Italian food. You either love it or you really love it. From all the cuisines of the world, Italian is the one that makes people smile. It makes you feel the comfort of home in every spoonful and every bite. It gives you a hug and reminds you that life is for living. And for recognizing that the simplest things often bring the greatest joy. Authentic Italian food is special. Even magical.
To reveal the mystery of why Italian food is so good, we had a conversation with renowned Chef Cesare Casella.
The restaurant was the center of my family’s life – it was our house, and the kitchen was my playground.
Born in Tuscany, Casella grew up (literally) in the restaurant business. His parents owned a trattoria in Lucca, but becoming a chef wasn’t smooth sailing. Against the wishes of his parents, he shunned other career paths in favor of cooking, letting his passion guide him. And the world was better for it. After his parents’ restaurant received a Michelin star, Casella decided to move to New York where he opened critically acclaimed restaurants, wrote several books, appeared in numerous TV shows, and oversaw the training of chefs at the International Culinary Center.
But above all, Chef Cesare Casella brought authentic Italian ingredients and cooking to New York, from heritage Tuscan beans to traditional salumi. And he always strives to make the cuisine accessible to everyone, not through recipes, but through understanding the spirit, the heart and the soul of real Italian food.
Read on to find out why Italians simply cook better, why the ingredients are even more important than you think, and how mere amateur cooks can recreate that magic in their own kitchens.
Apart from growing up in a traditional Italian environment, your parents also owned a trattoria. Do you remember a moment when you realized your true passion was cooking or was it a slow process that began when you were a child?
The restaurant was the center of my family’s life – it was our house, and the kitchen was my playground. I smelled cooking from the first moments of my life, and it was always an interest to me. When I grew up I knew I wanted to go to cooking school, but my parents were against it. Back then, being a chef was not a cool job like it is today. But I didn’t want to do anything else, and I went against their will. They wanted me to be a doctor or engineer – even a priest was better than a chef!
How is it possible for a cuisine with simplicity at its heart, with so many simple dishes that sometimes have just a few ingredients, to be so incredibly good but also so hard to ‘get right’?
Italian cuisine is basic and simple, but you must have knowledge of ingredients for it to be good. When you know the product, you know how to buy the right product and how to treat it. It seems simple, but it is difficult to truly understand the ingredients.
Many people try their hand at Italian cooking. They have the recipe. They have the quality and even authentic ingredients. Yet something is missing. What are they doing wrong?
It’s important to have knowledge and know methods, but when you cook you need some passion too. It’s not just a step-by-step. Also, it’s more than just buying the right ingredients, you need to respect the ingredients too. How you touch it, wash it, and treat it all effects the final outcome. You can taste everything.
Italian food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world and, many would agree, the most beloved. One theory is that authentic Italian food is made with ‘la gioia di vivere’ and you can actually taste this in every bite. People can’t help but love Italian food. Apart from that joy of living, what makes Italians so good at cooking?
The way I grew up was very traditional Italian-style – life is centered in the kitchen. So even people who listen to their parents and become doctors instead of chefs still grow up surrounded by the smells and sounds of the kitchen. It’s a whole Italian education. Cooking traditions are passed down this way.
Oregano, mozzarella, prosciutto, parmesan… Everyone thinks ‘Italian’ when reading that list. Can you give us an example of an ingredient that people don’t associate with Italian cooking, but it’s actually a staple in regional Tuscan dishes?
Italian food is so popular there are no more secret ingredients! Although when people think of Tuscan cuisine, no one thinks of fish. The coast in Tuscany is long, very beautiful, and there are lots of small cities and towns where seafood is a big part of the cooking.
You’ve previously said how important it is to know the ingredients when cooking. Would you say that if you genuinely understand the ingredients, cooking Italian food becomes easier even for an amateur cook?
Yes, absolutely! When you know the products, you understand how to get the most out of the ingredients even in basic dishes.
Is it easier cooking authentic Italian food in New York now compared to 20 years ago?
Without discussion! Now almost every ingredient that you find in Italy you can also find in New York and other cities all around the country. Plus many American farmers now grow Italian-style produce and products with great success.
If you could narrow down the rules for cooking like an Italian to just three, what would they be?
Knowledge, Respect, and Passion. Knowledge of the ingredients, respect for the products and traditions, and passion. Italians cook not because you must eat, but because you feel it. Cooking is not mechanical, but more magical.