Italy by Ingredient
A Q & A with author Viola Buitoni about her new cookbook; recipes for pasta with zucchini and balsamic vinegar, and peach-almond-farro cake; and a COOKBOOK GIVEAWAY
Benvenuti! Welcome to Buona Domenica, a weekly newsletter of inspired Italian home cooking. This week’s newsletter has something for everyone: a Q & A with cookbook author Viola Buitoni and a pasta recipe from her book for free subscribers; and a bonus recipe plus a cookbook giveaway for paid subscribers (more on that after the Q & A). If you are a free subscriber who has been intending to upgrade to a paid subscription (and I sure hope you are), you can do so by clicking the button below.
On to the newsletter…
Viola Buitoni and I met by chance about four years ago, at a party at the (now closed) San Francisco Cooking School. It was a serendipitous encounter, as mutual friends and colleagues had been telling us for years that we ought to meet. We’ve both worked in the realm of Italian food for years, and we both have deep roots in the central part of the country. As I soon learned, Viola grew up in the countryside near Perugia, in Umbria. And while Abruzzo, my mother’s region, is where I spent my summers when I was growing up (and where I now have a house), my mom’s father was actually from Perugia.
Although she grew up in Italy, Viola has spent most of her adult life living in the U.S., making her way from New York to San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and teenage son. Over the last few years we’ve kept in touch through social media and occasional phone and zoom calls, discussing our approaches to translating Italian cooking for a (mostly) American audience, and looking for ways to collaborate even though we are on opposite coasts.
Viola’s approach is succinctly summed up in the title of her first cookbook: Italy by Ingredient: Artisanal Food/Modern Recipes. In it, she profiles a dozen iconic Italian ingredients, from traditional balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico tradizionale) to salt-cured roe (bottarga), through descriptions, explanations, and recipes.
“Italian cooking has been ingredient driven since long before it was a word or even a concept,” she wrote to me in a recent email exchange. She’s right. Chefs and cooks these days refer to “le materie prime,” or “raw materials.” But as anyone who’s been to Italy knows—and there are a lot of you—the most memorable Italian meals are, and always have been, those which showcase local, regional, seasonal, and artisanal ingredients. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dining at Massimo Bottura’s famed Osteria Francescana, in Modena; or at Ristoro Mucciante, the rustic picnic outpost on Campo Imperatore, the high plain in Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso mountain range where spaghetti westerns were once filmed.
Italy by Ingredient is divided into five sections—Condiments, Cereals, Dairy, Meats, and Fish. Each section focuses on a small handful of ingredients: balsamic vinegar, conserved tomatoes, and capers and olives in the Condiments section, for example, and rice, polenta, and farro in the Cereals section. The Meats section is devoted to cured meats, with recipes featuring guanciale, mortadella, prosciutto, and speck.
Viola’s book reminds me of my friend Rolando Beramendi’s book, Autentico: Cooking Italian the Authentic Way, which I wrote about here. The recipes are simple but refined, relying on great ingredients and a well-stocked Italian pantry to deliver. Viola knows this milieu well, not just because she is Italian but because she grew up immersed in it from the earliest age.
“I am…the daughter of food-loving parents who believed raising your own food was a better way of eating,” she writes in the introduction. “I was weaned on extra-virgin olive oil and parmigiano. I first spooned ricotta into my mouth straight out of the warm whey in which the local shepherd had just cooked it. I played hide-and-seek in the room where pancetta and prosciutto were hung to cure. At the end of adult dinner parties, I emptied wine leftovers into vinegar barrels I could barely reach.”
In our Q & A, Viola touches on her background, her cooking philosophy, how she chose the theme and ingredients for her book, and what she would serve at a dinner party for food-loving friends. Here's a transcript, slightly edited for space.
Buona Domenica: Let’s start with your name, since that is where you start in the book. What is your connection to the “Buitoni” pasta empire?
Viola Buitoni: I am a direct descendant, 6th generation of the Buitoni family, entrepreneurs among the first to mechanize the production and distribution of pasta in Italy. The company was sold when I was almost 20, so I have many core memories connected to the entrepreneurial history, ethos, and history of the family. Indeed, my father Paolo was the CEO of the Buitoni-Perugina group from the late 60s to 1976.
BD: You mention that you had food-loving parents, of eating warm ricotta as a child. Your memory of playing hide and seek in the prosciutto curing room really struck a chord with me. That pungent aroma must evoke so many memories. Tell us about the role food has played in your life since your earliest days.
