Books In Conversation
ITALIAN LOCAL FLAVOR: ANDREW COTTO with Anne Tammel
Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure
(Black Rose Writing, 2018)
Any reader with a passion for food, wine, literature, and, most of all, the streets of Florence, will find the release of Andrew Cotto’s latest novel, Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure, a rare delight to the senses and intellect. Through Cotto’s hypnotic prose, one finds themselves lost in the less-explored villages of Italy as they harvest wild truffles from roadside trees, savor local cuisine (cucina tipica) with unlabeled bottles of exquisite wine, and fall in love with a different side of humanity; one becomes reminded of the passionate view of life and the world.
While on this journey, we follow Cotto’s fascinating cast of characters through ancient villages while Jacoby—an American on hiatus from life as he knows it—searches for his origins and touches on that existential question: who are we (exactly), and what are we doing here? There is no more charmed place to do so than Italy. In this conversation, Cotto shares a generous, in-depth view of what went into his delightful exploration of life, love, and humanity, all unfolding in the hills of Tuscany.
Myself, having grown up with an intellectual father from Brooklyn who loved life and art, who learned to cook from the Italian families in his neighborhood, and who taught me all about the cuisine, literature, wine, and passione that go into la dolce vita, thus sparked my own quest for Italian food, my later adventures through Italy, my longing for the streets of Florence, the words of the poet Dante, and now the works of Andrew Cotto. This conversation centers around so much the author and I are both passionate about—it touches on that je ne sais quoi we are all searching for in life. Cotto dared to reach out and find it, and he gives that to us in a book.
Anne Tammel (Rail): Food is love. And this book is filled with just that—a love for life, adventure, and for a culture that embraces the art of conversation over shared culinary experiences. How do you bring this to life to your readers? How will your reader be changed once they take this journey through your novel?
Andrew Cotto: A realistic appreciation for food and love is fairly subtle; it occurs in small increments—for me, at least—so I try to bring these experiences to the page through the sensory and/or emotional experiences of the characters. I’m not after one OMG moment, but a series of such moments that have the characters build toward a recognition that I hope resonates in the same manner with the reader.
Rail: After leaving life in America and moving to Italy yourself, what can you share about this culture the character throws himself into? What can we learn from Italian society, and how can we bring this to our modern-day America?
Cotto: I’m lucky to be able to base Jacoby’s experiences on my own, having lived in the hills south of Florence, in the very village and very property that he does in the novel. And I fell in love with the place, the physical setting, and the local products, instantly. I also learned the pacing of the people, their lack of urgency and appreciation for the moment. This is what inspires Jacoby to become an “American-Italian,” to re-configure his behavior in a manner more akin to how Italians live life. It’s not easy to do, and certainly more difficult in modern America where our pacing is at odds with such intentions. I’ve tried and succeeded in small ways (for example: I prepare almost all of my own dinners and wash them down with wine), but for the most part I’m just as wrapped up in the mania in America as everyone else. That’s why I spend so much time in Italy.
Rail: Art elevates the soul. Artists and writers have always been drawn to Europe, why are we still?
Cotto: Europe offers the kind of pleasure that appeals to artists: architecture, natural beauty, fashion, food, art, language, etc. I imagine it’s soothing in many ways and inspiring as well. There’s also this aspect of sophistication associated with European people and European history that intrigues artists. The European experience can be very affirming to creative types.
Rail: Many times, I felt like I was strolling these old Italian roads as I read your book, the same I felt when traveling with Hemingway’s characters through Paris and Pamplona. Which writers have most influenced you and your work? Do you feel your novel reflects those influences?
Cotto: Well, yes, in fact, much of my fascination with Europe began through Hemingway novels, especially The Sun Also Rises and Across the River and Into the Trees. In the former, there was something about the wine bottles in the cold Spanish river that really affected me (I am a sucker for wine), and in the latter, it was the martinis at Harry’s Bar (I’m a sucker for martinis, too), though the general experience of Europe and its splendor in both novels had a lasting impact on me. I especially loved the way they ate and drank. There’s other inspirations, too, of course: A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun, Chocolat, Beautiful Ruins, and the “Eat” part of Eat, Pray, Love. I like to think of this work as a combination of Lost Generation/expat lit with the genre of travel/gastronomy novels just referenced.
