Monthly Archives: February 2019

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure by Andrew Cotto

Andrew Cotto, author of three novels and numerous magazine and newspaper articles, lives real life in Brooklyn, but dreams of Italy ever since a life-changing year in a Tuscan village over fifteen years ago. The experience, especially the wine and food, finds its way into the pages of his new novel, Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure.

Many Americans dream of living for a year or two in Italy, but you actually did it. Over fifteen years ago, you and your wife and your eighteen-month-old daughter pulled up roots in New York and moved to Tuscany for a year. How did you make that happen when so many people don’t?

Good question. It must have been a combination of youthful indiscretion (we were in our early-30s at the time) and a burning desire to do something different. In reality, the move was part of my transition from the corporate world to that of writing/teaching, so there was going to be some limbo time while I wrote and planned…Why not spend it in Italy?

The “barn” in Antella where Andrew and his family lived for a year.

Your new novel, Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure, is set in the same small Tuscan town where your family lived during that year in Italy. Besides the setting and the food, how did your experiences in Antella, near Florence, find life in your novel?

Besides the setting and the food (which the novel makes clear are very important to me), the best thing about Antella was its representation of everyday life in Italy. There were no tourists (besides us!) and, therefore, a quaint rhythm that we loved. We spent a lot of time just hanging around the piazza or the café; I regularly visited the butcher (who quickly became a dear friend and ambassador) and the fruit/vegetable stand, the groceria and gelateria…Just immersing in a traditional community without the trappings and burdens of tourism was very special. We made friends that we keep till this day, and I paid homage to their lifestyle in the novel (even using actual characters, such as the butcher). It’s intended to juxtapose with life in America, in general, and New York City, in particular.

The title of your book and the wild boar cavorting on the cover imply that Italian food is another character in the story. It that true? And specifically, how does cinghiale (wild boar) figure in the plot?

Yes, it is so true! Food and setting are characters in this book, and the food in particular plays a very important function as it doesn’t just provide the characters (particularly the protagonist, Jacoby, who has a “golden palate”) with sustenance and pleasure, but also a real sense of wellness. It is eating well (and drinking well, I should add, as there’s lots of wine consumed) that validates the everyday beauty of being alive. This is somewhat grandiose sounding, I know, but I believe it to be true and something so often overlooked.

As far as the cinghiale goes, you’ll have to read the book to discover the very important role a particularly malevolent and large one plays in the plot. I’ll give you a hint: It’s very “barn to table.”

What are the best aspects of being an American living in Italy? What are the worst aspects of being an American living in Italy?

Beyond the obvious aspects of eating/drinking amongst natural beauty and human achievement, I love being an American in Italy because it’s liberating. There are no civic obligations, no need to follow the news or current affairs. My Italian is functional, but I can easily tune out any conversation and therefore not be privy to conversations others are having (all I hear is lovely language exchanged). I don’t worry about the day to day minutia that complicates life when one is at home and in the grind. This is a big part of the book where Jacoby wants to be an “American Italian” – an identity, I guess, slightly less official than an ex-pat.

I know this is contradictory, but the hard part is being removed from America, as there is – for me, at least – a need to follow what’s happening at home, if even only tangentially at times. I love America and so want to be part of that whole “more perfect union” prospect.

Andrew Cotto in Italy

How did your year in Italy change the trajectory of your life? Or did it?

As noted, I was transitioning careers, so my life was going to change at that point whether I spent it in Italy or not, but – that said – the experience of living, really living, somewhere else inspired a great appreciation of place and how the “where & when” of our existence has such an impact on our lives. I take this knowledge into the classrooms where I teach and the narratives I create. Obviously, my love of food and wine, also, increased dramatically, and this informs my life everyday as does the knowledge that there is a place on earth that I get to dream about regularly and visit fairly often.

What question do you wish people would ask about Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure?

It’s a tie between:

Where will the sequel take place?

Who will play Jacoby in the movie?

(TuscanTraveler should have asked Andrew to answer his own questions…)

Finding the Foods You Miss After Leaving Italy

To many of us who had the fortunate experience of living for years in Italy, we miss many things when we return to our home countries. For me the list is long and populated with the foods I despaired at finding on this continent. But I was wrong.

