It started, like our previous deep dives into Japan and Spain, with two words: Dear Tony. Read the correspondence.
Anthony Bourdain has been a part of R&K from the beginning—first as an inspiration, and more recently as a partner, a friend, and publisher. As we mourn the loss of a giant, we have this to offer as a tribute: a deep dive into a country that meant so much to Tony in the last few years. These emails between Tony and Matt Goulding, Tony’s partner at Roads & Kingdoms and the author of this book, show how Tony felt about telling the story of Italy, its food and the people who make them—and how this book ultimately came to be.
I’m in a tough spot. Of all the people I know, I’m guessing you’re the one who will best appreciate my predicament. I write to you from Savigno, just outside Bologna, a town surrounded by sweet pignoletto vines and truffle-studded forests. Today is Easter, a day of liberation for the Italians, and splayed before me are the bones of half a dozen courses: ragù streaks, gnawed lamb ribs, pistachio dust. My blood runs with a mix of rendered pork fat and bitter spirits, six months in the underbelly of Italy’s food world hitting me down to the marrow. But it’s not my lipid profile I worry about; it’s the table full of grandmas and couples and new friends around me. Let me explain.
When I first left New York in 2010 in search of a new start, I set my coordinates for Emilia Romagna. There I would find a hilltop town, not unlike Savigno, powered by egg-rich pastas and slow-simmered sauces and single women with a penchant for lost Americans. Only a stopover in Barcelona and a fateful cerveza with a young Catalan I now call my wife kept me from my al dente destiny.
Granted, my vision was far from original. Most of the world dreams of Italy—of the pinup landscape porn, the cumulus clouds of cappuccino foam, the meals that stretch on like radioactive sunsets. It was those same dreams that drove me back here, that have me itching to capture this magic on the page. But lately, I’ve been having nightmares about Italy. Nightmares about what the Italians will think about another foreigner’s take on their traditions.
Nightmares about getting it wrong—about mistaking parmesan for pecorino, pancetta for guanciale, spaghettini for spaghettoni. I don’t mean nightmares in the figurative sense; I mean nightmares in the cold-sweat-and-sleepless-nights sense.
Nobody takes food more seriously than the Italians. I’ve seen family feuds break out over pasta shapes and grape varietals. No doubt you’ve been caught in the crossfire before. But these aren’t the petty beefs of food snobs—these cut to the core of what it means to be Italian. More than anywhere else in the world, food carries the full weight of Italy’s heritage: the pains and joys of its history, the depth of its ingenuity. Politicians are corrupt, democracy is fragile, borders are porous, but la cucina italiana is eternal.
At the end of the day, these are the people I want to surround myself with—the type that won’t hesitate to spit in my vino if I ask for parmesan with my spaghetti alle vongole. But they are also the ones I fear I will inevitably disappoint.
Does the world need another book about Italian food?
Am I walking into a trap?
The path you have chosen is indeed fraught with peril. The overwhelming instinct of ItaloPhiles like you and I is to romanticize, over sentimentalize and generally follow the well-worn tradition of soft-edged food porn when writing about Italy.
What is charming to us is often a frustration and even an affliction to Italians. The same political and cultural paralysis that keeps this beautiful collection of city states “real” also traps its citizens in a reality that often approaches the tragically surreal.
But one can be forgiven, I hope, for finding great joy, even epiphany in a bowl of pasta vongole (though not with cheese), a bottle of rustic wine, the simple things that seem the birthright of the average Italian.
Careening through Rome, late at night in a taxi, half-swacked on negronis, listening to Mina, remains magic. To lay eyes on a bowl of cacio e pepe, a plate of trippa, agnolotti, urchins in season, porchetta… that’s some powerful shit.
The mysteries of Italian parking, slang, law enforcement, hand gestures, dress, family relationships, superstitions, dialectal differences, slang, physical contact are unknowable yet enticing in that unknowability.
