Back in March 2014, I had the pleasure of having Frank Fariello (Memorie di Angelina) on a podcast. In the episode, we discussed the differences between Italian-American cooking and the food of Italy, a topic on which Frank is remarkably insightful, being a third generation Italian-American who lived in Rome for 10 years.
This post presents the same interview in textual form as an enjoyable read, and as a searchable reference.
Listen to the original episode
Hello, and welcome to the audioblog. Paolo here again for another episode. Today I have a special guest with me, Frank Fariello from the fantastic blog, Memorie di Angelina. Hi, Frank. Good morning.
Hey Paolo, how are you doing?
Good. Thanks so much for accepting to connect with me. It’s an honor.
Frank accepted to be interviewed, and I have prepared a lot of questions. I’m sure, like me, you’ll be very interested to know his answers. We want to know a lot more about you, Frank.
So let’s start from, of course, from you. Do you want to introduce yourself to our listeners?
Sure, why not? My name is Frank, as you know. I’ve got an Italian last name, Fariello. I am from New York originally. I was born in New York City actually, but lived in the suburban part of New York for most of my childhood. I am a lawyer by training and by profession, and still continue to practice law, but I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life outside of the United States. I actually took some time off [from the profession]. I was thinking about leaving the law at a certain point in my life. I had about ten years under my belt as a corporate lawyer in New York and was kind of tired of the rat race.
So I took some time off. I was thinking about becoming a professional chef. Cooking has always been my passion. I went and lived for a few years in Paris. There are great hotel schools, as you probably know, in Switzerland, in the French speaking part of the country. So my plan was to go to France, perfect my French, and then go on to [the Hotel School in] Lausanne. As you know, that was [where] one of the great Italian chefs of the time… a Milanese, named Gualtiero Marchesi [had been trained].
Oh yeah, of course. Super famous.
Do remember him? Very famous. A little bit controversial, I understand, among some Italians. They called him “Il Francese” because he had a certain different way of approaching Italian cooking, but I had studied his work and found him quite inspiring. I knew that he had gone to Lausanne, to the [hotel] school there and wanted to kind of follow in his footsteps.
In any event, [I never made it to Lausanne.] I was [in Paris] for a couple years, then lived in Vienna for a couple more years. At that point, I had returned to the practice of law. Some old colleagues from New York had convinced me to get back into the profession, and they were based in Vienna and Moscow, so I was doing some work there. Then, in about 1995, so this is going back a few years, I saw an ad in the paper for an international organization based on Rome. Of course, I’m an international lawyer by trade, [but my practice had been in private international law]. I had always been interested in [practicing public international law] in an international organization. I applied [for the job] and “only” 9 months later, I was hired. I went down there and spent 10 years living in Rome.
Yeah. That was a fantastic thing. I had always kind of wanted to… It sounds like a cliché of course, but wanted to sort of discover my roots. Actually, my roots are not in Rome, they’re farther south in Campania and Puglia. But still, it was a great opportunity. So I took it.
Very interesting that you were at one point pursuing the career of becoming a chef, and considered changing [job] entirely. You know, it takes a lot of courage to do that. I’m not surprised that you were pulled back…
Yeah, well it takes a lot of courage, and maybe that’s why I didn’t do it ultimately!
Yeah, but you did do something else. You started writing this blog that has become the most popular blog about Italian food today. So it is a fantastic achievement, and it obviously speaks to the quality of your work. I’m not surprised to see that your interest went as far as to bring you to Paris. So that really makes a lot of sense now.
Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, it is a great… That’s one of the great things about the blog. It allows me to enjoy the [culinary] world without, of course, the back breaking work and the horrendous hours of actually being a restaurateur.
I see. Well, I’m sure it takes up a lot of time anyway, but certainly it is a different activity. Yes, I can see that. So when did you start Memorie di Angelina?
Well, it actually started out when I joined Facebook.
I didn’t set out to be a blogger, to be honest. I joined Facebook and, like a lot of people on Facebook, I started discovering old friends from high school and college and law school and all the rest of it. I decided I wanted to share some recipes with my friends, so I started posting recipes to my profile. That was a lot of fun and people were enjoying the recipes, but I was frustrated by the platform. It wasn’t really as flexible as I wanted it to be, so I cast around [for ideas] and decided to start a blog. Just for my friends, initially. That was the only ambition I had was to continue sharing those recipes, but to do it in a way that was easier to get the point across. And… the rest is history. The blog got some attention and, next thing I know, 5 years later I’m still blogging!
