A Blissful Feast: Celebrations of Family, Food, and History

“In our culture we have lost our connection to cooking,” says Teresa Lust, author of  A Blissful Feast, Culinary Adventures in Italy’s Piedmont, Maremma, and Le Marche ( Pegasus Books 2020; $19.19 Amazon hardcover price), The Readable Feast’s 2020 winner for Best Food Memoir.

Teresa Lust

Lust, who teaches Italian at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire and also cooking classes, grew up in an Italian-American family, learning to cook from her mother and grandmother whose recipes were written by hand on little notecards. Wanting to discover and delve into Italian cuisine because of its meaning to her, she learned to speak Italian and traveled through the country of her ancestors.

“I wanted to see and feel the connections to the traditions and geography of the regions,” says Lust, whose previous book,  Pass the Polenta: and Other Writings from the Kitchen, was praised by Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and Julia Child.

Going deep, she visits relatives and meets the people of the regions’ small towns, going into their kitchens to watch as they prepare food. It’s a constant learning process about the intricacies not only of the broad regional cookery of Italy that many of us are familiar with—that of Florence, Naples, or Sicily but of such places as Maremma, an area in western central Italy bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea and Le Marche, a region sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Mountains.

“Italian food is very regional, and even in the regions its broken down by cities, and then gets smaller and smaller until each dish is an expression of oneself and it can be an affront and violation if others add ingredients or make changes,” she says. “There’s an integrity to the dish.”

It’s not the way we think of food here. Indeed, to me a recipe is to be altered by ingredients I have on hand so the idea of not changing is a thoughtful concept, one that I will think about. But then again, I’m not making family recipes dating back centuries and besides, old habits die hard. 

In Camerano, a town in Le Marche, an 80-year-old woman shows Lust how to hand-roll pasta with a three-foot rolling pin. In Manciano, she masters making Schiacciata  All’Uva, a grape flatbread with honey and rosemary that back home in New Hampshire takes her two days to complete.

But, Lust says, you only spend a few minutes in active work as if it were as easy as popping a frozen dinner into a microwave.

Intrigued by the food philosophy of the people she cooks with, she goes beyond recipe and its ingredients to their history and what they represent.

Acquacotta—such a beautiful word and beautiful dish–but then you find  out what it really means–cooked water and that it was born out of poverty made by people who had nothing,” Lust tells me when we chat on the phone.

In her description, acquacotta is a rustic soup that nourished generations of the area’s shepherds and cowhands. It’s her way of adding poetry to food and to people who take such pride in what they cook.

Lust includes recipes in her book, but this is not a glossy cookbook, but rather a lovely and thoughtful journey of rediscovering roots and meaning.

The two of us discuss growing up with ethnic relatives and how important the culture of the table was for us when young.  It does seem to be something that is missing from our daily lives and Lust is hoping to reconnect people to food and help them see the importance of  taking the time to bring friends and family to the table to enjoy a meal.

In the cooking classes she teaches she demonstrates how to make Italian food  and encourages participants to talk to her in Italian. She feels that she is helping forge an important connection that way.

“I have people contact me through the website who said they tried the gnocchi and though they never thought they could make it, they found it was easy for them,” she says with a touch of pride.

For more, visit www.teresalust.com

The Italian Table: Creating Festive Meals for Family & Friends

Elizabeth Minchilli, who has lived in Italy for a quarter of a century, has created a way for all of us to experience certain special food events that comprise the country’s heritage in much the same way as their monuments (think The Colosseum, St. Peter’s and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) are must-sees for visitors. She shows us how, in her latest cookbook, The Italian Table: Creating Festive Meals for Family and Friends, to completely replicate such Italian food culture in such chapters as a Sunday Lunch in Email-Romagna, Farm to Sicilian Table, Panini Party in Umbria and A Table by the Sea in Positano. Because Minchilli’s background and interests are not only culinary but also envelope style and architecture, she tells us not only what to drink and eat but also how to create the tablescape as well.  

As an example, her Pizza by the Slice in Rome meal calls for “for the authentic pizzeria al taglia vibe, use plastic or—more sustainable—paper.”

              Minchilli, who is from St. Louis, Missouri but moved to Rome with her parents when she was 12, developed such a passion for the all things Italy (she even married an Italian man) and in her words, had an Italian baby, an Italian house and an Italian dog.

              “That was after I returned as a graduate student to study Renaissance garden architecture in Florence,” says Minchilli when I talk to her using Skype as she was at her home in Rome.

             I discover, as we talk, that I already have one of her books, a luscious tome titled Villas on the Lakes that someone had given me years ago and which I still leaf through to marvel at all the wonderful photos. Minchilli is one of those people who seems to do it all, she’s written nine books including Restoring a Home in Italy, takes all her own photos, writes an award winning website, elizabethminchilli.com, developed her Eat Italy app and offers food tours to behind the scenes culinary destinations as well as posting on You Tube and other social media.

