You’re probably wondering why the title of this post is named as such. I’ll tell you! I snuck off to San Francisco and while perusing the events at Omnivore books, I discovered Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome would be speaking as part of her book tour in the US! What luck, right?
The new book she was presenting was Eating My Way Through Italy and it concentrates her 30 years of exploring Italian regional foods into neat chapters divided by the regions she has closest connection with, including dining advice, recipes and resources. For those of you who don’t know (which I highly doubt) Elizabeth Minchili is an American in Rome holding a varied background with Italy over her life including having put down roots with an Italian husband, children and a doggie. She is revered and a respected authoritative voice on Italian cooking and Roman cuisine, and has varied resources for eating around Italy with her apps and popular food blog. Her daughter Sophie is carrying the gastronome torch and leads culinary tours through the eternal city. Ciao, Sophie!
Running into Rome in San Francisco! Auguri to Rome-based writer @eminchilli and her latest book on eating well (with personal stories, travel advice & regional recipes) through Italy- taken @omnivorebooks in San Francisco last week for her book presentation with chef @kcrwevan- love when worlds collide in such a way! ❤#EatItaly #Rome #Florence
I was stoked to see a familiar face in San Francisco, a charming city attempting to steal me away from Italy. To make matters more monumental, she was accompanied by chef pro Evan Kleiman- the host of the podcast Good Food on KCRW. She’s pretty much one of my food heroes and after chatting- she became even more so after learning of her vast experience in Italy.
The book gets into the granular details of Italian products adored worldwide, from tomatoes, cheese, olive oil and pasta. During the talk, Evan and Melissa had a bit of a debate over spaghetti vs bucatini. I’d agree to prefer spaghetti or spaghettone as Elizabeth made a good point- the hollow light shell of bucatini makes a floppy mess.
No food book on Italy would be accurate without a section on pasta, and I appreciated how she took a stand here to defend dry pasta and to dive deeper into the details and helping make readers more informed consumers. Overall, Elizabeth’s new book is accessible and useful for Italian culinary enthusiasts with tasteful touches of personal experience of life in Italy. We need more of that in the food world- so much out there is overwhelming or for unrealistic lifestyles.
This book was also a reminder to me how endless a rabbit hole Italian cuisine is and I can spend my whole life listening to the rumbles of Italy’s stomach, gleaning clues one hour to the next. I love Italy for many reasons, but one of the biggest ones is that a whole day can go by and seem like a month in terms of the lessons I learn. Italy humbles me and pushes me, and I’ll always be grateful for this.
If you’d allow me to insert a little bit of personal insight. I think one of the reasons people gravitate to stories like Elizabeth’s or mine, is because we chose a path of non-conformity. We took risks to plant a life in a different country- and this on the outside looks glamorous. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I want to move to Italy just like you did!”
In all honesty, while it looks *fun* to get up and move to Italy- it has come with some hefty fines. My personal life suffered in many ways. I took ridiculous risks and spent months struggling financially trying to figure out how I’d make it work. My first 8 months in Italy were crushing until I found a job- and even past then I struggled- I made a paltry Italian salary while wondering what the hell my future held.
Even after having jumped just the first hurdle to ensure my month to month survival- then I had to adjust to a totally different work culture and in Florence with particular codified hierarchal formalities. In Seattle, I earned considerable work experience. In Italy, I had to start all over again.
In Italian there is an expression “fare la gavetta” and in English we have “to climb the ladder,” which seems more based on meritocracy. I do not appreciate this term in Italian- to me sounds like to put in your dues in low level military ranks. I felt I had to start from the bottom even though I felt I already climbed ladders in the states.
I am glad where I have arrived now, but it was not exactly a cake walk. Even though many stress cakes were eaten along the way. And so I cringe every time someone says to me- despite the best of intentions- “I wanna move to Italy, eat pasta and drink wine all day!” On one level, I wonder if people really consider what it means to leave their communities behind to live in a totally different country with it’s own language, centuries-followed customs and a whole new system to navigate?
On another level, I wonder if this flippant idea about the ease of moving to Italy is propagated by bloggers like myself who perhaps aren’t being honest enough. It’s frowned upon to be anything but polite, pretty pictures on social media and always in positive tones, but if you wanted fluffy cotton candy- you’re in the wrong place.
Understandably few have sympathy for someone in my position since it’s easy to say “she’s living it up in Europe.” But for me, I worked for a University degree in Italian and followed an untamable urge to live in Italy- and I was determined to put my degree to good use. But most people didn’t understand my choice felt less like a choice but more like a life calling and necessity.
