When Elizabeth Minchilli was 12, her parents gave up their life in St. Louis, Missouri, and moved to Rome. So began her love affair with Italy and its cuisine. Today, her blog has thousands of devoted followers. Her latest book, Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City, celebrates la dolce vita.
Speaking from her home in Rome, she recalls a Proustian moment with artichokes, explains why she loves aperitivo time, and describes how her husband won her heart with a tripe sandwich.
How did a girl from St. Louis end up in Rome as an expert on Italian cuisine?
That’s a long story. It goes back to my childhood. When I was 12 years old, my parents came to Italy and did the whole Florence, Venice, Rome thing. The only difference was they went back to St. Louis, my father sold his business, rented out our house, and we ended up moving back to Rome for two years. That’s what started my love affair with Italy.
Later, I came back as a graduate student to study Renaissance garden architecture in Florence. I fell in love with an Italian architect, and within a year I had an Italian husband, an Italian baby, an Italian house, an Italian dog. [Laughs]
Situate us geographically. Tell us about your neighborhood in Monti.
I live in Monti, which I think is the best neighborhood in Rome. Of course, everybody says their own neighborhood is the best. The thing I love about Rome is that each neighborhood is a village unto itself. You have clusters of people who’ve been living here for generations. I’ve only been living here for 25 years, but my kids grew up here, and I really felt part of it.
Monti is one of the oldest parts of Rome. It was part of the suburbum, which dates back to Roman times. It was always a neighborhood where the working class lived, the carpenters, plumbers, and everybody who made the city run in ancient Rome. It’s been gentrified in the last 20 years. But when I first moved here, it was full of artisan shops. A few of them still survive. And it’s still full of the cobblestone streets and vine-covered alleyways that you think of when you imagine yourself wandering through Rome.
In recent years Italy has mostly been associated with “bunga bunga” parties, economic decline, and corruption. Is la dolce vita dead?
Oh, I think there have been bunga bunga parties going on since Roman times! [Laughs] I also think corruption has been a part of the Roman landscape for about two thousand years. Everybody moans and groans and thinks that Italy’s coming to an end and la dolce vita’s coming to an end, but somehow Italy survives, Italy goes forward.
There is something to be said for the Italian lifestyle. People are suffering. There is a financial crisis. At the same time, people have priorities. They put family first, and they put food very high up on the scale of things. So people are able to take it in their stride. When you’re sitting here, looking at the Colosseum, considering all that Rome has been through, a bunga bunga party really doesn’t seem such a horrible thing. [Laughs]
Studies show that one of the keys to longevity is a good breakfast. Not in Italy, though?
No. Breakfast was something I had to come to terms with when I moved here, because I do eat breakfast. The Italian idea of breakfast is a shot of espresso and a croissant. But they make up for it during the rest of the day by eating very healthily.
There are many rules around food in Italy. Tell us about your mother-in-law’s coffee rules.
Everybody has their own coffee rules, but my mother-in-law has a particular one. I’ve been to her house six or seven times a year for 20 years, and when I wake up in the morning I go to have coffee. We’re always sitting around the kitchen table. Nobody’s talking much because it’s early in the morning. I pour my coffee, then I go to pour milk in it.
She says, “What? You’re putting milk in your coffee? You don’t do that!” She thinks having milk is the most American thing you can possibly do, although lots of other Italians have milk in their coffee in the morning. But for her a shot of strong espresso right when you wake up is the only way to do it. So, I’ve been breaking the rules all this time. [Laughs]
Tell us about your Proustian experience with artichokes.
When I moved back to Rome as an adult to live with my husband, I walked into the Campo de’ Fiori market one day and smelled the smell of my childhood: this intense, green smell. It wasn’t until I got home, unpacked my shopping bag, and pulled out the artichokes I had bought that I realized it was the smell of artichokes. In the States, artichokes have no fragrance. But they do here.
It’s the season now, and we are getting them maybe 20 hours after they’ve been picked. They’re incredibly fresh and fragrant. I just love them! They sort of symbolize for me the deep, layered taste of Roman cuisine.
The proverb says that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But with you and your Italian husband, it seems to be the other way round. Tell us about the rather unusual sandwich he courted you with.
