeah, I totally agree.

JN: It’s a great way to put it. We’ve talked about how tourism in Venice has been a blessing and a curse. Venice, a town of 60,000 people, would be hurting without tourism, but the tourism that exists is a problem as well. I was wondering how you would describe your ideal responsible tourist. If you could communicate to people coming to Venice how to behave, how to approach their time in the city – you mentioned that many stay less than a day, right? What does it mean to you to be a responsible tourist in Venice? 

LD: I think that Venice is such a delicate environment, that people who are managing all of these massive attacks – you see, I live just on the corner here, and I open the windows and I see this massive flock of people day and night going up and down. It’s an attack, it’s like one of those movies where the monsters are coming from other planets and invading all your spaces. During the last Carnevale, I said to Virginia, my smaller daughter, “Let’s go to San Marco and see Volo della Colombina,” – she had never seen it before. It’s a lovely thing, a lady with a costume coming down from the Campanile to the end, opening the festivities.

JN: How old is your daughter? 

LD: She’s thirteen. She said, “Papa, are you crazy? You know how many people are outside?” I was the child on this occasion, and she was very sure, saying, “You would never get there.” I said, “Virginia, it’s the Volo della Colombina, it’s at 12:00.” She said, “It’s 10:00, we’ll never get there.” It’s normally a four-minute walk. I said, “You know, let’s do it. Let’s go and try.” And she was right. We got there fifteen minutes late. So, two hours and fifteen minutes – instead of four minutes – from my house to San Marco. Imagine!

JN: Unbelievable. That’s why I’m bringing my clients in January! 

LD: Assolutamente! I mean, you are a clever guy. And we thank you very much, because you want to make people live in and love this place. That’s why you bring them in the right moment of the year.

JN: How would you like my customers, or other tourists, to approach the city so that it feels respectful? 

LD: I’m not in the position to ask the people to be respectful, because I do feel it’s a little offensive. I think that the major Venice has been perfectly communicated, but wrongly controlled in the point of view of the visitors. The problem is not the people who are coming here, but the number of people who are coming here. The solution can be found only from the people who are managing all this.

JN: So you don’t blame the tourists, you blame the Venetian government. 

LD: Absolutely. The tourists, they have no responsibility at all. The tourists are doing exactly what they will do in other places in the world. If you see any damage – which I normally don’t see, in fact – what can you see, a little bit of garbage? The problem is, there are not enough garbage containers. The problem, when you see people peeing in streets, is that there are no public toilets! The problem is not at all on them, it’s here. But it’s not possible to split anymore, apparently, because the number of visitors is growing and growing and growing and growing and growing. How can you start to say to these people, “No, you cannot come to Venice”?

JN: About two months ago, when I was planning this trip, I tried to make a reservation at Fiaschetteria Toscana. I had never been there. I got an email back saying that they were closed, and they said that they “didn’t want to adjust to the new style of tourism.” That’s interesting to me, and I’m hoping that you might comment on that. You’re basically saying that the tourists are not the problem, it’s that Venice hasn’t really found a way to manage it. But could you say a little about the closing of Fiaschetteria Toscana? 

LD: I think it’s the final act of a restaurant who’s been there for a hundred years. There’s a normal lifespan to a place. Nobody was able to continue what Albino did in his 77 years. His son has another kind of business; one of them was working in the kitchen, but he wasn’t in fact interested in doing this. It’s not written anywhere that a restaurant must be there forever. I’m of the same feeling; I think that especially in this work, as long as your taste, your energy for doing this, is there, as long as you have things to say, you can do it. When you’re too tired, or old, or nobody is in fact doing it the way you like, it’s the moment to give up.

JN: So the tourism was a little bit of an excuse, maybe? 

LD: I think so. It’s a little disappointment for the end of almost a hundred years.

JN: And yet, I’ve told a lot of people since then, the symbolism of it – I’ve heard that the business taking their space is Burger King. 

LD: Esatto [Exactly].

JN: Which is disturbing!

LD: We have Burger King, McDonalds, Old Wild West. They’re already here.

JN: And not just for tourists, but even for Italians. 

LD: Absolutely. I really, honestly – going back to the thing I said at the very beginning of the interview – I have more confidence in those products coming from a huge, organized, and very controlled system of food like a big Burger King or McDonald’s, or like the other, very famous Hard Rock Cafe. The point of view of the control and safety of the materials, there is no doubt. I have much more confidence in one of those chains than in Venetian restaurants owned by people who were, until yesterday, who knows where. I honestly would go for a burger instead of a fritto misto there.

JN: That’s interesting! Let me wrap up by asking a little more about ingredients. Obviously, that’s at the heart of everything you do. So I was wondering if you could speak a little about the quality of the ingredients, and why the quality is so high. 

LD: I think that the secret there is – I’m talking obviously from the point of view of a restaurant like ours that works with the catch of the day. What you do is, you go to the market early in the morning. You have some fish supplier that just called you at night when they arrive in their boat at 2 AM to the landing; they call you in advance and they tell you what they have. You do your little project for the day after. Half of the project is done at the market when you’re there, because it’s there that you see the local vegetables, the things that you may use, you may like to combine that day. Season is season, so they don’t change enormously day by day during the same period of the year. But you are in the position to choose what you really like. We, honestly, having ten tables, making 40-50 covers a day, really don’t need a big amount of anything, so we are in the position to choose only local fish. Local fish means obviously freshest – it means, as we say, more tasty. It means from the Adriatic. You know, the depth of the Adriatic, there’s no much depth.

JN: And that affects the flavor? 

LD: It affects the flavor, because there’s a concentration of plankton, of elements which the fish eat. The water is not so cold here, it’s quite warm, and that affects the size of the fish. As more concentrated, it’s also visually better. The fish lives in a very food-concentrated environment and he can eat better. He can run and have better taste, because he’s better fed. So, the fantastic thing is, the Adriatic has this beautiful tide every six hours that goes up and down from the Mediterranean. It’s a big wave; it’s the same that goes up and cleans the lagoon. After six hours coming, it stops for one hour and then comes back. So there’s always a big change of water in this beautiful, not-deep sea. You have fresh water coming up and down continuously, differently from an enclosed sea. You have a deep concentration of new energy and food. And an enormous variety of fish. From the market, you can see, only from the lagoon we have five kinds of clams. That’s why we have to call them with their proper names, to understand what we are eating. So I think we are extremely lucky to be able to go to the market, choose what we like, and put it on a daily menu. Most of the restaurants, unfortunately, do the opposite: they have a menu, it’s printed, it’s there for one, two, three weeks, or until the end of the season, and half of those ingredients, how can you have them? You can have them only if you get them frozen or preserved. I like to start from the opposite side.

JN: How about vegetables? Do you have any insight into why the vegetables from Sant’Erasmo and some of the other islands are remarkable? 

LD: This is something interesting. I’ve been talking to Michel Thoulouze from Sant’Erasmo. And also some people from the Giudecca. There is a fantastic young group of guys who are recovering a nice piece of land on the Guidecca, that’s a place you should go. They say that the presence of the salted water gives to the vegetables and to everything that is grown a very special touch of minerality.

JN: How is that salt communicated? Is it in the soil? In the air? 

LD: It’s in the soil. It’s in the soil because the soil of the islands is sand and salt. So, the salt comes from the water. It affects the soil, which obviously affects the plants and the fruit. It’s a very peculiar little taste. Very often when we do our little side dish of local vegetables which are following the seasons, customers look at me and it’s fantastic to see their expression. “Hey, but these vegetables, they all taste the same [at home]. They all taste different [here]!” At home they will all taste the same because they’ve been processed the same way. But our local vegetables are, you know, cut in the morning, brought to the market. So, the freshness is amazing. It’s half an hour, by boat.

JN: I’m going to look forward to visiting Michel on Sant’Erasmo on Wednesday. We should probably stop there. I can’t thank you enough for making the time to talk. It was so delightful. 