VB: Food was the clock to which the year moved. From pig slaughtering in January, and all the way to Christmas cappelletti production in December, there was always something happening in the kitchen that told me what was coming next long before I could read a calendar. These time keepers were also occasions to gather family and friends, and different people had first dibs. For example, my great aunt Bianca joined us in February because she made astounding frappe—the friable, cloud like dough ribbons of Carnevale. Since she was a pharmacist, she would also make various liqueurs and concoctions for both pleasure and well being. When we unmade my mother’s place after her death, my siblings and I found 30 years old bottles of liquore di china—quinine liquor.
Pig slaughtering was always the most fun. The pigs were raised in our estate, but several families of friends contributed to the expenses proportionally to the portion they wanted (half, or a whole, or even a whole and a half for the larger families). When the “norcini” (curemasters) descended, they took over the old olive mill for the slaughtering and butchering, and then the kitchen and den for the transforming and curing. They were wiry and strong and bore unique names that seemed otherworldly to me. The economical wisdom of their movements mesmerized me. The activities went on for the better part of a week, and ended in a “festa del maiale” a yearly to-do with well over 100 guests for which my mother kept about 1/4 of a pig aside.
We children were happily included in these activities. So, you see, to me food has always been about community. Though my life is quite different now, that hasn’t changed.
BD: Tell us about the title of the book, Italy By Ingredient, and the way the book is organized. Why did you choose this approach of focusing on select ingredients?
VB: For years I spent a large part of my cooking classes talking about ingredients, their origin, story, the evolution of my relationship with them. The actual name was narrowed down during a brainstorming session with a close friend. It clicked right away, because Italian cooking has been ingredient driven since long before it was a word or even a concept. For my starting book I chose to dwell into the mainstays of Italian pantries and refrigerators. If I have my druthers, there will be “Italy by Ingredient” installments on the garden, the sea, the butcher counter, the granary, the still room.
BD: Italian ingredients are many, and many of them are iconic. How did you zero in on the ingredients you chose to focus on for this book?
VB: My work of the last almost two decades has been about teaching and supporting new and experienced home cooks, and helping them discover the meaningful and deep connections that ensue from gathering around the stove and the table. But home cooking shouldn’t be an occasional project or a dreaded chore, it should be a joyful daily art that fits in the way we live life today. I want people to cook at home, and so I chose ingredients that make the life of a home cook easier. They deliver joyful, dish-defining flavors with minimal effort.
BD: One of the ingredients you highlight is balsamic vinegar, which, in spite of its popularity, remains one of the most confusing ingredients to people, thanks to mislabeling and fraudulent products on the market. You give a clear and detailed explanation of what, exactly, balsamic vinegar and its offshoots are. Can you give us an abbreviated version here? How can people tell if they’re buying the real deal?
VB: Balsamic vinegar has a long illustrious story, which in recent times has come to symbolize status. The visibility has caused imitation and fraud. Hence the confusion. The words balsamic or vinegar by themselves mean nothing without specific brands and definitions that narrow down origin and production.
BRANDS: Look for the sunny looking red and gold PDO or blue and gold PGI European Union seals.
ORIGIN WORDS: Sanctioned balsamic vinegars come ONLY from Modena or from Reggio Emilia.
PRODUCTION WORDS: For the best of the best, find the word Tradizionale (Traditional) attached to Aceto Balsamico. Made exclusively from cooked grape must, it undergoes a transformation that requires at least 12 years and up to 25. It is always packed in 125ml bottles that are shaped either as a potbellied flask or an upside down tulip.
For the second best (but still good and certainly more affordable), look for the origin ‘di Modena’ attached to the words Aceto Balsamico. More than one element go into making this kind, which is what you choose for salad dressing, or cooking.*
* These are abbreviated definitions of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale and Aceto Balsamico di Modena. You’ll find more detailed descriptions of the vinegars, how they are made, and the differences between them in Viola’s book.
BD: You could argue that true aceto balsamico tradizionale is a prohibitively expensive ingredient. What is your argument for splurging and for keeping a bottle in your pantry?
VB: Well, I always find it difficult to make an argument for people to spend more money than they’re comfortable with. But if I had to, I would say first that traditional balsamic vinegar is not just food, but an experience. It is all enrobing silk satin, it is the balance we all covet, the end of day pleasure we all deserve, better than chocolate (or with chocolate!), than any drink. Practically, I would urge people to consider that you only need a few drops to serve the purpose of enhanced delight—in fact, for my home pantry I buy it about once a year. It can be the protagonist of dishes ranging from appetizer to dessert, it pushes a preparation from competent to unforgettable, and it serves well as a go-to-in-a-pinch pantry friend. Let me give you a couple of examples: for last minute unexpected company, I put on the table a cheese, any cheese, some nuts and few drops of traditional balsamic, it lulls all into the relaxed conversation needed for me to come up with dinner. Or here is one of my last minute desserts: whip some cream, swirl it with balsamic and serve it over barely warmed seasonal fruit, for crunch add some nuts, or crumbled cookies, or bits of chocolate.
