We recently spoke to author Elizabeth Minchilli about her new book, Eating My Way Through Italy (St. Martin’s Griffin; May 2018). After a lifetime of living and eating in Rome, Minchilli is an expert on the city’s cuisine, as evidenced by her popular blog, her Eat Italy app and her book Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City (2015).
Minchilli started out life as an academic, studying art history with a research focus on sixteenth-century garden architecture. After deciding to leave academia and set up home in Italy, she began writing about design, shopping and travel for publications like Architectural Digest, World of Interiors, Art & Antiques and Bon Appetit, and publishing books on Italian architecture and interior design. Food, however, eventually took center stage, and she began writing quite a bit about restaurants and broader culinary issues on her blog, as well as sharing recipes.
In her most recent title she writes about the dishes, customs and recipes that she’s discovered during her travels across Italy. Rather than an encyclopedic guide to the country, the book is a spirited and intimate look into Minchilli’s own experiences and the meals that have led her off the beaten track.
How did you come up with the idea for Eating My Way Through Italy?
My editor actually asked me to write Eating My Way Through Italy as a follow-up to Eating Rome. The idea was that if all roads lead to Rome, they also lead out of it. You read more and more stories about how crowded Venice is, how crowded Florence is, and questions of whether there are too many tourists. But my feeling is that if you go a little bit out of your comfort zone – and the way to do that is by following your appetite – you’ll find these hidden spots that still exist in Italy.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Readers can do exactly what I did – the book includes my story, it includes practical information. It also includes recipes, so you can even find your way to this cultural reality in the comfort of you own home. But what I really hope people do is take it as an inspiration to go find their own hidden towns.
Each chapter takes one type of food as its theme, which often means that one region is boiled down to one or two types of food. Can you tell us about why you chose this approach?
It was hard to decide how to boil down a country like Italy, which is really not even a country, it’s a formation of many little countries that call themselves regions, into chapters. So I started looking at ingredients – sometimes I took something iconic, like balsamic vinegar, and sometimes something as generic as pasta, and tried to show how specific that reality was in a specific place. It’s not that balsamic vinegar is necessarily the representative ingredient of that region, but rather by diving deep into that ingredient you can discover a lot about that particular area.
Other chapters, like those chapters about Umbria and Puglia, just happen to reflect things that I did in those regions, whether it was making pasta or gathering olives or eating meat. They tell you a bit about something very specific but in the end you come away with knowledge that’s much broader.
Since we offer walks in Naples, we were particularly curious about the chapter that focuses on the city’s famed pizza. Can you tell us about your relationship with the city and why you choose pizza as your theme?
I, like a lot of people over the years, have been hesitant to embrace Naples because many people (wrongly) hear about how the city is wild, scary, confusing. But once anybody actually spends more than 10 minutes there, they love it. So my goal in the Naples chapter was to entice people to go to Naples, first of all showing how easy it is to go there for the day, and then giving them a reason for being there, which is pizza.
That chapter is really about me walking around Naples and eating pizza over the course of a day, and showing how easy and inexpensive it is to do that. My idea is that pizza is sort of the entry-level drug for a full-on addiction to Naples.
Do you have any other favorite Neapolitan foods that didn’t make it into the book?
I always make sure I have coffee when I’m in Naples. The coffee is particularly good there, and the pastries are great too. But what I really love is how going on the hunt for a particular food leads you to new places. Like, I’m going to go to this particular shop because I heard they have an incredible sfogliatella. And the shop is usually in a neighborhood that maybe you aren’t so familiar with or don’t feel so comfortable in, but as you walk through it you find yourself discovering a new part of the city.
What draws you to Naples and what keeps you going back?
Of the big Italian cities, Naples is one of the few that’s still real in a way and authentic – and I don’t like using either of those words so much, but it really is. It’s beautiful, chaotic, gritty, amazing, colorful and delicious in ways that, say, the center of Florence isn’t anymore or the center of Venice isn’t anymore. It really stays true to itself and if you’re willing to put up with its little annoyances, like getting in a taxi and knowing you will be ripped off just because that’s what they do there, and go with the flow and embrace it, then you’ll have an experience you won’t have in any other place in Italy.
Do you have any tips for someone who is planning their first trip to Italy? What’s the best way for them to discover Italy’s culinary treasure trove?
I can only tell people about what I do, so I would suggest reading my books and my blog, sort of see what I do because I write about it in a very immediate and intimate way – that way people can decide what appeals to them.
But the one thing that I would say to everybody is, after you’ve seen the things you feel you have to see, like the Colosseum and the Rialto Bridge, make sure you save some time to go beyond that. And don’t be scared of feeling a little uncomfortable.
People in the culinary world will welcome you with open arms. But the thing is, it’s not always easy. I often get emails from people who follow me and want to set up a cooking lesson or a meal with the people I feature on the blog or in my books. They ask for so-and-so’s email address and whether they speak English. Most of the time, it’s not going to be that easy – chances are high that this person doesn’t use email and doesn’t speak English. So I end up saying, you’re going to have to just go there the night before, knock on the person’s door, reserve for the next morning. And it’s going to be weird and uncomfortable, and you’re going to think you’re going down the wrong street. But that’s what it takes and that’s why you’ll be the only person there.
Click here for more information on how to purchase your copy of “Eating My Way Through Italy.” To find out more about Elizabeth, her food tours, her books and her app Eat Italy, please visit her website.