LD: It’s been my pleasure, Justin.

annapolis and venice

annapolis

I recently wrote about falling in love with Venice. It reminded me of another city I fell in love with once and still love, though we’ve been apart for a long time: Annapolis, Maryland.

I spent four years in Annapolis while a student at St. John’s College about 20 years ago. After getting married in 2004, Dillon and I lived in Annapolis for a brief but special two months, but until this past September I hadn’t been back since.

On my recent trip back to Annapolis for my first-ever college Homecoming, it dawned on me how much Annapolis resembles that other city so dear to my heart: Venice.

On the most superficial level, both cities are defined by water. Although I never took advantage of the abundant opportunities to sail or row in Annapolis (definitely a regret), water still played an important part in my experience of the city. Early morning walks down to the city docks, taking a short walk down to the Severn River bordering an edge of the College’s “back campus”, exploring the campus of the US Naval Academy (bordered on two sides by water), following a quiet residential street until it dead-ended in water, following the road that hugs the jagged coast of the peninsula, with water lapping disconcertingly close to the pavement with the imposing Bay Bridge in the background, sitting on a quiet bench facing a little cove while holding the hand of my future wife for the first time. All of these experiences of water defined my experience there.

Just as significant, both cities are largely defined by tourism. Main Street in Annapolis is beautiful as one walks downhill toward the water, with a gorgeous vista of the bay straight ahead, but the businesses on that street are mostly focused on tourism. There one finds commercial restaurants, trinket shops, overpriced clothing and jewelry —  businesses that cater to visitors rather than residents. But leave the main streets behind, and one finds a different Annapolis: homes and churches, playgrounds and schools. As I found as a student, spend enough time in Annapolis and its tourist veneer quickly wears off. Avoid the popular spots in the height of the season while going about one’s business. After a while, the tourist nature of the city starts to seem like a thin skin, easily overlooked for the living soul beneath. After a while, I didn’t even really notice the tourism because I was there for other reasons and focused on other things.

Both cities have at times been defined by the pursuit of vice. After Venice lost its maritime empire and began to decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, it survived by attracting visitors from elsewhere in Europe, and it developed a reputation for being a playground for the affluent. It was in the pleasure business, and prostitution and gambling became as much of a draw as art and architecture. Before I even set foot in Annapolis, a friend of my father’s who seemed to be speaking from experience described Annapolis as the sort of place people from DC go to misbehave and not get caught. Indeed, people do misbehave there. Visitors are loud; they drink too much. They do things on their boats that they might not do on land. Every morning feels like an unwelcome wake-up call from the outrageous party raging the night before.

But of course, these cities are not simply dens of vice. Indeed, although that character definitely is felt, it is perhaps more accurate to focus on the daily life of its residents, focused on shopping and living, raising children and working, not on partying and excess. For a while I dated a woman who attended daily AA meetings in Annapolis, a contrast to the party if ever there was one. One could attend mass at St. Mary’s and see not vice but a striving for health.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that both cities are real places beneath their superficial veneers. Annapolis is not just a place to misbehave, but a place to raise a family. For me it was a place to study ancient Greek and the history of science. Venice is not just a place to see a few sites before moving on, but a place to learn deep lessons about self-government and the fragility of civilization.

There’s nothing wrong with making a brief visit to a place, merely scratching the surface of what it has to offer. But it’s good to know that even the most touristy places have living, beating hearts beneath the surface for those who can invest the time and effort to discover them.

 

 

 

 

an interview with Giuliano Hazan

Tags

Giuliano-Hazan-BW-PrintGiuliano Hazan is the son of Marcella and Victor Hazan. Like his parents, Giuliano has dedicated his life to teaching and writing about authentic Italian cooking. Although he lives in the US, he travels to Italy several times per year to offer week-long cooking courses near Verona. He also teaches classes at his home in Sarasota, Florida.

In our interview, we talk about how Italian food has changed in both America and Italy, the differences between restaurant and home cooking, and what it was like growing up with a mother who became the most famous Italian cooking teacher in America.

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Justin Naylor: Good morning, Giuliano, and thanks for taking the time to speak today. I’d like to begin by asking what it was like growing up in the Hazan household. After all, before Marcella became famous, to you she was your mother first.

Giuliano Hazan: First of all, I would have to say we ate very well. Mealtimes were always important, and discussions about food were always important. It was something that I grew to enjoy being a part of, very much. As far as her becoming famous – it did happen fairly early in my childhood. The book came out in 1972, and she had been teaching already for a couple of years at that point. I was thirteen years old when the book came out. To tell you the truth, I really don’t remember home life before she was involved in food. That was really the normal thing: she was teaching, and she was writing the books, and so forth. Eventually, my father became involved in that full-time, but I certainly remember very well when he was working at my grandfather’s fur store and juggling both things.

JN: Were there dishes that you remember disliking as a boy, that it was a struggle for your parents to get you to eat? Or did you have a charmed palate from the start?

GH: No, no… liver was certainly one thing that I really didn’t like. I’m not incredibly fond of it, still. Occasionally I’ve had really good, tender calves’ liver that I did like. In our household I learned that I never said that I didn’t like something; I wasn’t ready yet. Raw oysters, raw mollusks in general are things that I’m still not particularly fond of. Other than that, I think I pretty much ate everything. Pasta was, and still is, one of my favorite things to eat.

JN: When did you actually begin to help in the kitchen?

GH: I mostly watched in the kitchen. I seem to remember there was a stool I would sit on; I would just watch what she did. Occasionally I would help out with something; one of the things that comes to mind is risotto stirring. And then, there was this dessert that she always made, called the Diplomatico, which is basically a rum- and coffee-flavored chocolate mousse cake. You have to whip the eggs, sugar, and egg whites to make the mousse. I remember helping out with that as well. Everyone always asks me, “So, you grew up cooking with your mother…” Well, not really. I grew up watching my mother cook, and mostly eating.

JN: These days, people emphasize ‘doing’ so much, but watching can be just as powerful in a certain way. I think watching a master at work doesn’t get quite the respect it deserves. There’s a tremendous amount that can be observed.

GH: I definitely absorbed a lot. If you’re watching something that is of interest, then you’re going to retain a lot more, as well.

JN: Even more than if you’re doing it, sometimes – just to have complete focus on observation.

GH: Yes, definitely.

JN: And of course, one of the most important things about these experiences were the taste memories that you were developing as a child and then as an adolescent – to have a sense from your earliest years of what certain things should taste like. I imagine that was the greatest gift of that experience.

GH: Yes, absolutely. Developing a palate is key to cooking, I think.

JN: One of the other interesting things about your childhood is that you spent time both in the US and in Italy, back and forth quite a bit. Could you talk a little about those experiences, whether as a boy you felt more American or Italian?

GH: It really felt like I was growing up in both places because when my parents moved back to the States I was about 8½ or 9, and at that point I was going to the school in the States, but the entire summer vacation every summer was spent in Italy in Cesenatico with my grandmother, so I was equally comfortable in both environments. This was pretty much through the end of high school.

JN: After high school, you didn’t decide initially to pursue cooking or teaching cooking as a career. What did you end up studying in college and how did you eventually transition to cooking and teaching?

GH: Well, I’d always been interested in theater. When I first went to college I started out as a biology major.

JN: Like your mother.

GH: Like my mother. But I really wanted to do theater as much as I could. There just didn’t seem to be enough time for lab and rehearsal times. And biology didn’t really inspire me that much, as much as I thought it would. So at that point I sort of switched gears. I went to Swarthmore College, and at that time they didn’t have a theater major, so I ended up becoming a French major. I’d studied French in high school and spent time in France as well. It seemed convenient, and I continued doing theater as well. After college, I ended up at a professional theater school in Providence, Rhode Island — Trinity Rep conservatory.

JN: What drew you to theater and made it so captivating for you?

GH: I enjoyed both the directing aspect of it and acting too. I liked the creative part of it, especially from the director’s point of view. I was always fairly shy, and being on stage kind of allowed me to be out there in a safe way because you were playing somebody else. You weren’t yourself.

