Lunch with The Food Maven

TheSouthernItalianTableAfter reviewing New York City Food by Arthur Schwartz, the Food Maven himself included GFS in his newsletter, describing it as “a very literate and informative web site.” (Casey and I have been proudly bandying that description around.) As a result, I got in touch with Arthur and we decided to meet for lunch to discuss our favorite things: food, New York, and Italy. I also wanted to hear all about his new book, The Southern Italian Table.

Recently a good friend of mine who now lives in Colorado stated that she missed how true New Yorkers get right to the good stuff without any unnecessary small talk or fake pleasantries. Arthur and his spouse Bob met me at the door of Cafe Fiorello and instantly we felt like old friends. One conversation poured into another as we dug forks and fingers hungrily into our food, accidentally spilled glasses of water on each other, and talked about our lives and experiences without any pretense or facade.

After all, Arthur and Bob are paesanos! What I mean by that is since 2001 they have been conducting culinary-cultural tours in the Cilento, right near my family’s home town of Capaccio. This region is practically their second home and they know its temperament and its food very well. For this reason, Arthur’s new book is probably the best cookbook on Southern Italian food out there. His recipes are born of direct experience and they’ve all been tested and lived with in his Park Slope kitchen.

The recipes are broken down into common categories—Antipasti, Insalate, Pasta and Risotto, Dolci—and the dishes are identified by their region (Campania, Puglia, Molise) or even the exact city or town. The text is rich with personal stories, anecdotes from his cooking school, and historical facts. (I’m a stickler for historical facts and Arthur’s information is flawless.) I love the occasional “variation” thrown in at the bottom of the recipe, since I see that as clear evidence of a recipe well-tested and enjoyed.

I trust these recipes because Arthur is a person who just gets Southern Italy. He’s relaxed, not too fussy, and understands that Southern Italian cooking is not about precision, but about a little this, a little that, not too many ingredients, and time set aside to enjoy. As he puts it:

Living on the edge of a volcano or a seismic fault line also gives Southern Italians a certain fatalism that translates into enjoying each day to its fullest. Naturally, that includes singing, dancing, making love, and appreciating good food and drink while actually not spending that much time in the kitchen. The Southern Italian table is simple, direct, and healthful, each dish prepared with just a few prime ingredients and laden with dishes that can be prepared quickly. What could be more contemporary?

Lunch wrapped up with coffee and a delicious limoncello tart with a brulée topping. Arthur talked about the pleasure of eating buffalo milk mozzarella the day—it’s made while Bob (an archaeologist) gushed about the many fascinating Roman sites in the Cilento. Another glass of water was spilled. Arthur also spoke passionately about his latest interest, the Jews in Southern Italy, and a new tour itinerary that would explore this little-known heritage. We could have talked for two more hours as you usually can with warm souls who enjoy the good things in life.

Arthur gave me my own autographed copy of the book which I’ve been reading cover to cover. I highly recommend it, especially for busy urbanites with small kitchens, or those who frequently cook for one. Lots of easy, inexpensive inspiration awaits you.

Listen to Arthur speak about Southern Italy on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show as well as on The City Cook.

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  1. Since my roots are from Southern Italy [Calabria], I really enjoyed this article and I will now buy the cookbook. Thanks.

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