I grew up in an Italian-American household and have always gravitated toward all things Italian. For me, it’s really about incorporating Italian principles into my life while simultaneously remaining open-minded and, perhaps even more important, openhearted. Because in the end, I look for inspiration everywhere— not limited only to the Italian kitchen.
I was initially drawn to the romantic idea of Italy. I traveled to Italy for the first time when I was 20 years old, but I was already cooking Italian food by then and loved it. However, it wasn’t about the chicken parmigiana and tomato sauce cooked for days. I found those dishes to be very one-dimensional, a small snapshot of particular areas of the country.
What I love most about Italian cooking is the breadth of it. It can be rustic or it can be elegant. It can be nearly French—and what I mean by that is the idea of being almost precious but not pretentious, and still having a ton of soul. I get frustrated with people who mistake rustic for heavy-handed. There’s a big difference between the two, and I feel it is my job to interpret it my way, and hopefully that is recognized. In fact, it’s that rustic depth of Italian cooking that I explore in my latest cookbook, The Scarpetta Cookbook. It’s deep and soulful cooking and yet the presentations are still particular. I also think that the many facets of Italian cooking speak to who I am as a person.
Italian design and textures have always appealed to me. Italians have an innate ability to make elegance look so easy—that idea of “sprezzatura.” There is a particular nonchalance in the way Italians approach things that
I find very charming. I love to go to Italy and gather ideas to use as a starting point, personalizing them
from there. I think it’s important to make style your own and not just copy it outright, and that’s where the
embodiment comes in. And it’s the same approach I have to cooking Italian.
Certainly, I happen to appreciate some Italian aspects because of the way I grew up or because of my experiences along the way: a glass of prosecco or Campari before dinner, a grappa after, a fridge full of
fresh pasta. I grew up cooking and eating pasta, and to echo Sophia Loren, I too “owe everything you see to
spaghetti!” But I ultimately think the fundamental appeal is bigger than the total sum of Italian things. It is the Italian approach to life that I feel when I spend time there, the ability to relax. It’s the moment of exhalation, taking that first sip in the late-afternoon sun, letting your guard down, sitting back and soaking it all in. And to capture that, in the flavors of a dish that evoke certain memories or by the atmosphere created in one of my restaurants, is what I find to be the true Italian experience.