JN: Absolutely. I think that’s true for so many actors.

GH: That was the draw of it, for sure.

JN: Yet you decided not to pursue it as a career. What were the factors in that decision?

GH: I did realize that the odds of really making it in the theater were pretty slim. I’d been exposed to cooking schools because my mother’s school in Italy started when I was 17, and I’d been involved in that every summer. When I was in Providence, I started teaching classes at the Barrington Community School, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I always tell people I started in theater and switched to food, but in a way I never really left theater because I think teaching has a lot of the theater in it, and my theater background has also helped me a great deal.

JN: I believe you also spent a gap year after college with your grandmother in Cesenatico.

GH: Yes, I wanted to spend more time in Italy. I’d gotten used to being there and had friends there and wanted to see what kind of work I could do there. I ended up doing interpreting and language work there. I worked for the tourist department in Bologna. Actually, that’s when I first met Matt Lauer.

JN: Oh yes.

GH: He was one of the anchors for a show in Providence, and they were doing a segment in Italy. So the producer who was familiar with my mother and knew me from Providence as well, asked me if I’d go along and be their interpreter in Italy.

JN: Although you spent many summers with your grandmother in Cesenatico, living with her for a year must have given you a wonderful opportunity to know her better.

GH: Vey much so. I was very close to my grandmother. She was an incredibly sweet, generous, and wonderful nonna. She was a very good cook, and she really encouraged me to cook too. She let me do a lot of the cooking and appreciated the things that I cooked.

JN: Was there anything you learned from her that you hadn’t already learned from your mother?

GH: I’m sure there were, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what it was. Little things you learn along the way and absorb. But definitely she was an influence.

JN: Before you settled into teaching and writing as a career, you also made a foray into restaurant cooking. I’d love to hear some stories from that time.

GH: This was when I was in Providence, after I’d completed the two-year theater program. My mother had been asked by a group of ex-students who were investing in a restaurant in Atlanta to be a consultant. The restaurant was Veni, Vidi, Vici. So she did, but she was always a bit hesitant about this sort of stuff. She said, “Well, I’d really prefer it if my son were part of this project, to be on-site since I can’t be.” So that’s how I ended up getting hired to work in that restaurant. I had no restaurant experience, so I was kind of thrown into it. I ended up setting up the homemade pasta station. I also did desserts for a little while, though doing desserts has never been something I really enjoy. I like cooking much better. But then they didn’t really know what position to put me in. I was sort of a chef’s assistant. Mostly my responsibilities were to work on creating the daily specials and regular menu, making sure they were in the same style as my mother’s cooking.

And then, I went to my second restaurant directly from that. There was a call that came in and the chef was not in the kitchen. I answered, and it ended up being a head hunter. They asked who I was, and they knew my mother, and they said, “Maybe we want to talk to you instead.”

JN: [Laughter]

GH: So I ended up being hired to open an Italian restaurant in Portland, Oregon as executive chef. So I sort of zoomed from having no restaurant experience to being executive chef in just over a year. Both of these experiences I learned a lot from. There’s a lot about producing food in a restaurant that’s different from home cooking and useful to know if you’re producing food in larger quantities. I learned a lot from the experience, but I also learned that I really didn’t enjoy the restaurant life. I really enjoyed much more having direct contact with people, the kind you get from teaching. It was during my time in Portland that I wrote my first cookbook. When that was published I decided I wanted to devote myself to teaching full time instead of doing a restaurant. So I just wrote to a bunch of cooking schools across the country, and pretty much everyone said, “Yes, come and teach.” So I started doing the traveling teacher gig.

JN: One theme your mother wrote about extensively was how it was the cooking of the home, not the restaurant, which gave Italian cooking its soul. This fascinated me early in my own cooking education. Could you describe the difference in your mind between restaurant and home cooking, both from the point of view of the kitchen but also as an eater?

GH: A lot of it is the demands of a restaurant, especially in the States where everything is expected to happen instantly. You have to find ways to adapt so you can make things in a way that allows you to put out an order quickly when it comes in. In Italy, it’s not always as much. People are used to being a little more patient. That’s definitely one of the challenges in restaurant cooking.

JN: What would be an example of a shortcut like that?

GH: Well, precooking pasta, which is an awful thing. Or risotto. There’s just no way to cook it halfway and then try to revive it. That really doesn’t work. To me, doing restaurant food successfully meant choosing the right things to serve. For example, slow-cooked braised dishes, things like that. Those are perfect because they were work well to be done ahead of time. Whereas other things are a little trickier.

JN: When you dine in restaurants today, even in high-quality ones, does the food often taste like “restaurant cooking”, for lack of a better term? Do you feel like you can taste that in a restaurant?

GH: More than that, there’s the fact that in restaurants there’s a feeling that you have to put a lot of different ingredients into a dish, otherwise it’s too plain. People here [in the US] expect restaurant cooking to be more sophisticated, whereas in Italy a restaurant where you can say, “My goodness, this is as good as it is at home,” is the highest praise.

JN: Do you think that’s still true in Italy today, that restaurants are still trying to match the standard of the best home cooking?

GH: It depends what kind of restaurant. The small family-run trattoria, that’s still the goal. But as an effect of globalization, there are high-end restaurants in Italy where the food is expected to be much more sophisticated than something you would make at home. That’s not to say that kind of cooking can’t be very good.

JN: What are some other ways Italian cooking in Italy has changed in your lifetime, either in restaurants or in the home?

GH: I don’t think there’s been a huge change. One thing is an emphasis on preparing raw fish, which you didn’t see as much in the past. An increase in famous chef restaurants. And then the very sad trend toward finding more and more fast food. I believe you talked to my father about the closing of Fiaschetteria Toscana?

JN: Yes. Burger King is taking their place, which is the perfect symbol of some of the sad changes taking place, even in Italy. I tell people all the time that it’s not just tourists eating fast food in Italy. It’s very much Italians.

GH: Yes, it is. One of the sad things about Italians is they really try to emulate and imitate particularly American customs. The great example is the outlet: in America they try to create the Tuscan, Mediterranean look, which then the Italians imitate the Americans imitating the Tuscan look.

JN: That’s so sad!

GH: It’s very funny and sad at the same time.

JN: So how about the state of Italian cooking in America today?

GH: You find the more sophisticated, high-end type of Italian cooking, but you still don’t find the down to earth home-cooking type of cooking that you’d find with family-run trattorias.

JN: Yes, and when you do find it, it’s invariably of the Italian-American style.

GH: Yes.

JN: Speaking of Italian-American tradition, where did that cooking tradition come from exactly?

GH: [Laughter]

JN: It’s a real puzzle to me, the way Italian-American cooking is often the exact opposite of Italian cooking in Italy. For example, Italian lasagne is light and delicate, while Italian-American lasagne is heavy and… whatever.

GH: I don’t pretend to have an authoritative answer to it, but you can have my opinion. Mostly the Italian immigrants had come from a life of poverty in Italy, where they couldn’t afford meat or the sauce for pasta was precious. When they started being able to afford more, kind of as a reaction to that, the reaction was I can add more meat, thus the meatball on pasta. I can afford more sauce, thus the drowning of pasta in sauce. A lot of it had to be with being able to have more.

JN: And as you said a moment ago, though we Americans tend to idolize Italy, Italians are often more interested in imitating Americans, and I think you see that in the Italian-American cooking tradition. So, if you’re an impoverished immigrant from Naples in 1905, you’re more interested in embracing the new American abundance than in preserving the “cucina povera” of your past.

GH: Absolutely. You’re trying to get away from scarcity, and so you get a reaction.

JN: What are some restaurants in the US that you admire or enjoy eating in, either Italian or otherwise?