Rail: Yes, following your character Jacoby, in the context of his journey, I found myself taken back through many great literary journeys: from the more modern stories like Beautiful Ruins and Eat, Pray, Love, then going through time, The Sun Also Rises, and even further, I was reminded of Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer (Le Grand Meaulnes), and then even back to the love story of Dante and Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. Was this intentional? This theme of the character searching for self and love and a place of belonging in these ancient cities or, in Dante’s case, the afterlife. How do you compare Jacoby’s story of searching for his origins and “his people” to characters like Jake Barnes in pursuit of Lady Brett Ashley, or Augustin Meaulnes in search of the mysterious château, or the even the great poet Dante in his quest for Beatrice?
Cotto: I sort of have the belief that all novels are about the journey of searching for self, though I recognize that this is often enhanced by setting. In this case, I wanted the setting to be more than an additional influence but the primary object of desire: the Lady Brett, mysterious château, Beatrice, etc. We could go on. That said, I think this was born more from my own experiences than anything I’ve read. One thing Jacoby and I have in common (besides a passion for food and drink) is itinerant childhoods, and this creates a unique perspective on “home.”
Rail: Is there a social message to your work? Especially in terms of the here and now, why is it we feel geography can somehow spirit us away from our modern world and its perils?
Cotto: I try to avoid any overt social message though I can’t imagine any work not making some sort of statement. In this case, the primary conflict for the main character, Jacoby, is born out of the intensity and—in some cases—absurdity of modern America. This is not a Trump thing; I’d actually finished the novel prior to the 2016 election, and I had been troubled for years prior to that by the manner in which much of our country comported itself with regard to logic and discourse, especially in conjunction with social media. The idea that highly educated adults spend so much time trading insults with trolls on Twitter is baffling to me. So, what I had in mind was a character who simply wanted to escape, to separate himself from the scrum, to be apolitical. This is the appeal of being an expat. It’s not moving to Canada in protest, it’s simply quietly stepping away (temporarily or permanently) from the times in which we live. Now, this is not the thrust of the novel but simply, in part, the situation of which Jacoby finds himself. There are personal factors involved, as well—including issues of mental health and isolation—which are much more prevalent in the protagonist’s motivation, but I did want to take a social poke at our contemporary culture.
Rail: Is the risk of journeying to faraway shores and remote towns like Antella worth everything we leave behind? How does this work out for your character?
Cotto: In my character’s situation, there really isn’t much to leave behind. This is what makes his desire so practical and immediate (despite the fantastic circumstances he faces). His fiancée, on the other hand, has a more complicated relationship with this equation.
Rail: And how did this work for you (leaving America)? Were you leaving something behind, or were you searching? Did you find it?
Cotto: In my case, it was always intended to be a temporary move of one year, so there wasn’t much to worry about, though even a year abroad comes with complications, even beyond logistics. My goal was to be in a place of beauty and to write my first novel (The Domino Effect). Not being “home” certainly helped with focus and inspiration. That said, it was a tense time in America then, too. It was post 9-11 and in the lead up to the Iraq War. I remember that same type of fatigue then that returned writ large around 2014—a cleaving of national unity, the polarization, the corruption, the absurdity—so I can claim to have been searching for an escape of sorts, as well, at the time. And, yeah, I found it to an extent, though I also really wanted to come home and get involved in American civic affairs. I spent way too much time in my Italian year reading the International Herald Tribune and watching BBC (the only sources of English-language news back then).
Rail: One theme the book reinforces is that we need passion in our lives: passion for the future, for what we do each day, and most of all for the people in our lives... how did the Italian way of life change you as an author? Anything unexpected? How did it change your character?