              She tells me that her love for food began when she was given one of those easy-bake ovens when she was a kid.

              “I became the cook of the family,” she says, though she obviously she’s moved way beyond a toy where the oven is heated by a light bulb.

              The Italian Table is her ninth book.

              “I’m really happy about it,” says Minchilli. “This is really the book where I can bring everything together—the food, the people who make the plates, what is surrounding us, the whole experience.”

              She was motivated to write the book after being questioned countless about how Italian food and dining. To showcase that, she decided on highlight 12 different dinners and photograph and write about them in real time—as they were being planned, cooked and served.

              “I wanted people to know how Italians really eat and I decided to do that by meals in different areas and then narrowed it down by going deeper into how it all comes together,” she says. “I set it up so you can go through the cookbook and decide what you like.”

              She’s also included a time table, what to do, depending upon the dinner, two days before, one day before, two hours before, one hour before and when your guests arrive. And there are ways to lessen the cooking load for the more intensive and elaborate dinners.

              “Food is about being social and sharing,” Minchilli tells me. “A lot of people are scared to have people over and so I wanted to take fear out of the equation. That’s why I give people a game plan by telling people when to shop, when they should set the table and also how far ahead to do things so that there’s less to do at the last minute. It reduces the stress and fear and makes it more approachable.”

Food of the Italian South by Katie Parla



U Pan Cuott. Photo credit Ed Anderson.

It’s personal for Katie Parla, award winning cookbook author, travel guide and food blogger who now has turned her passion for all things Italian to the off-the-beaten paths of Southern Italy, with its small villages, endless coastline, vast pastures and rolling hills.
“Three of my grandmother’s four grandparents are from Spinoso, deep in a remote center of Basilicata,” says Parla, the author of the just released Food of the Italian South: Recipes for Classic, Disappearing Lost Dishes (Clarkson Potter 2019; $30).

Katie Parla in Southern Italy. Photo credit Ed Anderson.


Parla is a journalist but she’s also a culinary sleuth, eager to learn all about foodways as well as to chronicle and save dishes that are quickly disappearing from modern Italian tables. She’s lived in Rome since graduating with a degree from Yale in art history and her first cookbook was the IACP award winning Tasting Rome. She’s also so immersed herself in Italian cuisine that after moving to Rome, she earned a master’s degree in Italian Gastronomic Culture from the Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”, a sommelier certificate from the Federazione Italiana Sommelier Albergatori Ristoratori, and an archeological speleology certification from the city of Rome.



Matera. Photo credit Ed Anderson.


In tiny Spinoso, Parla and her mother checked into one of the few available rooms for rent and went to office of vital statistics to find out more about family history.
“We made the mistake of getting there before lunch,” she says. “You could tell they really want to go home and eat. They told us there were only four or five last names in the village and since ours wasn’t one of them, then we couldn’t be there.”



Caiazzo. Photo credit Ed Anderson.


But Parla found that sharing wine with the officers soon produced friendlier results (“wine and food always does that in Italy,” she says) and after leafing through dusty, oversized ledgers written in fading, neat cursive they were able to locate the tiny house where her grandfather had lived as well as other extensive family history.
“Thank goodness for Napoleon, who was really into record keeping, no matter his other faults” says Parla.

Katie Parla. Photo credit Ed Anderson.


Many of her ancestors were sheepherders, tending sheep, staying with a flock for a week in exchange for a loaf of bread. This poverty was one reason so many Southern Italians left for America. But it also is the basis for their pasta and bread heavy cuisine says Parla.
To capture the flavors of this pastoral area, Parla visited restaurants and kitchens, asking questions and writing down recipes which had evolved over the centuries from oral traditions.
Describing Rome, Venice and Florence as “insanely packed,” Parla believes that those looking for a less traveled road will love Southern Italy, an ultra-authentic region to the extent that in Cilento, for example, there are more cars than people on the road.




Spezzatino all Uva . Photo credit Ed Anderson.


“There’s all this amazing food,” she says. “But also, there’s all this unspoiled beauty such as the interior of Basilicata. And the emptiness, because so many people are gone, creates this sense of haunted mystery. It’s so special, I want people to understand the food and to visit if they can.”
For more information, visit katieparla.com


’U Pan’ Cuott’
Baked Bread and Provolone Casserole

Serves 4 to 6
1 pound day-old durum wheat bread (I like Matera-style; see page 198), torn into bite-size pieces
3 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
7 ounces provolone cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon peperoni cruschi powder or sweet paprika
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon peperoncino or red pepper flakes
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt

Overview:
In Bernalda, a town in Basilicata best known as the ancestral village of Francis Ford Coppola, there are many ancient bread traditions. The town isn’t far from the durum wheat fields of the Murgia plateau and the famous bread towns Matera and Altamura. One of the town’s classic dishes is ’u pan’ cuott’ (Bernaldese dialect for pane cotto, “cooked bread”). Families would bake stale slices of Bernalda’s enormous 3-kilogram loaves with whatever food scraps they could find, resulting in a savory, delicious bread casserole bound by gooey bits of melted provolone. Use the crustiest durum bread you can find or bake.
Method:
Preheat the oven to 475°F with a rack in the center position.
Place the bread in a colander, rinse with warm water, and set aside to soften. The bread should be moistened but not sopping wet.
In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, provolone, peperoni cruschi, garlic, oregano, peperoncino, and ¼ cup of the olive oil. Season with salt.
When the bread crusts have softened, squeeze out any excess liquid and add the bread to the bowl with the tomato mixture. Stir to combine.
Grease a baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, pour in the tomato mixture, and drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil on top. Bake until the top is heavily browned, and the provolone has melted, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.
Spezzatino all’Uva
Pork Cooked with Grapes

Serves 6 to 8
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, salted and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 cup dry red wine (I like Aglianico del Vulture)
2 bay leaves
4 cups pork stock or water
1 bunch of red grapes (I like Tintilia grapes), halved and seeded

Overview:
The foothills east of the Apennines in Molise grow Tintilia, an indigenous red grape known for its low yield and pleasant notes of red fruit and spices. Each year, the majority of the harvested grapes are pressed to make wine, with the remainder reserved for jams and even savory dishes like this pork and grape stew, which is only made at harvest time. The slight sweetness of the grapes mingles beautifully with the savory pork and herbaceous notes of the bay leaves. Salt the pork 24 hours in advance.
Method:
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the pork, working in batches as needed, and cook, turning, until it is browned on all sides, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove the pork and set aside on a plate.
Reduce the heat to low. Add the garlic and cook until just golden, about 5 minutes. Add the wine, increase the heat to medium, and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When the alcohol aroma dissipates and the liquid has nearly evaporated, about 2 minutes, add the bay leaves.
Return the pork to the pan. Add enough stock so the meat is mostly submerged and season with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1½ hours more, until the pork is fork-tender. Add the grapes at the 1 ¼ hour mark and continue cooking until they are tender. If the sauce becomes too dry, add a bit more stock (you may not need all the stock). Serve immediately. 
Ifyougo:
What: Katie Parla has three events in Chicago
When & Where: March 19 from 6:30 to 9pm. Katie will be celebrating the release of her cookbook with her friends at Monteverde, 1020 West Madison Street, Chicago, IL. The cost of the dinner is $150 including food, wine pairings, tax, gratuity and copy of the book. (312) 888-3041.
When & Where: March 20 from 6 to 9pm. Katie will be hosting an aperitivo and signing at Lost Lake’s Stranger in Paradise, 3154 W Diversey Ave., Chicago, IL. No booking necessary, just come on down. Books will be sold on site by Book Cellar. (773) 293-6048.
Menu of five cocktails from the book, $12.
Three small plates (two pastas from Pastificio di Martino and olive oil poached tuna, endive and olives) from Chef Fred Noinaj, $12-15.
When & Where: March 21 from 6 to 7:30pm. Katie will host an aperitivo and sign books, which will be available for purchase at Bonci Wicker Park, 1566 N Damen Ave., Chicago, IL. (872) 829-3144.

Fabio Viviani: Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian

“Good cooking and a lot of flavor don’t have to take a lot of time,” says Fabio Viviani, chef, restauranteur and TV personality, explaining why he wrote Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian (St. Martin’s 2017; $27.99), his beautifully photographed cookbook filled with wonderfully accessible recipes. “The whole premise is easy.”

Viviani, who grew up in Florence, Italy, started working in a bakery when he was 11 not so much from a love of food but because he needed to work to help out his family. But labor developed into a passion. Now 28 years later, he’s amassed a food empire with two California vineyards, several cookbooks, stints on several Top Chef show (he won Fan Favorite on Season Five), restaurants including two in Chicago—Siena Tavern and Prime & Provisions and his Mercado concept, described as a “rustic-yet refined eatery destination by celebrity chef Fabio Viviani” with locations that include Chicago, Tempe, Arizona and Benton Harbor, Michigan.

He also currently has a weekly web series, “Fabio’s Kitchen” and is doing “Dinner is Served,” an online video series

With such a busy schedule, I wonder if he ever gets tired of cooking.

“I like it,” he says, “sometimes I don’t. It’s like a marriage, you yell at each other and then you go back to it.”

Asked what recipes he might recommend for those who haven’t cooked Italian before, Viviani recommends the chapters on pasta and salads because they have, for the most part particularly if you don’t make your pasta from scratch, “have less ingredients and take less time.”

Noting that his Italian heritage taught him less is more, Viviani says “you don’t have to overdo it to put really good food on the table.”

Ifyougo:

What: Fabio will be doing a presentation, cooking demo, Q&A, & cookbook signing.

When: Tuesday, May 16 at

Where: Snaidero Showroom, 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza, Chicago, IL

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