GH: Rather than naming places, I think I ‘d rather talk about what appeals to me in a restaurant. It’s really when you find true, genuine flavors. The skill in finding the best ingredients and just bringing out their flavor without covering it up, without feeling like you have to have a whole bunch of ingredients to make it good. It could be Japanese restaurants where the freshness of the fish in the sushi just melts in your mouth, and you have this feeling of freshness and purity of flavor. Purity of flavor is the key.

JN: When you travel and spend time in Italy, do you find it hard to find restaurants that meet your expectations or standard? For example, in Rome or Venice or Florence, do you feel like you have to pick restaurants very carefully, or do you think there’s a high and consistent standard?

GH: It used to be you could go almost anywhere and have a good meal. I think it’s gotten harder nowadays. You do have to search out places more carefully, talk to people and get recommendations. And in big tourist cities like Venice, unfortunately, it’s harder because of all the tourists. The restaurants cater to the tourists, and they find they don’t really need to be so careful and spend so much money on the ingredients as they can be. They can get away with a lot of stuff.

JN: Is it mostly tourism driving the changes, or is even the Italian palate becoming less discriminating?

GH: Italians eat at mediocre places too. I would say there are fewer restaurants that are up there, that are very, very good.

JN: Speaking of tourism, it’s something I think about a lot, because I take clients to Italy and encourage people to visit Italy.

GH: I rely on tourism too.

JN: Right, and it’s a complex subject with no clear answers – no simple heroes or villains. How would you describe, or how might we foster, what you might call “responsible tourism”? How does one approach tourism so that it’s a blessing and not a blight on a place?

GH: I don’t know how you get people to be responsible tourists… but certainly, to encourage respect for the places they’re in and seek out the local traditions, and culture, and flavors, which is really a way to learn about the people and place you’re visiting. That’s what we do with our school in Italy, to expose people to the best expression we can find of that particular place. We take people to food producers because it’s a food and wine course. The producers we take people to are passionate and proud of what they do, and they’re proud to share it with people we bring to visit them. That’s really the best way to learn and experience a place. But I’m not really sure how to get people to do that.

JN: What do you think a place like Venice can do to preserve itself as a real place, and not simply become a theme park, so to speak?

GH: Ultimately, it’s the pride of the people of the place. Sadly, the population of Venetians is dwindling, so it’s hard. But I think they’ve done a good job, considering the masses who descend upon the place.

JN: You mentioned your own cooking school in Italy. For those who aren’t familiar with it, would you like to give a brief overview of where it’s located and what the activities are, for those who might be interested in joining you on one of those trips?

GH: Sure. We’ve been doing this for close to 20 years now. The area is the Valpolicella wine region, near Verona, and we’ve been collaborating with the Allegrini winery, which has grown tremendously in the past 20 years. They’ve really made a name for themselves as a wine producer of the highest quality. I don’t know if you know that Marilisa Allegrini was featured on the cover of Wine Spectator a few months ago, but it was a big deal because not only was she the first woman to be on the cover of Wine Spectator

JN: Oh, my. Doesn’t speak well for the industry, does it?

GH: If nothing else, it’s speaking a lot about the appreciation of Italian wine as top-quality wine.

JN: So I imagine that every day there’s a cooking class with you at the villa?

GH: Yes, and we take field trips. We go the food market in Padova, which is one of the few thriving open-air food markets still around. We go to visit an olive oil producer. We go to an ancient rice mill, which produces rice exactly the same way with the same equipment since 1648. It’s a mortar-and-pestle system. Rice is placed in these red marble bowls, basically, and these pestles which are powered by water wheels and wooden gears work the rice so that rather than being perfectly polished, as machine-polished rice, there’s a little bit of skin here and there, which adds depth of flavor to the rice and you don’t lose as much of that precious starch.

JN: Is that unique in Italy to this producer?

GH: There are two, but I have done taste tests and this one is the best.

JN: And it’s the one you import, is that right?

GH: Yes, it’s one of the products from Italy we import under the Giuliano’s Classics label.

JN: Also olive oil and vinegar, is that right?

GH: Yes. Another of the field trips is to Emilia-Romagna, where we go to a parmigiano-reggiano factory. You know, there are all these tours that go to parmigiano-reggiano factories; there’s something a little different about when we bring people. I used to bring groups from my mother’s school in Bologna, and so I’ve had a relationship with the consortium for a long time. We’ve been going so long that the person who originally guided us later became the director and has now retired. The cheesemaker there, who is very passionate about the work he does, really appreciates the groups we bring and the importance I give to parmigiano-reggiano when I explain it, so that when they leave they have a newfound appreciation for it. One thing he does that I don’t think he does with many groups is he’ll go and choose a wheel and open it for us. Part of the same trip is going to a minuscule town near Parma where the Spigaroli family runs a farm and restaurant and produces culatello, which you’re familiar with?

JN: Yes, I am, but few readers of this interview will be, so please go ahead and introduce it.

GH: It’s a precious product, entirely made by hand. To give an idea of how precious it is, it’s often four or five times the price of prosciutto di Parma. Massimo Spigaroli, who’s in charge, takes us around and shows us the cellar where they’ve been aging culatelli for 700 years, almost without interruption. You can see the labels which have been pre-sold, with names like Prince Charles and so forth. It’s a special experience. Then we do a tasting and we eat there at the restaurant. When I first met him twenty years ago, there weren’t many people going to visit him. Now there are several groups a day. When I come, Massimo always guides us himself. It’s a mutual appreciation.

JN: How would you describe the difference of flavor between culatello and prosciutto di Parma?

GH: I would say there is a richer and deeper flavor in the culatello. There are also different levels of aging. One thing Massimo has done is rescue historical breeds of pigs close to extinction. When we first started going there were just twelve pigs. Now there are hundreds and hundreds. The black pig of Parma is one of them, and the culatello meat from the black pig is a different flavor than that of another breed. Also it makes a difference whether it’s been aged 15 or 16 months or 39 months.

JN: Let me shift gears a little to ask about your writing. You have several cookbooks on the market today, and of course I’m interested in whether you have a new project you’re working on. But also, if you could reflect a little bit on how cookbook writing has changed during the course of your career, and maybe say a little bit about the state of cookbook writing today.

GH: I think today there is more of an emphasis on the writing part. Cookbooks have become much more personal, with stories behind the recipes. It’s not just a collection of recipes anymore. After all, with the internet, if you need a recipe it’s pretty much easy to find. As far as working on a book, I have a half-idea, but I’ve put it on the back burner. I’ve really focused more on teaching. I do a lot of classes in Sarasota as well.

JN: In your home?

GH: Yes, in our home. It’s sort of a mini-version of our school in Italy, but without the field trips.

JN: I suppose trips to the local supermarket wouldn’t be quite the same.

GH: [Laughter] Right.

JN: But kidding aside, where do you shop for ingredients? Are there farms or farmer’s markets near you?

GH: I shop some at the supermarket, but there are some good local markets, one run by an Amish family that brings in good produce and really fresh fish. During the season, which is the winter here, there is an organic farm that sells the produce they grow on the farm.

JN: Any good options for non-industrial meat?

GH: Not as much. I haven’t found anything particularly satisfying in that respect.

JN: Another thing that has changed during your career is the rise of social media and how it has affected food culture. Instagram, for example, has changed how a lot of people think about and perceive food. Could you say a little about that phenomena?

GH: The fact that it promotes more interest in food is great. There are more people inspired to cook at home, and good, genuine food is becoming more important. Organic and non-GMO to a certain extent may be a little bit of a fad, but it’s also a good trend, and it means that people put more importance on the quality of food.

JN: When I interviewed Samin Nosrat, she stressed that in her book there are no photos, even though she loves beautiful food photography, in part because she has suggested that some people might find such photography discouraging rather than encouraging, because it would be so hard to match. I thought that was an interesting observation.

GH: It’s important to me that the photography in all my books was not there to show how beautiful it is, but as a way to help people reproduce it. I didn’t want the dishes to look like something you couldn’t reproduce. It was a little of a fight with the food stylist because they want to be artistic and go overboard. To me, the most important thing was to reproduce it as accurately as possible.

