“Americans have learned a lot from Italians. We embrace Old World traditions, such as buying cheese from a cheese maker we know by name or building relationships with farmers that grow our tomatoes. Now, as in Italy, we appreciate how wine can season a meal as well as any ingredient. These are just a few of the reasons why we celebrate Italy’s culinary contributions at SPQR, a small restaurant on the west side of Fillmore Street in San Francisco.”
So begins SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, the cookbook I wrote with Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino. For more than two years, we worked on this book, which combines Shelley’s knack for discovering singular, small-production Italian wine with Matthew’s contemporary Italian culinary style. Organized along ancient Roman roads, it takes a different approach to examining Italian food and wine. As we write in the introduction, the book isn’t a regular cookbook, but rather a “passeggiata“–the classic Italian post-meal stroll–through central and northern Italy.
Ancient Roman Roads
That’s how we approached our research. Our trip last April took us through 9 Italian regions, starting and ending in Rome. The trip was anything but slow-paced, though. One day we’d be up at 4AM to see the sun rise over the Adriatic only to go to bed well after midnight. Fortunately, we were never far from an espresso machine.
We start with the Via Appia–the Appian Way–the first official Roman Road. Like many of Rome’s ancient roads, the Via Appia is still an important artery, as we discovered when we were stuck on it in rush hour traffic. After Via Appia comes Via Salaria, the Salt Route that went from Rome to Le Marche, then Via Flaminia (Umbria), Via Postumia (Veneto and Fruili), Via Claudia Augusta (Trentino-Alto Adige), Via Aemilia (Emilia Romagna and Lombardia), Via Francigena (Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta), and Via Aurelia (Liguria and Toscana).
Cast of Characters
In the Friuli city of Grado, we met a few fisherman who invited us to lunch at a casone, a fishing hut. With racy photos pinned to the cabin walls and mismatched glasses used primarily for drinking grappa, a casone is pretty much the Friulian version of the man cave. In Padova, a stately city inland from Venice, we dined with a count who likes karaoke. We also had lunch with capuchin monks in Umbria (the picture below was taken in the monestary’s dining room) and cooked with a woman who has lived in Pesaro, a coastal city in Le Marche, all her life.
The end result is a book that’s not about one person or place. It’s a story about the extraordinary and the ordinary that make Italy such a beguiling place to eat (and drink). My favorite quote came from sitting around a patio table with Shelley and Alberto Taddei at his family’s home and winery in Le Marche.
“L’acqua fa la ruggine, il vino fa cantar,” Alberto said. Water makes you rust, wine makes you sing.