It is 1am and Gennaro Contaldo, chef/proprietor of Passione restaurant calls his fellow professional and compatriot Giorgio Locatelli on his mobile. Locatelli is not surprised at the time of the call (this is usually when chefs begin to wind down after a busy service) but upset to hear that Gennaro is crying. These are, however, tears of joy not sadness as Gennaro explains that he has just finished a proof copy of William Black’s al dente and that he is crying at the memories of the food and of his homeland which this exceptional book evokes.
Having passed on this happy ending, Locatelli went on to explain his own particular appreciation for what Black has written and in particular for the manner in which he has done so. ‘When non-Italians write about food in Italy they invariably compartmentalise it, into regions or seasons, the cities or the countryside. But food in Italy is not like that. Food in Italy pervades everything: football, politics, fashion, sex, religion – it’s part of the whole way of life. And, uniquely I feel, Black has captured this.’
This is even more surprising as the pretext for Black’s Italian journeys is initially pretty slim. As a child growing up in England he used to be told that on his mother’s side, the Rossellis, the family was related to Giuseppe Mazzini, the hero of the Risorgimento. And so began what he describes as ‘two years of blissful investigation’ citing just before this in the acknowledgements his thanks to Michael O’Leary and Ryanair for making the journeys financially possible.
But what this unlikely approach allows the author to do so successfully is to trace how the tide of history has left waves of culinary imprints across Italy, how the strength of the former city states has fostered such admirable diversity even between cities so close to one another and yet how all Italians love to eat whether it is agnollotti in Turin, panissa, a lard and risotto dish from Vercelli or, somewhat more unusually, tuna testicles from the island of San Pietro.
Livorno (Leghorn), which the author describes as once ‘a thriving Renaissance Milton Keynes’, brings out the best in Black. He persuades the family who own the Trattoria Angelo d’Oro to cook him a cacciucco, this city’s equivalent of a French bouillabaisse or a Spanish zarzuela, ie a fish soup using all the cheap, ugly but still very tasty fish that consumers will not buy to eat by themselves. Black discusses whether this dish originated in Livorno or Viarregio before going on to outline the ‘Yeatsian terrible beauty’ of the essential scorfano or scorpion fish whose poisonous spikes can cause an inexperienced chef considerable discomfort and, finally, details the precise recipe. Another great Livornese dish, triglie alla livornese, (which somewhat mundanely translates as red mullet with tomatoes) Black discovers goes back to the influx of Jews from Spain after their expulsion in 1492. Finally, but of considerable interest to coffee lovers, is the Livornese cappuccino which is served froth down, a practical approach for anyone who wants an immediate caffeine hit rather than a milky moustache.
Black’s narrative is dotted with recipes, many of which, in true Italian fashion, are relatively simple and can easily be prepared at home. But, having spent over 20 years in the food business, the author is quite prepared to try anything once so on his readers’ behalf Black goes to Sardinia to taste casu marzu, pecorino cheese infected by maggots, to San Pietro to witness the mattanza, the human culling of the migrating bluefin tuna and to Ischia to share their passion for rabbits.
Despite al dente’s many charms it is unlikely to achieve the commercial success it deserves because its sweep of Italian history, cooking, travel and social observation will confuse the booksellers who will not know which shelf to put it on. But for anyone who enjoys good food al dente is a must.
al dente, the adventures of a gastronome in Italy by William Black, Bantam Press, £12.99, 338pp