I’m still trying to figure it all out. It sounds like you are, too.
I will leave the mysteries of law enforcement and hand gestures to the locals, though I’ve been on the receiving end of both throughout my time here. But I have been trying to solve a few mysteries of the kitchen, namely what makes Italian food so damn delicious.
A wise man in Kyoto once told me: Western cuisine is about addition; Japanese cuisine is about subtraction. But I think he overlooked a kinship between Japanese and Italian cooking—both built around exquisite product, both guided by a type of magical math best described as addition by subtraction: 3- 1 = 4.
And like Japanese cuisine, Italian food is driven by a set of rules and beliefs established over hundreds if not thousands of years, and embraced by a citizenry that largely rejects the notion of people fucking with their food. But Italian cuisine is not a statue in a museum; it’s not some intractable monument to the past. It lives and breathes and bleeds like any good culture does.
I thought I could come here, eat a ton of tagliatelle, soak my bones in vino, and pay gentle tribute to the traditions of this wondrous place. I thought I would write a book about nonna, but everywhere I turn, I find granddaughters and grandsons writing the next chapter in their family history: three young brothers in Puglia expanding the essence of mozzarella and burrata in a deeply conservative culinary corner of Italy; a father-daughter team in the Piedmont who cast off the yoke of Barolo’s staid history to produce some of the most poetic and controversial wines in the world; a class of next-generation pizzaioli in Naples wood-firing a path to a new understanding of the planet’s most popular food.
In the end, it’s not a book about grandmas and their sacred family recipes (though they have a few delicious cameos); it’s a book about a wave of cooks, farmers, bakers, shepherds, young and old, trying to negotiate the weight of the past with the possibilities of the future.
I know how you feel about Italian cuisine. I know you don’t want some young hotshot turning pasta carbonara into performance art. You don’t want your cappuccino with condescension.
I’m with you. But after a few hundred meals here, I’m starting to see just how important this chapter is in the story of Italian cuisine, and I think it might make a worthy addition to this little series we have working.
What do you think?
My response to you–and this sort of improvisation, innovation, expansion on traditional Italian regional specialties is entirely emotional—is a blind, unthinking, instinctive hostility. I hate it. I hate the thought. I am a curmudgeon when it comes to all things Italian.
I do not doubt—in fact I know and have experienced—delicious new takes on pizza, even that beloved carbonara. It is possible. It is, I guess, only right, that new generations of Italian chefs are flexing their creative minds and their skills in the interest of moving things forward.
But I hate the idea in a way that only a non-Italian, newly besotted with an overly romantic view of that country can be. Italians complain that their country doesn’t work, that it is stuck, mired in the corruption and incompetence and antiquated attitudes of another time—that nothing ever changes. Which is exactly what I love in so many ways about the country. That state of paralysis. If it worked, it would change. And I don’t want it to change.
I go to a place in Rome every time I’m there. And there’s another place in Turin. The waiters are the same as they were twenty years ago. The owner who buzzes you in the locked door is the same. The menu is tiny (when there is one) and that never changes either. Simple. Unpretentious. Handmade pastas, a few simple sauces. Polpette. Constant. A true friend.
To me, after 30 years of cooking, of garnishing, of torturing and manipulating food into being pretty enough or “interesting” enough to sell to an ever fickle dining public, another two decades of experiencing every type of culinary genius or frippery, there is deep, deep satisfaction and joy in food made with enough confidence and love to take three or four good ingredients, cook them right, and dump them unceremoniously on a plate. Better yet if the cook feels good enough about the food to serve it with a rough, not particularly good local wine.
That makes me happy.
You are right, there is something almost Japanese about Italian food at its best. But Italian food is much, much more emotional. One should experience it like a child, never like a critic, never analytically.
I am hopelessly compromised on this issue.
It is personal for me.
I cannot be trusted.
But I am right.
Still, if you ignore my advice and write this book anyway, I’ll read it. If it’s good, I might even publish it.