JN: Let me end with this question: you’re raising two girls, and so I wanted to ask you to reflect on modern parents’ struggle with developing a mature palate in their own children. Any insights into successes and failure about raising kids and teaching them to eat well?

GH: If you expose them to good food, they will recognize the difference and be able to tell the difference between good food and not-good food. You try to set a good example as a parent, just as with good behavior and so forth. At the same time, kids have their own personalities. There’s only so much you can actually control and do. Our two daughters are a good example of that. One is much more adventurous and open to all kinds of different foods and flavors. But at the same time, with the one who is less open – things that she does like, she is really able to distinguish between when it is prepared well and when it isn’t.

JN: Is either interested in pursuing a career in food?

GH: They’re both pretty adamant that they’re not. The oldest one in particular sees that cooking is a necessity if one wants to eat well, which she’s become used to.

JN: Well, thank you, I think our time is up. I appreciate your generous giving of your time and everything you and your family have contributed over the years.

falling in love with Venice

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Sometimes falling in love with a person or a place takes time. When I first visited Venice I had mixed feelings, as many people do. Obviously the place is a cultural treasure and certain features of the city are unspeakably beautiful. But like many people, after 24 to 48 hours I was ready to go. Maybe it was the excessive crowds. Maybe it was the overtly touristy nature of the place, the theme-park character that many have written of and mourned.

My second visit was the same. I had a remarkable meal at my favorite restaurant, but the next day I was ready to go. It just felt like a place that where I didn’t want to spend too much time. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: the average visitor to Venice spends one day or less.

But I had a feeling that the problem was me, not the place. I had an instinct that if I pushed myself to get beyond the tourist veneer, there were great treasures waiting to be discovered; that if I somehow settled in, I’d be rewarded. I decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel on my next visit. I decided to visit the same coffee bars and bakeries for a few days in a row to get to know the proprietors. I decided to shop at the markets instead of just eating in restaurants.

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And slowly I began to fall in love with Venice. Some loves are immediate and lasting. Others are sudden but ephemeral. Still others grow slowly, almost imperceptibly, until one wakes up one day and realizes that he or she thinks of the newly beloved person or place every day, that the person or place has become an inseparable part of their own identity. This is how it has been with me and Venice.

I love visiting Italy, and I love taking clients to Italy. I love Rome and Bologna and sharing those two cities with others. But I’ve never seriously considered living in either of those cities. They are places I love to visit, but they’re not home. On my last visit to Venice in September, I was caught off guard and surprised to find myself feeling deeply at home there, particularly the neighborhoods of San Polo and Santa Croce, where I was staying and spending most of my time. I found myself thinking a thought that I’d never experienced before: maybe I would like to live in Venice.

I began wondering what was drawing me. What made the place feel like home? Even more than the sheer beauty of the place, the magical fact that the city is built on water, I realized that a few things in particular were drawing me.

I realized how relaxing it was to be in a car-free city. Despite the human congestion of mid-day, early in the morning and late at night, or even mid-day in certain neighborhoods, Venice is a quiet city, too quiet for some. It’s not plagued with exhaust and speed. Venice moves at a slower pace than the rest of the world, a human pace.

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I realized that in addition to the low-quality restaurants and trinkets and “Vivaldi” concerts with guys in wigs, Venice was home to the very best human culture had to offer. My favorite restaurant is in Venice, and it’s part of a restaurant association dedicated to quality ingredients and traditional cooking. Rome and Bologna have fine restaurants, of course, but no such association, no such community of shared purpose and values. Venice is home to traditional craftsmanship of the highest quality, whether true Murano glass or handmade gondolas. Venice is also home to La Fenice, one of the most famous and historically significant opera houses in the world.

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I realized that all around me were people who shared my values: proprietors operating natural wine bars, merchants selling the freshest fish and vegetables, restaurants putting quality above profit, restaurants with something to say.

I realized that while I love our farm, we spend a lot of time feeling like we don’t quite fit in in our rural area. We love the community of small towns but the culture of cities. In Venice, I found both. I found people who were easier to get to know and friendlier than in other Italian cities. I found a place which supported and nourished the values I wish to live by.

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Venice, of course, is not perfect. Don’t misunderstand me. Like most of Italy, corruption is a real problem (Venice’s last mayor was arrested in 2014). The economy is a mess. And no doubt my experience of Venice is still that of a tourist, of a visitor. But for the first time in my life, I’ve connected to an Italian city which I feel like I could experience not as a visitor but as a resident. One which I’ve fallen in love with, which I think about every single day, and which feels like it could become home.

 

rigatoni with chicken liver and tomatoes

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I know… you can’t really see the chicken livers, but they’re there!

My last published recipe was for chicken liver pâté. It’s a great way to use up a good number of chicken livers, but not so useful for just one or two.

I’m a big advocate of buying local, pasture-raised chickens, the kind that actually live outside (not in a barn with the door open). Not only is raising animals in such a way more humane, it is also more agriculturally sustainable and more delicious to eat. It’s a pleasure to work in the kitchen with chickens that look healthy and that are fresh enough to have no odor. Buying whole chickens is the most economical, and whole chickens almost always include the heart, liver, and gizzards.

If you find yourself with a single chicken or maybe two, you’ll have a single liver or maybe two to cook. You can always freeze them and wait until you have enough to make pate, but if you’d like to cook them right away, here is a recipe for you.

Rigatoni with chicken livers and tomatoes (for one or two people)

I’ve written this recipe in the most casual style, not only because I’ve never written down exact quantities but also to make the point that cooking is improvisational, rarely exact. A little more of this or that, while making a different dish, rarely makes a dish better or worse, just different.

While the pasta water is heating up, sauté a little onion and/or garlic in a little olive oil. When the onion/garlic has taken on a little color and softened (garlic is much quicker than onion), add a chicken liver or two, roughly chopped with a knife or a pair of scissors.

Sauté the liver until it has lost its raw color, and add a little chopped rosemary and/or sage. When the herbs are aromatic, add some high-quality imported canned tomatoes and crush by hand or with a fork. Season with salt and lower the heat to simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in abundantly salted water until al dente. Just before the pasta is ready, add a little benediction of olive oil or perhaps a pat of butter along with a little chopped parsley. If the sauce is too dry, add a little water, either plain or the salty, starchy pasta water.

Drain the pasta and toss in the pan for 30 seconds or less. Serve at once.

an interview with Meredith Kurtzman

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Brent Herrig © 2012

Meredith Kurtzman is a gelato maker and pastry chef based in New York City. She is the former head of gelato production at Mario Batali’s restaurants Esca and Otto. More recently she has worked at Al di La and Milkmade, both in Brooklyn.

To learn more about Meredith, you can read this profile at Eater.com or this lovely piece on her tiny apartment in Soho.

In this interview, we talk about her love of strong flavors, how to make better gelato at home, and how New York has changed in her more than 50 year love affair with the city.

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Justin Naylor: Good morning, Meredith! Thanks for taking the time to talk. I’d like to begin by having you define gelato. I know you’re probably sick of this question, but for those readers who aren’t familiar with true gelato, how do you distinguish it from American-style ice cream?

Meredith Kurtzman: Well, basically, gelato has less fat – more milk than cream – sometimes eggs, or sometimes no eggs. It’s held for service at a higher temperature, so it’s softer. It has less air pumped into it than American ice cream, and the good machines, which go very fast, and the nature of the mixture of gelato prevent it from taking on a lot of air. But in Italy the definition of gelato has very strict paramaters. In America, there aren’t any parameters.

JN: So, in this country, gelato could be anything. But, as you say, in Italy gelato has less fat, less air, and is served at a warmer temperature. What affect do those factors have on the final result, as experienced by someone eating gelato?

MK: Fat coats your tongue when you eat it, so if there’s less fat the flavors should be coming through stronger. And the ideal way to make gelato (which is rarely done) is to make each flavor separately, so you can infuse stronger flavor. The texture should be softer – a little stretchy maybe.

