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The Next Big Thing: Eating Italy

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

I bumped into my friend Joe Yonan a few weeks ago at The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference. But we didn’t get to talk shop. We didn’t sit down over a taco or take a city stroll to discuss the cookbooks we’re working on. So Joe tagged me in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop, a fun Q&A that’s like a writer’s game of tag. Read Joe’s post to see who was “it” before him. At the end of this post, find out who’s it next. Spin the wheel! Where it stops, nobody knows!

What’s the title of your next book?
The title is Eating Italy. We’re still haggling over the subtitle. Jeff Michaud and I like “A Road Trip for Food Lovers” but the publisher likes “A Culinary Adventure Through Italy’s Best Meals.” We have to decide soon because the book is out this Fall (2013) from Running Press.

Jeff Michaud at his in-laws in northern Italy

Jeff Michaud at his in-law's house in northern Italy

Where did the idea come from?
The initial idea came from Jeff Michaud, the James Beard award-winning chef at Osteria in Philadelphia. He thought his culinary romance in Italy would make a good read. And he has tons of great recipes. I came up with the title. It was inspired by Eataly, the high-end Italian food emporium that opened in Torino in 2007 (three years before the New York outpost).

So it’s a cookbook?
Yup. But it’s not a restaurant book. Some of the recipes are cheffy but others are casual weeknight dishes. For example, it takes three days to laminate the dough for Fig Strudel, but you can turn out Zucchini Flowers Stuffed with Ricotta and Tuna on a busy Wednesday night. Jeff’s cooking mirrors both his professional training and his family’s home cooking. His new family, that is. The family he married into in Italy.

He got married in Italy? What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?
A cookbook and coming-of-age story in which a young chef falls in love with a country, a cuisine, and a woman.

How did the ghostwriting actually work?
Basically, it’s Jeff’s story and Jeff’s food. I just put everything into words. Which is no small feat. It’s sort of like acting. To rehearse my part, we went to Italy. I visited all the restaurants where Jeff cooked and cities where he had formative experiences (the book is organized by city). Jeff and I also cooked and talked in person, by phone, and over the Web to discuss everything about his life, culinary philosophy, and food. For the better part of a year, I got to live and write vicariously as someone else.

It took a year to write the book?

Are the recipes tested?
I personally tested all 125 recipes in the book. Check #eatingitaly on Instagram for iPhone pics.

What’s the coolest recipe?
Tough question. One of my favorites is the Whole Roasted Pig’s Head. My 10-year-old son ate the eyeballs! I also like the Pear and Treviso Salad with Taleggio Dressing. It’s a cool combination of flavors and textures. And using taleggio cheese in a creamy dressing is just badass. Oh, and the Bonet. Holy shit is that good. It’s a rich, chocolate rum custard with a soft crust of crushed amaretti cookies and built-in sauce of dark, syrupy crème caramel. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Bonet - a traditional dessert from PIemonte (forgive the sub-par iPhone capture)

Bonet - a traditional dessert from Piemonte (forgive the sub-par iPhone capture)

Did you learn anything by writing the book?
I learned that it’s really creepy for a ghostwriter to write a sex scene. I also tested dozens of ravioli recipes and got pretty good at making homemade pasta.

Testing the recipe for potato gnocchi

Testing the recipe for potato gnocchi

Whoa – there’s a sex scene?
Well, it is partly a love story, after all. Every recipe chapter is set in a different city and opens with a continuation of the story. Here’s the opening scene of chapter three (not the sex scene), “Cene and Fiobbio: Farm to Table…Fifty Feet”

Our toes met under the table. Matteo and Claudia’s friends were drinking and laughing at the other end of the table. They seemed miles away. We were at The Tucans, an Irish bar just down the street from Piazza Vecchia, the main square of Bergamo’s medieval-looking old city on the hill. Claudia and I could barely communicate because I didn’t know much Italian and she didn’t know English, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her olive-brown skin. We sipped Scotch across from each other and slipped off our shoes. She seemed to like me.

If the book became a movie, which actors would play the characters?
I would say Matt Damon to play Jeff Michaud, but Matt’s become too brutish as Jason Bourne in the spy-movie series. So I’m thinking…Chris Pine. And for Claudia…Sofía Vergara.

What else about this book might pique a reader’s interest?

Besides the love story, there’s a lot of food porn. Here’s a tease from “Alba: If You Can’t Smell The Truffles, You Must Be Dead”

Earthy, rich hazelnuts from Piemonte. Coarse ground polenta from Lombardia. Dark roasted coffee from Sicilia. Bracing black licorice from Puglia. At the Slow Food festival in Torino, every region of Italy has its own section. It’s like an Italian version of Disney’s Epcot Center but light-years better with food producers who actually live and work in that region. Claudia schooled me in each region. “Taste this,” she said holding out a slab of glistening, fatty porchetta from Lazio. And later a shard of savory pecorino from Sardinia. And then a sip of Jermann’s Vintage Tunina, a golden, honey-scented wine from Fruili. She wanted me to taste how Sardinian pecorino is less salty than Pecorino Romano. How olive oils from different parts of the country have completely different aromas.

Any other good snippets you can share?

Here’s part of “Barolo and Barbaresco: I Can’t See Through This Fog”

When you make a lunch reservation at Da Cesare, that could mean anywhere from noon to 3pm. He cooks when you show up. There is no menu because it changes every day. Except for the capretto and zabaione. Cesare always spit-roasts a baby goat over a wood fire outside the kitchen. And he always serves zabaione tableside from a big copper bowl with his famous hazelnut cookies, baked and served right in the hazelnut shells. I’ve tried to make those cookies a hundred times and still can’t get them right.

That fall, he started us off with his signature porcini and white peaches, thinly sliced and sautéed with a pan sauce of chicken stock, sherry vinegar, and cream. Next came a warm salad of duck breast with orange vinaigrette and local lettuces. Claudia licked her fork, and I could hear Cesare chopping the goat on his butcher block. The meat came to the table crispy but tender and drizzled only with herbed olive oil.

Spit-roasted goat at Da Cesare

Spit-roasted goat at Da Cesare

Yum. Is the book laminated to make it drool proof?

Good idea!

What else can you tell us about the book?

Well, it’s full recipes for what some call the world’s healthiest food. Check out this recent New York Times article on how the Mediterranean diet helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Ok, it’s time to tag some other authors. The Next Big Thing Blog Hop started with fiction writers, moved on to cookbook authors, and now includes a fitness writer. Check out what’s next from:

Selene Yeager, Bicycling magazine’s Fit Chick, author of Ride Your Way Lean, and one of my favorite ride buddies.

Raghavan Iyer, the emperor of Indian cooking, and author of 660 Curries, The Turmeric Trail, and Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking.

Mark Bitterman, salt evangelist, chocolate connoisseur, and author of Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes.

Stephanie Stiavetti, media maven, cookbook author, and sharp-witted food writer featured on NPR, The Huffington Post, Serious Eats, Culinate and more.

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