I dont know where I was conceived exactly, but if I had to guess, Id say it was in the kitchen, among dusty rounds of pecorino put up for the winter, tins of salted anchovies to eat with bread, jars of preserved shallots, and liters upon liters of vino delle colline Luchhesi, the house wine for natives of Pieve Santo Stefano, the tiny Tuscan town where I spent my youth.
Thats not to suggest that my mother, Rosa, twenty-seven at the time, and father, Pietro, also twenty-seven, had an improper tryst in my grandmother Marias pantry. But by the time they met- introduced by the husband of Erminia, a friend of Mamas- Rosa was already working in the kitchen of a prominent Lucchese family and Pietro was running the restaurant owned by Zio Franceso, who later took off for Canada.
Their first date was on New Years Eve, for dinner in Altopascio. They courted in modest countryside trattorie, saving money for theday they would marry. When Papa popped the question, he treated Rosa to dinner at Solferino, a restaurant that used tablecloths, just down the street from where I would grow up.
Their first dream as a couple was to own their own restaurant. I remember, when I was there, riding on a Vespa, wedged between Pietro and the handlebars, to the neighboring village of Peive Santo Stefano. Actually, I was standing up; Mama was in the back with her arms stretched long around Papa. It took twenty minutes from Lucca, and until just a few years ago, still did, since the most direct road collapsed after a storm in the early seventies and wasnt repaired for almost two decades. We passed Solferino and went to look at a run-down country tavern, Il Vipore, which, I later learned, was best known for renting rooms upstairs by the hour, no questions asked. That was April. In August, Rosa and Pietro signed a lease. They spent two weeks cleaning and scrubbing, then we went into business.
On opening night, I got my first taste of the famous local rosso, red wine, from Forci. I dont remember that moment. Mama says I drained my cup, and no doubt I did, as I have many times since. It was the beginning of a long affair with the pleasures of wine and food.
In the summer of 1993, I came to New York to be the executive chef for Coco Pazzo, a popular restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was often a scene packed with celebrities and loyal regulars. On a busy night, we did three seatings, ninety people at a clip. I then moved on, working in other restaurants, planning to open my own, and learning to live in a city with 8 million people. I discovered I could walk ten blocks and change worlds, from Chinatown to Little Italy to Little Korea.
I knew even before I got here that life in New York would be more stressful than in Pieve Santo Stefano, but I also know there is no other city that would offer so many opportunities. For an Italian that possibility is something incredible. For someone who likes to compete and win as I do, New York is the perfect place to be, a daily challenge.
Of course, no matter how long I live in this city, I will always be un ragazzo di campagna, a country kid, which is why I wanted to write Diary of a Tuscan Chef. Yes, there are already dozens if Italian cookbooks on the market. But, as far as I know, no one has written a cookbook for the American public that presents Tuscan food as it is- good, cimple and natural. The Tuscan table should be as easy to set in New York as it is in Garfagnana, or in Rome, Georgia, for that matter.
Remarkably, Ive seen books where they use tons of butter, which in Tuscany is only used in the mountains, and Ive seen books relying on exotic products. Maybe because they produce dishes that photograph better. This is not the Tuscan cooking I know.
The way I learned to cook, the way my family ate as I was growing up, and the way I cook today, is Tuscan cooking. It is using what you have on hand- whether from the garden or cupboard- an important factor when the store is a long hour or more away. Tuscan cooking doesnt require a professionally equipped kitchen or a pantry stocked with every spice and condiment imaginable. Where I grew up, if you came home from work and all you had was canned tuna and spaghetti, that, with a few grinds of black pepper, good bread, and table wine, became dinner. You learned to be flexible and to experiment. If a recipe called for lemon thyme and all you had was mint, you went with it; if you wanted to flavor your seafood risotto with pancetta, you forged ahead.
Tuscan food has always been and still is a cuisine without rules. Some dishes, like a ragu, are more time-consuming than others, but almost everything is simple. You need only to know your ingredients and to improvise. I believe that most important tool for organizing a menu is the calendar, which is why Ive arranged this book along seasonal lines. Ive put together dozens of menus- both traditional and innovative- inspired by moments from my life, favorite meals, the vendemmia (grape harvest), and at the sbottaturra (when new wine is transferred from barrels into bottles).
Sometimes I digress and talk about Giacomo Puccini, a native of Lucca, as famous locally for his music as for his appetites, romantic and otherwise. Or I reminisce about my friend Lorenzo in Forte di Marmi, who makes the most incredible baby octopus salami or Romano, my friend in Viareggio, who makes the best prawns Ive ever had. These stories are part of who I am.
Since the Italian cheese, wines, and salame- cured meats- are worlds unto themselves, I have also included tis to help the person cooking at home begin to understand them. With every menu, I suggest two Tuscan wines because they are the ones I know best and feel most comfortable recommending. (This, of course, is merely a guide. All of the wines might not be available in the United States, and they might not suit your taste. You can either rely on the type of grape named to select an alternative, or simply pick a wine you think will complement your meal.)
Occasionally, I will describe a salami I like or tell a story about one of my favorite cheeses. Tuscany, for example, is famous for its pecorino. There are dozens of different pecorinos; they vary from frazione to frazione (village to village) and farm to farm. Some are sold ages because the farmer loves far from the central market and only goes to town once a month; others are eaten fresh; some are spicy; others mild. Myself, I like pecorino best at the bar of Il Vipore, in the company of Piero Penna Bianca (the White Feather), my best friend Emilio, and Ernesto (a.k.a. Camay, because when he was young, he would steal bars of Camay soap to give to the local girls). On Sundays, we play briscola, an Italian card game, until very late. Everyone smokes, and as we insult each other, yell and pound the table, we consume slabs of cheese, washed back with Forcis best red wine.
Eating in Italy is almost a full-time occupation. There is as much pleasure in anticipating a meal and reminiscing about it afterward as there is in the eating. Thats because Italians love Italian food. I even know a few who carry pasta, olive oil, and espresso with them when they travel- for fear of going hungry. Ive gotten over that, but what I do miss about eating in Italy is an attitude. Italian cooking isnt just recipes, its a fusion of many cultures, and its from the heart. Its simple, based friendship, good whether youre dining on fagioli (beans) or cavaile (caviar). In fact, the best Tuscan dishes are simple, like fettunta, toasted bread with olive oil, or acquacotta, literally; cooked water, to which vegetables, a piece of meat, whatever is in the cupboard, are added.
In opening my diary to you, I share my childhood, my life in New York, and my secrets from across the Atlantic. Sometimes, youll find ingredients that dont exist in traditional Tuscan cooking. Thats because when I came to the United States, I had to adapt and adjust an juggle to re-create the taste of Italy. I took my clues from the peasants wife, the mother of Tuscan cooking. She works the fields all day; then returns home to put a meal on the table for her family. She doesnt run out to the supermarket for anything at all. She doesnt have to. She takes stock of her pantry and goes to work, more often than not producing love, and sometimes magic. I hope to help you do the same.