A simple dish of mutton and peas baked in terracotta in an Abruzzese farmhouse marked the beginning of my journey into the history of clay-pot cookery. It led me to the Etruscans, and to one of the oldest cooking techniques in the world. Although scholars still argue whether the Etruscans (whose culture flourished for a mere two hundred years) were native to Italy or emigrated from Asia Minor, all agree that they left an important legacy in the form of the clay pot, which almost every Italian household owns. One of my earliest memories is of my mother preparing Swiss chard and fava beans in her own terracotta, creating the flavors and aromas that remain with me today.
I come from the Abruzzo region of Italy, in the eastern central part of the country, and Italian history and tastes remain at the basis of my work. It wasn’t until I came to this country in 1972 that I began seriously to research the history of my country; and the more I learned about Italian history, the more I discovered about my own family’s past. I learned that my father, a commander in the Italian Army under Mussolini, was nicknamed il rabbino, the rabbi, for helping to save a large number of Jews during World War ii. He was even awarded the Jewish Star by the Jewish Federation of Italy. Although Jewish culture—especially the social and political tribulations of the Jews—had always fascinated me, their painful history seemed to overshadow the joyous aspects of their culture, particularly their celebration through food. Historically, the Jews have been forced to migrate from country to country, and they have necessarily adapted their cuisine to the styles of many lands. Yet despite these upheavals they have maintained an emphasis on family meals and on sharing food with others, as a means of uniting people and creating a sense of community.
In my restaurant, La Locanda del Coccio, I try to recreate the flavors of the past through our specialization in both Italian-Jewish cuisine and terracotta cookery. To learn more about the foods of the Italian Jews, I visited the towns and cities of Pitigliano, Livorno, Venice, Ancona, Rome, and Alessandria in Piedmont, where Jewish culture once flourished. I now serve such dishes as Risi e Bisi (a classic soup from the Venetian Ghetto Vecchio, made with rice and peas in a chicken broth); Funghi Misti con Polenta Soffice (from Alessandria, roasted mushrooms served over sage-infused polenta), L’Insalata di Dentice, Ceci e Patate (from Livorno, a salad of snapper, potatoes, and chick peas with mint), Insalata Tiepida di Arugula e Noci (From Pitigliano, a warm salad of arugula and walnuts), and Gli Spinaci Teneri dei Castelli Romani (a Jewish dish of fresh spinach with raisins and pine nuts in a garlic sauce, adapted by Romans living near the old Jewish ghetto of Porta Ottaviana). I am proud to showcase the celebratory side of Jewish culture and the rich heritage of Italian-Jewish cooking.
Banqueting Couple with a Slave, from Herculaneum, ca. 1st century A.D. (fresco) Copyright ©2000. The Bridgeman Art Library
Through clay-pot cookery I also attempt to recreate a lost culture, in this case Etruscan. Understanding this ancient method of cookery has been the most significant achievement of my career. The Etruscans were a population of intellectuals and artists who, in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c., posed a threat to the young Roman Empire because of their superior culture. With great skill and artistry they molded the local clay into beautiful pots of many different forms and functions and created delicious foods to prepare in them. La Locanda is the only restaurant in the country that uses unglazed terracotta in cooking. We let the clay pots soak for ten to fifteen minutes before cooking to absorb a goodly amount of water. The moisture from the pot self-bastes the food once it is in the oven and permeates it with the savory cooking juices. Clay-pot specialties on our menu include Il Brodetto alla Marchigiana, made with salmon, haddock, clams, mussels, and squid from local waters, baked with a sauce of fresh tomato, Pianelli saffron, and bay-leaf-infused vinegar. This specialty comes from Portonovo in the Marche region, where Napoleon had his fortress. We also serve La Fiaccheraia Rinascimentale, a dish from the Italian Renaissance, in which farfalle are combined with pancetta, roasted chicken, and peppers, then topped with Erborinato Gorgonzola and fresh basil before being baked in a clay pot. Both the Etruscan and the Italian-Jewish dishes demonstrate that even though a culture and its cuisine can be displaced, destroyed, or overlooked for centuries, good things from the past can be resurrected to inform and enliven the culture and cuisine of a vastly different era.
One final note. I believe that a solid education in food and dining habits keeps tradition alive and shows respect for the past—something that will ensure a strong future. So I take the time to teach dining etiquette to elementary school children, who don’t always have positive examples of nutrition and table etiquette. La Locanda sponsors two programs. In one, I visit schools and teach children the fundamentals of dining etiquette over the course of two days. Then the class visits my restaurant and the children apply what they’ve learned over lunch. In the other program, the children come to the restaurant on Saturday mornings for two hours, during which I teach them etiquette and serve them lunch. Last year I offered both classes and lunch free of charge to the Providence school system. I wanted to give something back to the community, especially to a segment of the population that in some cases has never had the opportunity to dine in a restaurant. I very much hope that these classes, in addition to being fun, will help to counteract America’s fast-food culture and teach children the importance of tradition, so that they will continue to sit down together and share food for a long time to come.