When you write a book, people ask you what it’s about. When people ask me about Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure, I tell them that it’s the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave—pretty much what’s written on the back cover. That’s accurate and appropriate from a traditional book marketing strategy, but the reality is that the novel is really about Tuscan gastronomy.
It’s only a matter of days after arriving in the hills south of Florence that our protagonist declares his intentions to remain in Italy forever. Sure, there are other factors (the beauty, the pace, escape from America, potential familial connections) but, perhaps for the first time in a novel, eating well is the main character’s primary motivation. And eat well he does. There are 24 scenes where our American thoroughly enjoys the food and wine of Italy, almost entirely in Tuscany.
The foods vary and showcase the diversity of Tuscan offerings and settings. There are meals in Florence, Chianti country, the back of a butcher shop in a small village, a cantinetta off a dirt road, the seaside and the mountains, Pienza, Montalcino and more. And the foods enjoyed include many Tuscan staples: bistecca alla fiorentina, lampredotto, fritto misto, ribollita, lepre ragù, funghi ragù, piatti di formaggio, panini di prosciutto, gelato, arrosto misto, ceci al forno, coniglio fritto, pizza, fagioli all’uccelletto, rosticciana, salsicce (crude!), piccione ripieno, lardo, and—most importantly—the final meal of the novel: ragù di cinghiale sopra polenta con tartufo nero.
The wild boar ragù is particularly important because our protagonist provides the main ingredient for the village sagra through a heroic act (the significance of this is hinted at via the cinghiale on the cover) and, as a result, becomes accepted in the local environs while also enjoying a remarkable meal.
All the meals required the accompaniment of Tuscan wines. The “wine list” of the novel includes prosecco, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, various Chiantis, Brunello di Montalcino, Super Tuscans, Vermentino, Vernaccia and Vin Santo.
A common refrain in the reviews has been “Don’t read this book while hungry”. I appreciate the recognition, but it belies the point. The idea isn’t to entice hunger or go anywhere near that nonsense known as #foodporn (whatever that is). The point of the food as a device in the novel is to indicate how eating (and drinking!) well informs a life of health and happiness. The gastronomic splendor of Tuscany is available to all, and this is not lost on our main character as he finds the wellness he seeks primarily through Tuscan cuisine, not just its abundance and quality but availability as well.
This ethos of eating well as a right, not a privilege, drives the book and inspired the sequel, Cucina Romana: Another Italian Adventure, which involves Roman settings but features many more fantastic meals in Tuscany, a region our main character (spoiler alert!) now proudly considers home, having manifested his motivation to stay in Italy. There will be additions to my “Italian Adventure” series, but Tuscany will always function as the home base for our protagonist as the region inspired, primarily through its gastronomy, his permanent presence in il Bel paese.