BD: Recipes: One aspect I really appreciate about the recipes you include in the book is that with a couple of exceptions, like Ragù della Maestra (your version of Bolognese), there is not a lot of attention paid to the uber-popular well-trodden recipes (say, cacio e pepe, spaghetti alla carbonara, or penne alla vodka, etc.). Did you intend to steer clear of such recipes?
VB: Well this is going to be an unpopular answer, but let me tell you what those recipes are to me: they are recipes of youth. They are first forays into cooking, the flavors of hundreds of post-study group evenings, of summer nights with friends before heading out to a club. They are the core taste of visits to my Roman grandparent. They are the dishes you soon graduate from and leave to the cook who’s always going to make them better. My feeling is that they became such big deals when the rest of the world started taking them over. And Italy claimed ownership and got defensive. I don’t want to dismiss their goodness, they are just not that interesting to me. In fact, I do confess that I avoid talking about them because I want them out of the conversation. There is so much more to Italian food.
BD: A good portion of the recipes feel sophisticated and modern, not to mention visually appealing, even rustic ones. I’m thinking, for example, about Baby Octopus in Squid Ink with White Polenta; Farro- and Porcini-Stuffed Quail with Chanterelles and Chestnut Sauce; One-Pan tagliolini with Guanciale and Parmigiano (a sort of sophisticated gricia). Talk about your selection of recipes for the book and how they reflect the way you like to cook.
VB: They all reflect the way I cook, and what I teach in my classes. Italian cooking is an everyday art that draws from the pantry, the market, the seasons. The recipes are ideas and technique that carry from one month to the next to feed body and soul as they need to be fed. My book is about Italian food the way that it is made by Italians, those who live in Italy and those who, like me, don’t.
To clarify what I mean,I will give tell you a funny anecdote: I might describe a recipe that I have made, say spaghetti with monkfish, orange zest, fennel and pine nuts, and someone will invariably ask: “That sounds delicious, what do you call it?” My answer? “Spaghetti with monkfish, orange zest, fennel and pine nuts”—and you can see that being a theme in my book, the titles are a description of the dish listing what goes into it. And that is, obviously what is available at the moment and strikes my fancy.
BD: Cooking for you is clearly a sensorial experience. In the introduction, you write: “My cooking is built on the wisdom of those who came before me; I hold and recognize their influence always. I step up to the stove with senses lit. I listen, I smell, I touch, I watch, I taste. My hand in the kitchen is intuitive; it relies on good ingredients. I always listen to my palate—I only cook what I like and want to eat.” That’s an admirable philosophy in the kitchen (and similar to the way I like to cook) but it’s not for everyone. What is your advice to those who have less time and experience in the kitchen, whose primary goal might be to get a healthy meal on the table but who want it to taste good?
VB: Especially if you want to cook a good, healthy meal you should be choosy about your ingredients, and tune into your senses. Recipes that give you fixed instructions are bound to fail. If you cook, you know that the variables that come into the act of cooking are infinite: the age of the ingredients, the strength of the stove, the quality of the pots and pans, the temperature of the kitchen, just to name a few. But senses are a tool we all have and that are intrinsic to the physicality of food.
If you tell 10 people to sprinkle a teaspoon of salt on a 1” steak, heat the olive oil on medium, dry the steak, and brown it on each side for 3 minutes then put it in a 400° oven for 5 minutes, you will get 10 different steaks. But if the same recipes tells you that before you put the steak in the skillet you should press it with a finger and make sure the imprint stays, that the salt should fall like snow on both sides, that you should pat the steak dry as not to remove the salt, or instruct you to wait for the smell to the olive oil to come to your nose without you bending over the stove, or describe the hue of brown, or that the steak will tell you when it is ready to be flipped by coming off the pan without you have to rip it, then you will have acquired a new set of tools that will meet the primary goal of your question. And to me, this is also a way to respect the reader’s intelligence by helping them tuning into the built-in cooking skills we all have.
BD: For those who might be on a budget and can’t afford, say, balsamic vinegar or bottarga, are there ingredients in the book that are maybe more accessible that you can recommend for those who want to get started on the path towards better, more authentic Italian cooking?