When we first started dating, I was living in Florence. He would come up to visit me. One day he said, Let’s go get a sandwich. So he led me to one of these carts in Florence that I had seen around, but I hadn’t really had the nerve to go up to. I didn’t really know what they were.
So, we go up, and it smells pretty good. He said, “I’m going to get la tripa.” “What do you mean?” I said. “You’re having a tripe? I thought we were having a sandwich.” He said, “Well, yeah, we’re having a tripe sandwich.”
At that point in our relationship, I would say yes to anything. So that was my entry into offal in Italy. It was wonderful. So, yes, my husband won me over with a tripe sandwich. [Laughs]
In Rome, offal is known as the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter of the animal. Today younger chefs are going back to it and making some fabulous dishes.
The book is in some ways an elegy to a vanishing way of life. Tell us about the family-run food shops that used to be in your neighborhood.
I’m going to start crying if I have to talk about this. It really is sad the amount of family-run food stores that have gone out of business.
There are many reasons. One is the influx of supermarkets in Rome. When I first moved here, there were no supermarkets. Even in the ’90s, when I was a young wife, there were only maybe two or three. This all changed when the lira went over to the euro. It allowed a lot of the big chains to move in. Not only did they open big supermarkets, they began to take over the smaller chains. They offered food that was cheaper, they had longer hours, so it was huge competition for traditional mom-and-pop stores.
It also had to do with the changing family structure. If a whole family works, the wife doesn’t have time to run down to the local market every morning and do her shopping. The family gets in the car on Saturday and goes to the supermarket.
The other thing is the rising real estate costs. It’s really hard to make a living when you’re selling a loaf of bread for 1.50 euro. I don’t want to make it all sound like gloom and doom, though. A younger generation is coming in and opening new restaurants and artisan shops.
These days, in much of northern Europe and North America, the man is as likely to shop and cook as the woman. Do Italian men ever lend a hand in the kitchen?
If their wives let them! [Laughs] But it’s changing. I can only speak from experience. My husband does not cook. But I think I’m a bit of a scary presence in the kitchen and maybe I’ve scared him away. [Laughs]
But if you name the top 20 chefs in restaurants in Italy, there are maybe only one or two women. So the professional cooking landscape is still very much dominated by men.
In Rome, you say, women not only cook for their families, but also for their pets. Do they really?
When I first met my husband, I gave him a Jack Russell for his birthday. I went down to the local store to buy dog food. The shopkeeper pointed to a bag of rice. I thought he wasn’t understanding me. “No, for my dog,” I said. “Yes, for the dog,” he said, pointing to another bag full of broken pasta.
At that point I realized I was supposed to buy this food, take it home, and cook it for my dog. I must have looked so perplexed that the woman standing next to me said, “You can stop at the butcher on your way home too, because your dog should also have some meat.” A lot of Italians still cook for their dogs or give them leftovers. But I feed my dog dog food now!
Italians have a fourth meal every day. Explain the role of the aperitivo.
The aperitivo is maybe my favorite meal of the day. It’s the time of day after work and before dinner. It changes from region to region but always has a social aspect. You would never have an aperitivo by yourself, whereas you could eat lunch or dinner alone. You have a cocktail, but never a cocktail just to get drunk.
If you think of the iconic Italian cocktails like a Negroni or Campari soda, most include bitters. The bitters were originally invented as a medicinal thing to stimulate your appetite. Campari has something like 64 herbs and spices. When I introduce people to it, they either love it, or they have this shivering reaction. It has to do with whether you grew up appreciating and eating bitter foods, like greens and vegetables. But it’s worth trying to acquire that taste.
What are the biggest changes in food you have observed in the past 20 years?
The way people shop. When I first came to Rome, it’d take a long time to do the shopping. You’d go to the butcher; you’d go to the baker and the cheese store.
Today, you tend to do all your shopping in one place. So the amount of time people spend gathering food to make a meal has changed enormously.
What hasn’t changed is that food is still incredibly important to the Italian way of life. If I go to the local piazza and stand there for five minutes, I can assure you I would start up a conversation about food, whether it was with the lady selling the flowers, the news vendor, or the street cleaner. In Rome, everybody talks about food all the time!