And the cons about life in Italy as a foreigner is not something superficial such as dealing with inefficiencies, appalling standards for customer service or general disorganization. We all know Italy is a hot bureaucratic telenovela, now!
The challenges in living in Italy- or any country not your own- are more personal, and come from the sheer psychological conflicts of being conditioned by a different culture then having to adapt to another. At times, Italy can feel like an isolating place for foreigners. And if you are living in Italy as a foreigner and not feeling the weight of these conflicts- you may want to ask if you’re actually living in Italy or have an incredible talent for being detached. Luckily, there is a supportive expat community who are lovely souls but my suggestion is to try to integrate and make local connections, not just staying in the expat circle comfort zones. Full disclosure: I resent the term expat!
Florence is a notoriously cards close to the chest kind of village. Breaking into the scene here is like cracking an iron wall. Living in a country like Italy has instilled in me a deeper empathy for immigrants- I imagine if I felt making it was difficult for me- privileged just by being a young American woman- how much more BS does everyone else has to deal with?
This post took a different turn. I meant to review Elizabeth’s book and share a recipe I was inspired to make from it, and update you a little bit on what I’m doing in San Francisco. Well, perhaps all this background info will help shine some insight on why I am here. I love Florence and utterly thankful of the harsh lessons she teaches me. But I also am craving a bit of my home culture, and to keep following my dreams and accept when some of them have run their course. It’s always been a dream of mine to live in San Francisco, and of course Italy. So why can’t I try and have them both?
I still consider myself in Florence, sorry chianti and finocchiona you’re stuck with me still. My tours and all that still run with or without my presence, as I have a tight crew of incredible professionals I’ve carefully trained who concur with my gourmet philosophy. And I’m working here too- focusing on my writing and other projects in the works I’ll update you on as soon as details firm up.
In terms of the pasta recipe Elizabeth Minchilli’s book inspired, I made a spaghetti using dry pasta from one of the brands she recommends: Rustichella d’Abruzzo. Her chapter on pasta was focused on Gragnano, a village in Campania who have a marked tradition with artisanal dry pasta making. She explains the importance of investing in high quality dried pasta, pointing out the little details which make the difference such as drying time and flour quality.
Organic pasta, while great to support organic agriculture, is not the only factor in supporting quality foods. A pasta from the grocery store, while organic, is probably still produced by industrial means affecting digestibility, nutritional value and overall taste. And to insert my 2 cents on organic- it’s not the end all. An organic pasta product can still have industrial produced flours sourced from various countries.
I wanted to make Elizabeth’s Spaghettone al Pomodoro (fat spaghetti in a tomato sauce) but spaghettone seems a bit difficult to find in my neighborhood, but I did find Rustichella’s spaghetti made with ancient grains. This post is getting a bit long otherwise I’d go into why ancient grains aren’t just a buzzword but a nutritionally superior product.
As California bounty would have it, my fridge was full of fresh summer vegetables like zucchini and heirloom tomatoes I picked up from the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. So I made one of my favorite sauces I usually top on brown rice, whole wheat couscous or quinoa during my healthyish eating days.
For this summery zucchini tomato sauce- it’s real simple: chop some garlic (onion or spring onion if you’re not kissin’ anyone later) olives, capers (optional if you love salty brine) and fry a bit in olive oil with some chili pepper flakes for a couple minutes, add a splash of wine if you’d like also to help prevent garlic from burning. Then add thinly sliced zucchini, chopped tomato and cook down- it’s ready when it tastes delicious. I boil pasta in salted water and when the pasta is about 3-5 minutes from being al dente, I add a ladleful of pasta water to the veg saucepan and add the pasta and toss/jump and allow the pasta cooking to finish in the pan with the vegetable sughetto (sauce/sugo). At the last minute add some chopped basil and toss for aromatic finishing. Plate, shower on some parmigiano reggiano. Elizabeth reviews parmigiano-reggiano in her book, too and once you read it you’ll see why I refuse to use the term “parmesan.”
To be honest, this was tasty but would have been so much more satisfying had I been able to find spaghettone or even pici. In San Fran there are Italian delis but just not in walking distance of my ‘hood.
If you have any questions for quantity or actually would like this somewhat healthy pasta recipe- let me know!
I’ll be posting more often, or at least I’ll try. My current mantra is be easy on ourselves and do the best we can. Take care of yourselves and know we are loved and this planet is a powerful place.
I’ll be scoping out the Italian food and wine scene in San Francisco, and I post more regularly on instagram if you’d like some bay area dining/drinking intel from my POV. If you have suggestions/tips- do tell!
In your Italian eating trust,