Cotto: I’m not such an expert on Italian society beyond being an ardent observer and general fan. One of the things I like about being there is the general removal from any part of society. I don’t feel like a tourist and I don’t feel like an Italian. I’m not oblivious to what’s going on with the Italians, and I speak enough language to converse and follow, but I’m not intimate with Italian society/culture beyond food and wine, nor do I have any desire to be. I imagine this is the great appeal of being an expat: You get to choose what to enjoy and what to ignore without civic or social obligation. It’s very liberating, in some ways, to be somewhat a stranger. One of my favorite pleasures is not being able to follow conversations that don’t involve me, so all I hear, if I tune out even slightly, from pedestrians is an exchange of lovely language that sounds like poetry though they are probably discussing far less romantic matters. As an author, it’s a unique exercise in observation and immersion. You also get to spend a lot of time thinking clearly and working without interruption, which is of immense value. Some writers have Yaddo, I have Italy.
Rail: In the book, Jacoby looks out on Florence and feels for the first time what it is like to be “in love with a place.” After visiting Florence the first time, the city stayed vivid in my mind for a decade until I returned to spend more time and fall in love with it yet again. How will traveling to Tuscany through this book change your reader’s life?
Cotto: My hope is that the book will simply serve as a form of engaging escape, like one has on a successful vacation, wherever that may be. And perhaps there will be some deeper appreciation of the pleasures of eating and dining and traveling that readers may acknowledge and actuate in their own lives. I’d be thrilled if it inspired the desire to fall in love with places, though, as falling in love is life’s greatest experience and doing so with a destination seems pretty safe.
Rail: About the literary merits of focusing on food and wine in fiction: are the scenes over meals shared for pure enjoyment, or do they serve to develop your characters in some way? And how about your plot?
Cotto: I absolutely use food here as more than just—I hate to even say it—food porn. But since sex has come up, I often think that sex in fiction (and other narrative art forms) is simply there in living color for the visceral effect, and it doesn’t do much work beyond that, except maybe in erotica or particular circumstances of general fiction when it has more purpose. Generally in life and in literature, food is more complex and inclusive; therefore, it can be a real device for characterization and plot. I mean, Jacoby’s sophisticated palate is a big part of the story; it informs his relationships and behavior and decisions. Each of the meals (beyond the sensory indulgence) advance the plot and characterization. The meals aren’t just about sustenance or even pleasure (though there’s plenty of both): they are about the people who prepare and enjoy them, and they are about the journey for our characters throughout the novel and the transformations that occur as a result. All of the major themes are tethered to gastronomy: identity, place, friendship, family, love, wellness.
Rail: At one point, Jacoby enjoys an exquisite bottle of Brunello and thinks of how “really nice things in America are only for the rich.” One of the reasons I adore Italian culture is that it does draw on ancient approaches to humanity and society; this creates an opportunity to create rich, rewarding lives most of us have lost touch with in America. In Italy or France, for instance, one can enjoy a fine meal and lovely glass of wine each day simply because they are human. This is the sort of approach to society that makes a meaningful existence possible—whether one is an artist, an educator, a businessperson, or so forth. We treasure life, ourselves, and one another simply because we are sharing in the human experience.
Cotto: Oh, yeah. Agreed. That’s a big part of the novel and really one of the more subtle yet profound critiques of America (not that this novel is an anti-American screed). I find it offensive that anything of quality—particularly food which is so imperative to existence and quality of life—is really only accessible to the wealthy. I think of the meat and fruit and vegetables at supermarkets in lower-income urban neighborhoods or rural areas as compared to what’s available at gourmet markets or places like Whole Foods. So much of society in general and individual lives in particular is affected by what we consume. On just a basic quality of life issue, it also resonates throughout a society. Eating well should not be a privilege. It’s an egalitarian thing. It’s about nutrition, but also about quality of life. We should all enjoy healthy, flavorful food on an everyday basis. The fact that we all can’t have that in America, the wealthiest nation in the world, is bullshit.
And even taking a decent meal out of the house is not an option for most Americans while restaurants in Europe are generally much more accessible price-wise. I’d summed up this argument about restaurant expense in an article I wrote years ago about a deeply disappointing experience at Per Se in NYC. It’s an extreme example, again, but the point—I hope—is well-taken.
My fairly subtle point about this in the novel regards one of the finest wines in the world, and that’s a snotty point of reference (Brunello for everyone!) but even wine is stupid expensive in America where in Europe table wine costs about as much as bottled water. We should all be able to drink decent wine on a regular basis. Again, it’s quality of life.