JN: Everyone who has ever had gelato in Italy speaks of how special it is. Why do you think it makes such a strong and immediate impression?

MK: Well, even in Italy gelato varies widely – I mean, there’s a lot of bad gelato. But I think it’s the texture. The texture is somewhere between American ice cream and soft serve. I think Americans love soft serve. I think it’s that and I think it’s the quality of the flavors in a good gelateria. The flavors are just stronger, and because it’s served warmer, that also increases your ability to taste the flavors.

JN: How did you first discover and then fall in love with gelato?

MK: I’ve been making ice cream in restaurants since the mid 1990s. At the first restaurant I worked at, the chef’s formulas had a lot more milk than cream. Five years later, my first job in an Italian restaurant was Esca. The chef liked ice cream a lot, so we made a lot of gelato. While I was working there, I went to Naples and the Amalfi coast and had my first really good gelato. I had been to Italy once or twice before, but this was the gelato experience. I came back wanting to learn more about making gelato, and I took a few little courses out in New Jersey. They were always trying to sell you their base. I knew I didn’t want to do it that way. I was like, “I want to use real vanilla beans!” They kind of looked at me like, “Spoil sport.”

I was at Esca for two and a half years and then Mario [Batali] approached me with the Otto idea, that they wanted me to come be there and the center of their dessert program was going to be gelato, big time. We bought a huge machine and had a real gelato case. Before Otto opened, I spent a week with an ice cream maker in Italy. It was really crazy, because he didn’t speak any English, and there was one other man in the class from the Canary Islands. He was also using a base, but he taught me the way you break down a gelato base into sugars, fats – you had a chart, like, Milk is 60% water and 40% fat, so you had parameters to work within to make gelato. Like, It should be 22% sugar, using different sugars in proportions, you put together a formula. I did my initial formulas that way, but after that I just made gelato and paid less attention. But I did stay within those parameters once I got back to Otto. Also, he had a lot of Italian gelato professional magazines and I took them back to my hotel room. As much as I could figure out in Italian, I took a lot of notes.

JN: Where was he from, that gelato maker?

MK: Sansepolcro. It’s where Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche meet. He was very generous; we went out to wonderful dinners. I knew I didn’t quite want to make [gelato] his way, but I still learned a lot. It was very inspiring.

JN: As important as that week in Italy was, it sounds like your approach clearly has your own personality. Even though this training was important, your results are clearly the result of a lot of experimentation and self-teaching. What inspired you to go beyond the experience in Italy?

MK: Well, I like really strong flavors. Especially with dessert, what’s the point of eating it if it’s not really delicious? Restaurant ice cream can be really good, and that’s because they do spend more time making smaller batches. So, I bought the small batch approach. I also am a big believer in shopping, careful shopping.  I’ve always gone to the Greenmarket on my own. I don’t let anyone else buy the fruit for me, I buy it myself. Actually, I just enjoy it. I really liked what Victor Hazan said at a talk recently about his wife [and cookbook author] Marcella Hazan choosing each bean at the market individually!

JN: As important as shopping and ingredients have become, especially in the last ten years in great restaurants in the US, do you feel like ingredient shopping for dessert has received the same attention?

MK: Well, there’s less involved. I mean, you’re still using Domino sugar. Some people are going beyond that nowadays, milling their own flour and all that, which I admire. The pastry chefs I admired always were very fussy about the fruit. I’ve been like that all my life. I know some people deride shopping, and they say you should be able to make something great out of supermarket stuff, but I feel lucky that I don’t have to.

JN: Right, absolutely. Are there any other factors in great gelato-making that we haven’t talked about? 

MK: I learned about using stabilizer and dextrose within flexible parameters in Italy. I formulated our gelato using a percentage on the low end of those parameters, obtaining their benefits, but not so you’d notice their presence too much, i.e. a stretchy, gooey texture. When used judiciously, they add something wonderful to gelato. And they’re not artificial. Stabilizers are made out of starches. I think the original ice cream in Sicily, which was made without yolks – I suspect they probably used a lot of carob flour, because that grew there.

JN: That’s exactly what I’ve read as well. I think a lot of people just think sugar is sugar, but obviously it’s not. In addition to dextrose there’s regular white table sugar, raw sugar, honey, and others. You mentioned that dextrose can have a beneficial effect on texture – what are some other ways that sugars differ?

MK: Dextrose is less sweet than sugar; that’s one of the reasons you can use a little and you’re actually making things a little less sweet. It has other abilities which affect the texture. Honey is more sweet than sugar, and also it’s almost like using corn syrup, it will make everything softer, and it has a pronounced flavor.

JN: Have you used much raw sugar?

MK: No, and that’s partly because of expense. There are some choices at some point that you have to make if you’re making larger quantities of things. If you’re making two quarts at home, it’s no problem, but since I was spending heavily in some areas, like hazelnuts and chocolate, I had to skimp in others.

JN: Of course. You mentioned at the beginning that not all gelato in Italy is equal. How would you describe the state of gelato-making in Italy at the moment? Do you feel like the standard is pretty high, or is it actually quite difficult to find good gelato, even in Italy today?

MK: I think most towns have, if you’re lucky, one or two good places. It’s financial  necessity that makes people have to use a base. It’s not because they’re skimping. It’s just very difficult, especially the more flavors you have. It’s crazy to make every flavor separately, and the places that are good usually don’t have a lot of flavors, because it’s too much labor. It’s also skilled labor. I had a fellowship and worked at a good bakery in Sicily; their baked goods were wonderful, but the gelato was made from formulas. It was good, but I know it could have been better.

JN: When you say that the best places wouldn’t have too many flavors, how many are you talking about?

MK: A dozen.

JN: When I take clients to Italy, I always tell them the first thing to do is to look at the color of the gelato. Most that are low-quality have colors that are clearly unnatural, clearly synthetic. It’s also super fluffed up. How is that gelato made?

MK: Well, it’s fake flavoring, like fake strawberry, just like here. It’s expensive to use real fruit, and it’s also difficult. And to be honest, most people don’t really give a damn or don’t know any better. It’s nothing real, and people can replicate flavors nowadays – chemists in the cooking industry – but it’s not the same.

JN: We’ve been talking mostly of gelato so far. Speaking of fruit, could we talk about sorbet? Since in Italy, fruit is used for water-based sorbet rather than milk-based gelato.

MK: It’s best to use fruit for sorbet because the flavor comes through stronger, and you’re not dealing with the water content that’s going to come from the fruit and go into the gelato. If you go to the farmer’s market and buy things, strawberries are $50 a flat, and they’ve gone up every year. People are buying Driscoll’s for $20 a flat – which I hate with a passion. Not in my kitchen! For sorbets, you’re best getting something that’s at peak ripeness and using it very quickly, not letting it sit around. We used to go to the market, bring it back to the restaurant, and then make something that day.

JN: Moving to a different subject, many readers of this interview will be home cooks, and so could you discuss some of the challenges and limitations of making gelato and sorbet at home rather than with commercial equipment in a restaurant kitchen?

MK: Well, any home machine will churn more slowly, which will affect the texture, but you can get the same flavor. One tip is not putting too much into the machine. One mistake people make is they fill it up all the way, and that’s going to take longer to churn.

JN: For example, only churning 1 quart in a 2-quart model?

MK: Exactly. I did a book with Mario Batali called Molto Gusto, and I did the gelato recipes. I tested them with a Cuisinart home model and a Kitchen Aid with a bowl attachment. And, you know, they worked nicely. I’ve heard that the old-fashioned machines with rock salt are supposed to be some of the best, but I’ve never used one.

JN: What is the result of the home machine’s taking too long? Mostly an icier texture?

MK: Well, the whole point of ice cream is you’re making an emulsion, and there’s a lot of water and a lot of fat, and you’re bringing those two things together as quickly as possible so that the water molecules get coated in fat and don’t separate. I think a mistake people make at home is not chilling the mixture enough, and it’s really better if you age it overnight in the refrigerator. It’s good if you chill it down fast after you’ve made a base. It’s just doing the details correctly, and it should be fine.

