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Three New Cookbooks Explore the Reality and Diversity of Italy and Its Food

Each offers a unique perspective defined not by arbitrary borders, but by culture

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The covers of three cookbooks: Portico, Pomegranates & Artichokes, and Cucina Povera Lille Allen/Eater

In the aftermath of the pandemic, travel media has become saturated with scenes from Italy. The perennial nature of this trend – going strong since the Grand Tour of the seventeenth century – demonstrates that plenty of people can never get enough of daydreaming about the Bel Paese. Some, however, have had more than enough.

The recent polarization of Italy as a focus of travel and culinary media alike is self-perpetuating; the more Italy is flattened to a mere background for selfies, rom-coms, and television shows that center American celebrities, the more the culture and cuisine are flattened and falsified into a caricature of what they truly are. Though Italophiles working within and outside the country have made gains in raising awareness around regionality, there continues to be little recognition of the fact that Italy is a country with its own indigenous and immigrant populations. As a result, most so-called Italian food — decadent dishes of lasagna and truffle risotto — shown in the media is not the daily diet of Italy’s residents, but the cuisine of Italy as performed for tourists. For this reason, we are all long overdue for the publication of three new cookbooks this year that draw us into the home pantries of Italians, rather than their restaurants.

Written by three women with strong ties to Italy — one native, one immigrant, and one visitor — each offers a unique, intimate perspective of Italian cuisine that is defined not by arbitrary borders, but by culture. In their pages, you will find words in Italian and English, as well as Farsi and Yiddish, reflecting the diversity of those who shared this peninsula for millennia before the contemporary image of the Vespa-driving, Ferragamo-wearing, Moka-drinking Italian took hold. In this way, the authors transform the general understanding of Italy from an idyllic tourist destination for seaside spritzes and pizzas in piazzas to a nation shaped by the creativity and resiliency of its inhabitants.

Cucina Povera: The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals

Giulia Scarpaleggia
Artisan Books, April 2023

Giulia Scarpaleggia was born and raised in Tuscany, where she learned l’arte dell’arrangiarsi (“the art of making do with what you’ve got”) from her mother and grandmother. This “art” is at the heart of cucina povera, which Scarpaleggia translates as “peasant food” and defines as a way of cooking guided by seasonality, humble ingredients, and simple techniques that rely on the resourcefulness of home cooks. The first instruction always involves peering into your pantry and focusing on what you already have, rather than what you’re missing — advice that doubles as a philosophical practice for life in general.

Scarpaleggia’s recipes are sourced not just from Tuscany, but from all over Italy in support of her belief that cucina povera is the foundation for all Italian food and, furthermore, representative of an approach to cooking that extends beyond the country’s confines. In pairing recipes for canning fruit and repurposing bread with anecdotes from her childhood and historical context, Scarpaleggia educates readers about the origins of cucina povera, which came from times of hardship and hunger. Many of the dishes are naturally vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, waste-free, and seasonal out of economic necessity, not as a result of dietary trends. For this reason, there is something for everyone in this collection of approachable, affordable, and sustainable dishes.

The photographer — Scarpaleggia’s husband, Tommaso Galli –—creates a convivial atmosphere for readers to join Scarpaleggia on a discovery of lesser-known Italian foods as she introduces, for example, a recipe for elderflower fritters where one might instead expect to find tiramisu. With her inviting words and his enchanting photography, one wants to eat whatever is set on their table.

Pomegranates & Artichokes: A Food Journey from Iran to Italy

Saghar Setareh
Interlink Books, June 2023

At the outset of her first cookbook, Saghar Setareh, a native of Iran who has been living in Italy for nearly two decades, explains that its contents are “neither nostalgic about the ‘exotic Persia,’ nor in search of ‘dolce vita’ in Italy, but simply living and breathing both, and everything in between.” This is, in fact, how the recipes are organized, divided into chapters titled ‘Iran,” “In Between,” and “Italy.’ (“In Between” being defined as Jordan, Syria, Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece with the assistance of a map that shows the expanse of land where the region meets the Mediterranean.)

Pomegranates & Artichokes draws on the duality of Setareh’s own identity as an Iranian immigrant in Italy, but people from all walks of life will be able to relate to this book, which is more broadly about the migrations “of ingredients, of recipes and of stories — but most importantly, of people.” Through her recipes, Setareh takes us on a journey that follows her own travels between the two places she calls home, a journey made all the more enjoyable thanks to the addition of her own photography, which is rich with color and texture, and characterized by an artist’s eye for the striking contrast between light and dark.

Each chapter is accompanied by an exploration of the ingredients commonly found in the pantries of those living in Iran, Italy, or the countries between them, from saffron and pomegranate molasses to tahini and orange blossom water to anchovies and balsamic vinegar. Setareh’s utmost hope, however, is “to highlight the similarities between the recipes and stories, rather than the differences.” In exploring the far-reaching affection for ingredients such as the eggplant, she creates a sense of empathy and community that illuminates how profoundly Italian culinary traditions have been influenced by cultural exchanges with neighboring nations and immigrants.

Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen

Leah Koenig
W.W. Norton & Company, August 2023

Like Setareh, Leah Koenig’s first formative encounter with Italy occurred in Rome at the age of 22, and Portico, like Pomegranates & Artichokes, discusses migration patterns in Italy. However, while Setareh’s recipes span several countries, the recipes of Koenig’s cookbook are rooted in a small, specific space within the Italian capital: the Jewish Ghetto.

The title of the cookbook is a reference to the long-standing structure that forms the entrance of the Ghetto, which Koenig interprets as a symbol of welcoming and a testament to the resilience of the Jewish people who have resided in Rome for thousands of years. Portico celebrates the distinct Roman Jewish cuisine that developed here over time, honoring historic traditions together with modern reimaginations and recipes that are admittedly influenced by Koenig’s self-described “American sensibilities.” Many recipes are directly credited to current inhabitants of the Ghetto, whose portraits appear alongside scenes of the neighborhood taken by photographer Kristin Teig, conveying a palpable liveliness that resonates with Koenig’s stories.

With an introduction to the essential components of the Jewish Roman pantry and detailed menu suggestions for major Jewish holidays, Portico is a source of inspiration for daily living as well as special occasions, and a rare point of reference for this particular culinary tradition that is both its own and a part of Italian food culture.

Elena Valeriote is a writer of stories about food, farming, culture, and travel that explore the connection between people and place. Her work has appeared in publications including Gastro Obscura, Modern Farmer, and Life & Thyme.