These everyday necessities—being around the table, whether in a home or out—are also regular opportunities to be together, to foster connections and inspire passion. We gather around the table on holidays for a reason; we should gather in such a way on a regular basis.
Rail: Yes, as for Italian wine, after Jacoby takes time to visits his “favorite painting of the day”—Bacchus, the god of wine—he then buys a case of 2007 Brunello, “in the time it would have taken to get a hot dog on the streets of New York.” What were some of the wines you discovered as you traveled through Italy? And what dishes were they paired with—like the truffles, always the divine truffles—that come up in the book?
Cotto: Sure! Happy to pivot to some fun with food and wine. I love wine from all over the Italian peninsula. There’s specific references in the novel to each variety of wine consumed with every meal, and there’s a lot of meals (I’m starting to think a cookbook spinoff is in order). Of course, the wines vary by the region and the cuisine, so we have pairings of Vermentino (a Ligurian white) with the seafood feast had on the Italian Riviera in the opening, and Brunello—on a few occasions—but most notably with the cinghiale ragu topped with shaved black truffles in the novel’s culinary climax. In between there’s lots of Prosecco sipped, a Rosso Piceno taken with a roast lamb in Le Marche, some biscotti (cookies) dipped in Vin Santo, Morellino di Scansano with Margherita pizza at the Mercato Centrale, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with pasta of lepre (wild rabbit) in Pienza, also with one of the many courses enjoyed one magical evening at Il Teatro del Sale in Florence. I could go on, but the most common wine is the wine produced by the local consortium in the village where Jacoby stays and wants to live. It’s what they drink, of course, as it’s their own, but it’s also a spectacular Chianti and part of the plot. This wine appears often but most notably early on over a meal of “arrosto misto”—a mixed-roast of meats and root vegetables and aromatics so savory that Jacoby is tempted to “rub it on his chest.”
The back of the book is not exaggerating when it refers to the narrative as “wine-soaked” and “food-filled.”
Rail: Since your own life (moving to and dwelling in the setting where your novel takes place) in some ways parallels your character’s, how do you reconcile the questions when readers believe this novel is your story, based on you?
Cotto: Oh yeah, I mean, fiction writers get this often, but, in this case, I’m encountering an expectation that this is memoir or a thinly-veiled version of such. In fact, Jacoby’s past experiences and adventures in the novel are entirely fictional and have no resemblance to mine whatsoever beyond itinerancy in adolescence and a love of eating, drinking, and Italy. What is based on my time in Italy is the physical setting (as mentioned earlier), a profound love for the country and Tuscany in particular, and some characters I based on people I know in Italy or are actually them without an attempt to change their names, etc. All involved have provided their blessing (I think).
Rail: Any other works forthcoming?
Cotto: Yes! I’ve recently finished a sequel to my second novel, Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery; it’s called Black Irish Blues, and it follows our protagonist, Caesar Stiles, as he continues his quest to end his family’s Sicilian curse by redeeming the Inn and watering hole in his hometown (hint: it doesn’t go as planned). It also has tons of food/booze writing and begins with a prologue centered around a brilliant drinking theory known as “The Two Martini Rule.” Also, the original in this fledgling series has just been acquired for translation into Italian by Jona Editore (a Turin-based publisher), so I imagine I’ll have some work to do there. I also have a new novel in the works about a professor/author who enters a life of crime out of financial desperation (again, non-biographical, I swear!).
Rail: All sound equally fascinating—especially the professor who takes to a life of crime! And I hope you are serious about that cookbook. As for you, after all of this traveling and risk-taking, exploring and discovering, then settling back in New York, are you where you wanted to be in life? And if not, when you get there, where will that be?
Cotto: I don’t know. I’m settled in many ways and unsettled in others. Part of my inner-tension comes from the conflicting desires I have to be rooted (I grew up moving a lot) and also explore—I’m infinitely curious about much of the world. I can see myself returning to itinerancy once my kids get older, though I sense I’ll always return to New York. I guess I’ll be where I want to be when I can successfully accommodate both desires. And, of course, eat and drink well all the while.