JN: For a home cook making gelato or sorbet, because of the risk of an icier texture because of longer churning time, how could they use things like powdered milk or a stabilizer such as tapioca flour?

MK: Yes, that’s a very important ingredient, dehydrated milk powder.

JN: I find that when most people publish recipes for gelato, they leave out certain ingredients that could really make a difference for home cooks.

MK: That’s actually changing. Dana Cree recently wrote a book called Hello, My Name is Ice Cream, which does tell you about stabilizers and milk powders and how to use them. You need to know the proportions. And don’t be scared by the word “stabilizer” – that was in Dana’s book, she made it clear that they’re not bad. I work for someone now who had a wheat allergy, and she saw wheat on the label of this very good stabilizer, so now we can’t use them anymore, which is a very big mistake. Every pastry chef I know who has converted to using stabilizer loves them. I think it’s more a matter of principle – misguided principle – that leads people not to use them. Home cooks – you have to know the proportion to use. Some of the better things to use at home are tapioca or guar gum, which you certainly can get through mail order now. And you really don’t need much.

JN: I think it’s just the word “stabilizer.” It makes people think of some industrial product, which it’s not. What does the dehydrated milk powder do?

MK: It absorbs the water in regular milk. Milk has a lot of water in it, so what the milk powder does is absorb some of that water, which then results in smoother texture. Basically, you just don’t want too much water content in your gelato. You don’t want too little – it’s sort of what makes it work – but you don’t want too much.

JN: I was inspired by a British chap who runs a website called icecreamscience.com. He says that he feels like recipes are about 70% of quality and the machine is 30%. So that’s pretty encouraging for someone who can’t spend $10,000 on a machine. Do you agree with that?

MK: Yes, because some of the things we tested [for the cookbook Molto Gusto] came out fine for me. They might not keep as well, but otherwise the flavor is strong, as long as you follow the instructions. It’s hard when you write cookbooks – I tend to want to write a lot of details, because you want people’s attempts to be successful, but in many cases they have to edit for space. You have to leave a lot of details out.

JN: You mentioned freshness. I always tell people that the best places to have gelato really are making it every day. It is literally fresh. Is that naive, or do you think that the best gelaterias in Italy are making their twelve flavors every day?

MK: Yes. Obviously, it’s hard – especially if you make thirty flavors, there’s no way you’re going to churn those every day. And you don’t know how much you’re going to go through. I guess at a busy gelateria they have a pretty good idea, but I’m sure they have leftover and I’m sure they don’t just throw it out. I think making it every day is good for texture.

JN: Since you want to open your gelateria by 11 am or so, it’s also an early start to the day, if you’re making things every day.

MK: After you spin the gelato, it needs a few hours in a freezer to really get right. Ours at Otto needed more time because we did it in a real glass freezer. When we did it, we needed four hours after churning it for it to really set up correctly. And then you’re taking it out and putting it in a gelato case, so then it has to temper.

JN: I think it has been written about you, Meredith, that you certainly weren’t the first person in New York City to be making gelato, but you really kicked off a pretty serious renaissance, so to speak. You were really the first person to bring gelato of an exceptional quality to New York. I’m not sure if you’re comfortable with that description or not, but that’s certainly what a lot of people think. When did this happen, and why do you think nobody before that was making gelato of an exceptionally high quality?

MK: 2003 was when we opened Otto. Maybe they couldn’t afford it, I don’t know. There was this kind of food explosion anyway in those years, of all kinds of things. There was one good place, it was a man from Syracuse [in Sicily] who had a little stand on 4th Avenue, part of a restaurant. He made good gelato; he was very old-school. And there was John Snyder from il laboratorio del gelato. He was the first person to get mass attention. With me it was being at the right place at the right time. Otto itself was unique. It was a huge wine bar, it was casual. Gelato was a big part of the program. Other people had been making olive oil ice cream in New York before me; I didn’t steal their recipes. But people went gaga. Otto was a big deal at first. They would do 900 covers on a Saturday, and it just was a matter of bringing something sophisticated to a larger customer base than a fancy restaurant that might be making olive oil ice cream.

JN: It’s easy to forget that even though it was only 20 years ago, in general the New York dining scene was so different. If you were interested in eating food that was more authentically Italian, there weren’t that many choices, which is hard to even imagine today.

MK: Well, there were very small places that never got much attention. The whole publicity machine, the Internet didn’t exist – the food press turned into a much different thing. Now it’s all about Instagram. It’s not even about the quality of the food, it’s about photographs and publicity, and all that. Most of the chefs I’ve stayed friends with are those who have been around since the mid-90s or before, because we’re not on to the next new thing in just five minutes.

JN: I think it’s what Victor [Hazan] described in his interview with me as “image” versus “identity.” In the world of Instagram – I’m all for beautiful food photography, but ultimately it can look as beautiful as ever, but if it doesn’t have character and soul and flavor, who cares?

MK: Yes. And you know, I’m not Italian; we say we love something of a place, but a lot of people making the best things of a place are not from that place. They may have spent time in that place, but they’re not of the place. But their food still tells a story, and to me the story is really important. I like people who are cooking with a story behind them, not a concept.

JN: Could you give some examples of restaurants or chefs that inspire you in that way?

MK: Well, you have to give credit to Mario Batali. He became something more commercial, but in the beginning he spent time in a place and brought that place [to New York], and I think he was one of the first. Jody Williams, who works with her partner Rita Sodi at Via Carota and Buvette, is doing two different things, and she’s spent time in those places, she’s paid her dues and does a beautiful job. I like Alex Raij, who does La Vara with her husband Eder; they’ve both spent time in Spain and are of that origin, and their food is definitely of a place, with some modern things added. Those are two places I’m loyal to. What I admire about these people is their knowledge of place, to which they add their own soul in the cooking. I don’t go out a lot; a lot of the people I like are not in the scene anymore. I honestly don’t go out to eat a lot because I can’t afford it. I love going to some little hole-in-the-wall places out in Brooklyn.

JN: Who are some of the chefs from the ’90s that you mentioned?

MK: There are people who are doing different things now, like Patti Jackson who was a great pastry chef and now has a “Pennsylvania” restaurant [in Brooklyn], Delaware and Hudson. She spent a lot of time in Italy, and she’s old-school.

JN: What was it like working for Mario? On the one hand, I’m deeply grateful that here’s a guy who put in his time in Italy – he was there for a few years – in a very, serious small place where they’re rolling out pasta by hand. When he came back, there weren’t that many people doing that in New York. But on the other hand, there’s the phenomenon of the restaurant empire. I’m not sure why you have to open six restaurants.

MK: Money.

JN: Do you think it’s that simple?

MK: Yes, you can’t make money nowadays [any other way]. Even the people I told you that I admired have three or four restaurants, and they may open more. If you have children and a family, you can’t do that on one restaurant. I just spent a year working at Al Di La. I like the people there a lot, and they started out as pioneers in that neighborhood. There was nobody else in 1998 besides Mario serving rabbit, and tripe. They were really one of the first, and it was a destination to go there. As time went on, they had children. It runs like it did, it doesn’t change that much. I like places like that. Maybe they need a kick in the butt to modernize a little. But you know how things are going to be, and hopefully it’s consistently made. But Otto became less fun for me because, yes, everything became very corporate, and that’s not who I am. Even as a pastry chef, that’s the only way you can make a good salary – either to work at a really big place, or to run between three different restaurants. At some point, they wanted me to do that, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t have the energy to do that, or the desire, to be honest. I started at Otto when I was in my fifties and retired at 65. If you’re not a good corporate soldier, at some point you get relegated to the outside of things. My time there was over.

JN: Sure, I understand.

MK: But I miss the money and the traveling. I can’t afford to go to Italy anymore. You know who I really admire, who is not in New York? Le Vertu in Philadelphia. They get it, they really get it.