VB: Any of the cereals, the tomato conserves, anchovies, capers and olives, and a couple of the salumi—pancetta and mortadella. Pecorino is much more affordable than parmigiano, Ricotta is also a fantastic ingredient with a good price point.
BD: You are hosting a dinner for your favorite people in food. What are you making?
VB: I would definitely do the pennette with red onion, sage, malvasia and ricotta salata (page 173). I always have the ingredients for those, and they are quite different, yet a crowd pleaser.
And since we are going into the fall, the mushrooms in parchment paper on page 159, plus mushrooms always please both omnivores and vegetarians.
For dessert the farro and almond cake on page 139. The farro flour can be subbed with regular flour by adjusting the baking powder and in this season I would probably swap the peaches for plums or pears.
BD: I made the cake with peaches, since they are still in season in Virginia, and it is a lovely expression of late summer (recipe shared below with premium subscribers). Grazie, Viola. In bocca al lupo per il libro!
I am giving away a copy of Italy by Ingredients to a lucky paid subscriber. To enter, simply click on the little ‘heart’ icon at the top of this post. Then leave a comment telling me something about your favorite Italian ingredient, like why you love it and how you use it in cooking. A winner will be chosen at random and announced in next Sunday’s newsletter.
THIS WEEK’S RECIPES:
1. Gemelli alle Zucchine, Ricotta Salata, e Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
2. Torta di Mandorle, Farro, e Pesche (for premium subscribers)
I had a hard time choosing which recipes to share; there are plenty that I’ve bookmarked to make. But I was drawn to these two as a last hurrah to the season. They’re both summery but they also lean a bit into fall. The drops of precious balsamic vinegar stirred into the zucchini pasta gives it a rich but subtle sweetness; and the farro flour in the cake adds a warm and earthy touch. I used farro flour from Hayden Flour Mills, the same mill whose rye flour I used in the fresh fig cake with honey and rye in my Aug. 27 newsletter.
RECIPE: Gemelli alle Zucchine, Ricotta Salata, e Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
Just a few drops of traditional balsamic vinegar—the real deal—elevates this simple pasta preparation into something slightly luxurious. The other notable ingredient is ricotta salata, which is ricotta cheese that has been pressed, salted, dried, and slightly aged. If you haven’t tried it, it is worth searching out. It has a creamy-chalky texture that crumbles easily and a mild, slightly nutty taste. The recipe comes from Viola Buitoni’s book Italy by Ingredient.
3 small tender zucchini
1 spring onion, or 1 small white onion
2 mint sprigs
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
Fine salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound (500 g) gemelli pasta, or other short pasta
1/2 cup (60 g) ricotta salata shredded on the large holes of a box grater
Traditional balsamic vinegar, for finishing
1. Fill a pot with 3 quarts (3 L) water, cover it, and set it over high heat to come to a boil.
2. While the water heats, cut the zucchini lengthwise into 4 wedges, then thinly slice each quarter crosswise. Cut the onion in half from stem to root and slice into paper-thin half-moons. Pick the mint leaves from the stems, stack them, roll them up tightly lengthwise, and slice them crosswise into thin ribbons.
3. Pour enough olive oil into a 12-inch (30-cm) frying pan to lightly coat its bottom. Set the pan over medium-low heat and warm until the fragrance of the oil reaches your nostrils without you having to bend over the stove. Add the onion, half of the mint, and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has surrendered its stiffness and looks glassy and hazy. It will take 6 to 8 minutes.
4. The water should be boiling by now. Season it with 1 tablespoon salt, stir in the pasta and cover the pot. Set a timer for 2 minutes shy of the suggested cooking time. When the water starts to boil again, remove the cover, and adjust the heat so the water is at a lively, but not rolling, boil.
5. Add the zucchini to the frying pan and raise the heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, for 8 to 12 minutes, until the zucchini are tender but still bright green with sporadic spots of caramelization. If it is necessary to prevent the zucchini from sticking and burning, add dribbles of warm water. Sample the zucchini, season them with salt and pepper to suit your taste, and transfer to a warm serving bowl.
6. The pasta should be cooked by now. Lift it out of the pot with a handheld strainer and transfer it to the bowl with the zucchini. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water, and 3 tablespoons of the ricotta salata, then toss until the starch and fat bind into a creamy gossamer around the pasta. Stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil to make the dish sheen. Toss thoroughly. Drip 10 to 12 drops of the balsamic onto the pasta and toss again. Artfully drizzle with a few more drops of vinegar and garnish with the remaining mint. Serve accompanied by the remaining ricotta salata and the balsamic bottle.