Burrata

Mozzarella in the U.S. is notoriously rubbery and tasteless. Burrata, the most decadent of all mozzarella cheeses, must be eaten fresh and doesn’t travel well from Italy

Burrata is a little mozzarella sack filled with creamy goodness. It’s made from fresh cow’s milk (Of course, I also love the version using the milk of water buffalos, but the breed is rare in the U.S. I wrote about mozzarella di bufala here and here.). The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains stracciatella(“rags” of mozzarella) and cream, giving it an incredible rich, soft, creamy texture.

But then I discovered BelGioioso Burrata at Whole Foods. Of course, the company has deep roots in Italy. The BelGioioso story began over a century ago when the great-grandfather of the current BelGioioso President, Errico Auricchio, founded a cheese company near Naples. In 1979, Errico moved his family from Italy to America with the goal of continuing his great-grandfather’s legacy. He wanted to craft the best Italian cheeses in the United States.

When Errico came to America, he scoured the United States in search of the highest quality milk to begin his goal of making exceptional specialty cheeses. It was in Wisconsin that he found the dedicated dairy farmers and abundant green pastures that produce superior milk.

In addition to his immediate family, Errico also brought with him two master cheesemakers, Mauro and Gianni. They carried with them a strict focus on quality and a passion for crafting flavorful Italian-style cheeses using artisan methods. Mauro and Gianni remain part of the BelGioioso family today and work tirelessly to share their wisdom with each new generation of cheesemakers.

BelGioioso Burrata is not just close to the quality of burrata made in southern Italy, it is equal to that luscious treat, especially when paired with tomatoes from the farmers’ market, fresh basil, and a great extra-virgin olive oil. But what about that olive oil?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

My preference in olive oil is the Tuscan-style that has a crisp flavor, like fresh-cut grass, green and a slightly sweet. It has a peppery aftertaste that can catch in the throat. It took me years to find an oil that measured up to Tuscan oil in the U.S. – I had friends bring bottles from Florence – but finally in San Francisco I found Bi-Rite supermarket-branded Frantoio Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, made for the specialty market by Frantoio Grove in San Martin, California.

When I checked the Frantoio Grove website I found the following explanation from the owner:

The first step was to decide what style of oil to make. The vast majority of oil produced in California is made from Spanish varieties. Either the old growth canning olives (Mission and Sevillano) now converted to oil production or the modern varieties of Arbequina and Arbosana grown in high densities on a large scale. Both styles produce mellow more buttery oil, soft in flavor.  There are currently 50,000 acres planted to this style in California.

As a small producer, it made no sense to compete on their style of oil so I kept looking. The most interesting oil on the market to me were the Tuscan blends. These oils tend to be more pungent and peppery and, in my mind, more interesting. It was suggested that I consider growing an orchard using a single variety. After much research and tasting of varietal oils we decided on the Frantoio (Fran-toy-ō) variety and then planted Frantoio Grove in 2005.

The professional taster’s comments for the 2017 harvest are:

* Spicy grassy green aromas with warm undertones of cinnamon

* Soft and beautifully balanced on the palate with a complex mixture of green and ripe fruity notes (nutty, floral, artichoke, fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, with some wood/hay/straw.)

* The finish is long-pleasantly peppery and slightly bitter with a lingering nutty sweetness.

I clearly found the olive oil for me!

But since it is not inexpensive, I only use Frantoio olive oil for salads, veggies, bruschetta and burrata – any time the taste of the oil is an important part of the dish.

When I’m cooking with olive oil,  I agree with Samin Nosrat, who in her new book Salt Fat Acid Heat, recommends Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  I knew Samin when she worked at Zibbibo in Florence and she knows her olive oil. My personal preference is Costco’s Kirkland Signature 100% Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Dario Cecchini’s Panzanese Steak

I have written about the meat empire in Panzano, a tiny town in Tuscany. It’s been over four years since I have been able to savor a three-finger thick rare steak grilled by Dario Cecchini. I’ve written about Dario’s butcher shop and restaurants many times (here, here, here and here). And I have not had a steak to compare in the U.S.

But now I hear Dario has come to my continent. Instead of flying for eight hours, I just need to catch a plane to Nassau, Bahamas. Dario’s first steakhouse outside of Italy opened December 22, 2018. Called Carna, it’s located in the Baha Mar resort.

It’s time to take a vacation!