JN: Absolutely! And they picked a region, the Abruzzo, which is not as hot as Tuscany or Sicily or Rome right now.

MK: Yes, it’s a part of Italy I’ve always wanted to go to. When I grew up, one of my best friend’s family was from Abruzzo, and that was one of my first impressions of Italian food, eating with her family. The grandmother was roasting peppers in the cellar, and her grandfather was growing grapes and corn in this tiny bit of yard they had. They were very generous, and that impressed me. It was my first impression of Italian food.

JN: You’ve always worked at a restaurant for someone else, including the ten years at Otto. Why have you made the decision to always work for someone else, as opposed to, say, opening a gelateria of the highest quality?

MK: Financially, it’s a huge responsibility to have your own business. Ice cream is one of the least successful businesses, unless you’re on a boardwalk somewhere, and then you have to have cheap ice cream that kids are going to like. Or, you’re in somewhere that’s so cheap that you could be open half the year. Some people are encouraging me to move upstate and buy an old soft-serve place. I don’t come from a family with money; I need to have a salary. Maybe I’m just lazy and scared; I don’t know.

JN: I don’t think people understand how much of an undertaking it is, the capital investment, and so on.

MK: All of these places that are opening, a lot of them will be gone in a few years. You put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in a small business. A lot of my first jobs were at small restaurants, and I saw what the owners went through. That’s why I admire someone like Jody Williams so much. She works her butt off. She’s always in her place, she’s always making sure things are good. I saw other chefs who I just knew were tired of that – you know, of fixing the toilet at 2 in the morning, and all those little things. So, either you find really good people to manage things for you, or you do it yourself. It ain’t easy.

JN: You’ve spent pretty much your whole professional career in New York. You’ve been in the same neighborhood in SoHo, in the same apartment even, for forty years – is that right?

MK: Yes.

JN: So you have seen many sides of New York, many changes in New York, both in your neighborhood and in different boroughs over those forty years. Could you talk a little bit about New York as you knew it as a child, then as a young woman?

MK: I think the working class has been driven out of Manhattan, for sure. That’s what I used to like about the city, that it was a combination of all kinds of people. I liked the gritty part. I mean, you can romanticize the past, but I loved the street life that used to exist. It was much more exciting. I think everything is getting homogenized. There are tons of apartments where no one even lives, they are some kind of money-laundering I-don’t-even-know-what. Sullivan Street is still a great block, but on my block there used to be a cheesemaker, a butcher, a fish store, a candy store, a bakery. We still have the butcher, and everything else is gone. There are way too many restaurants in New York now. Nobody cooks at home. I love to cook at home; I go up to the Greenmarket. You see the proliferation of delivery food, and all that. It’s a different existence. I walked down by river and saw the park they built, and it’s beautiful. Some of the money isn’t entirely bad. There are also way more tourists than there used to be, and I wish they could go home and leave us alone a little bit. Especially SoHo; it just became a joke. SoHo [now] is a just place for flagship stores for rich European companies. I don’t know if anybody buys anything in those stores, but they’re full of tourists wandering around with their bored children. There’s nowhere to shop [for food]; you have to walk fourteen blocks if you want to get ingredients.

JN: What drove out those small businesses, like the cheesemaker? I think in most places, what drove them out was the supermarket opening in the suburbs that you can drive to easily — the Walmart, the Hope Depot. But in Manhattan, you don’t just hop in your car and drive two miles to Walmart; you would think that if those local businesses existed anywhere, it would be in these boroughs in New York. But even there, they’ve been driven out.

MK: It’s partly the rents going cuckoo. In the building I live in, there used to be working-class families, and now it’s a very transient population of people who come from, say, Brazil and work here for a few years and then go home, or younger students. The building I live in has a lot of really tiny apartments, and those have always been full of NYU students who stay for a few years and then leave. And they don’t cook! They just don’t cook, so there’s no demand. Also, the owners got older and they got tired. The guy at Joe’s Cheese, he took his mozzarella-making to New Jersey, and he couldn’t be happier. He does mainly a wholesale businesss, which is really where the money is now. It’s like ice cream, honestly: if you don’t develop a wholesale client, you’re not going to succeed. If you just rely on retail, unless you’re on the Jersey shore or something, you will not succeed, period. There’s more and more competition, there are new ice cream places opening every year.

JN: What part of New York did you grow up in?

MK: I grew up about 20 miles outside of New York, in a town called Mount Vernon. I was born in Washington Heights, but once my parents had me my mother got tired of climbing up four flights of steps with a baby. My parents were Bronx kids. Mount Vernon is really a working-class suburb, it’s not fancy, but to them it was something they aspired to.

JN: I imagine you visited Manhattan as a child; what were your first memories of it?

MK: I loved it. My father was an artist; he worked various jobs in Manhattan, so I used to go in town with him to his offices. I remember very vividly – I probably was 13 – we went to McDougal Street. That was 1963, and I thought, This is where I want to be.

JN: So it was love at first sight – you knew it?

MK: Yes, it was love at first sight. It was just the cusp of music becoming huge, and you just felt it. I started cutting school and going into New York as much as I could!

JN: This is a kind of hard question, maybe unanswerable: what you said about SoHo being kind of destroyed by tourism – I spent a lot of time in Italy, and even though I’m a tourist too –

MK: You can’t help it.

JN: You can’t help it – so you go to a place like Venice, which for probably nine months out of the year feels more like a theme park than a real place – it’s also been almost destroyed by tourism. What decisions can be made by a place that is interested in fighting that kind of destruction?

MK: I don’t know how it’s going to happen. Honestly, I think in somewhere like Italy it may be immigrants coming there who are doing very small, working-class things; it’s probably not going to be Italian anymore. It’s kind of a tragedy, but the town I lived in in Sicily was kind of a UNESCO town, and it was still really traditional and really nice. The church was a huge thing. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity. There are all those deserted towns in Italy; because they’re on top of a hill or something, it made them impractical places to be. You hear about the poverty people grew up with; it’s easy for us to romanticize it. People left because it was grinding poverty. Unless you have hungry people coming into those places, for whom it’s maybe better than the sub-Sahara, who may make something of that place – otherwise, everything else will become a theme park. I was lucky to be in Venice in January; it was quiet.

JN: I’m going to be in Venice in January as well, with some customers. We picked January for this very reason. What was it like then?

MK: Very mysterious. I used to – there’s a gelato trade show in Rimini. When I worked for Otto, I got them to let me go, and I would always go to other places within a train ride. It was great. I decided to go to Venice one time; I went to the fair and then took a train up to Venice and stayed for a few days. Like everybody else, I got lost and wandered around, stayed away from St. Mark’s square – somehow by luck avoided all that [tourism].

JN: Did you find any good gelato?

MK: I was actually more interested in the cicchetti bars; I was more interested in eating fish and drinking wine. Honestly, I don’t eat a lot of sweets. If I do, I’d rather make something like a good crostata – it’s my idea of heaven. I only went to one gelato place and it was nothing special; but it was also January.

JN: Are there other cities in Italy that you’re especially fond of?

MK: Well, because I lived in Sicily, we traveled to Catania and Syracusa. The market in Catania was just incredible. The man who ran our fellowship grew up around there; going to the market with him and actually buying food that we were going to cook is my idea of heaven. Whenever I travel now, I try and rent [a property], because as much as I like to go out to eat, I also always used to be frustrated by being in markets and not being able to buy things and cook them. So, that’s my happy place. I love Naples; I’ve traveled much more in southern Italy. I went to Lecce and worked at a cooking school for a week teaching the owner gelato. Lecce had some good gelaterias.

JN: Did Naples remind you a little of New York in its grittier days?

MK: Yes! I stayed in a gritty part where I would round a corner and think, I really shouldn’t be here, but I really loved it. That was what I always thought Italy would be like – Naples. It wasn’t really touristy, that much.

JN: Well, I think our time is up, unfortunately. Thanks so much for your time and insights.

MK: Thank you!