Yes, and thank you for that. It’s a great resource for me as a cook, and of course a great point of reference (that I often quote) to talk about what I talk about, which is authenticity and Italian food of Italy today, which is something that has become sort of my battle – so to speak – to try and fix Italian food in North America. As you know, my battle is against the type of Italian-American food that is not advertised as such. I have respect for Italian-American cuisine, but I really think it should be called for what it is. I’m all for certification as well to try and, whenever possible, certify Italian food – continental Italian food of Italy today – as such. And I applaud any kind of certification like Pizza Verace, which is a great association based in Naples that certifies around the world, and Tuscanicious, which by the way you were just recently awarded. Congratulations.
Yes. Well thank you. That was a tremendous honor for me. It’s a great validation of the work I’m doing… My blog is about Italian cooking of all kinds, not really focused on Tuscan cooking in particular, so the award was, in a sense, a surprise. But a wonderful one.
Yeah, it is a great honor, and you deserve so much. So yeah, authenticity is important, but I also find that many of those self-proclaimed Italian restaurants simply serve food that is just plain bad food. That is really sad to me. I really think that there is such thing as good food and bad food in general, and in fact a lot of my friends who actually have been to Italy told me that they really liked the real Italian food so much better. Which may signify that there is an absolute value to flavor. I don’t know how you feel about that.
I certainly agree. All kinds of cooking can be good, and I enjoy all different kinds of cooking. But I firmly believe there is such a thing as good food and bad food. Even as a kid, I remember comparing the Italian food that you might have in a restaurant with the food that my grandmother made, and I knew liked my grandmother’s food a lot better! To some extent, Italian food is a victim of its own popularity. And unfortunately restaurateurs-some of them who should know better, others who perhaps don’t-take advantage of that popularity to frankly make a buck on the cheap. I hate to put it that harshly, but I think in some cases that’s what it is.
Following a popular trend. When you say “Italian,” it seems to sell more. Right now they’re starting to say “Tuscan” or you know, “Sicilian,” trying to go down to the region which makes it [sound] even more authentic.
Yes, indeed. I don’t know if you know Nicoletta Tavella – she’s a fellow blogger. She also has a cooking school in Amsterdam, and I heard an interview with her with an Italian radio or TV… I can’t remember which. She was talking about some of the funny products that they sell in Holland, like “Tuscan pesto”, whatever that might be! So this is not just North America where this kind of thing happens. As you say, “Tuscan” has that caché. Never mind that there is no such thing as Tuscan pesto. But anyway…
So Frank, speaking of authentic food, I would like to go back a little bit to your grandmother. Because you’re a third generation Italian-American, but yet you seem to have such a precise image of Italian food. Yours is not distorted at all. I’m Italian born and raised there. I spent my first 30 years there. I read you… I really cannot detect any difference in how I would describe it. You just describe it better than I would. It’s true.
That’s very kind of you to say. I think I have two advantages maybe over other Americans or other foreigners who are pursuing [the study of Italian cuisine]. One is I actually grew up with Italian cooking. My grandmother is the reason why my blog is called the way it is. It’s a tribute to her, because she really imprinted those flavors on my palate, if I can put it that way.
That’s a good way [to put it].
At a very tender age, it’s so natural. She was special because she did not [compromise on authenticity]. Of course, she was first generation, and there’s a big difference as the generations proceed, in terms of assimilation and adaptation. She made her dishes just as she learned them growing up in Italy, in that small town in Campania. I verified that when I went to Italy and ate those same dishes, some of which I didn’t realize existed outside of my grandmother’s kitchen, by the way. I was almost shocked to see them on menus, in store windows. I remember once, it was around Christmas time, and we went down to the Amalfi coast for a vacation to get away from Rome for a bit, and I looked in a pastry shop window and found my grandmother’s honey balls: Truffoli! I had no idea they actually existed other than as an invention my grandmother had made. But she recreated all of those things, and quite well, I think, given what she had to work with. Of course she had to make some compromises, because not all ingredients were available in the US, especially back in those days. The other thing, of course, is that I spent 10 years living in Italy. That’s irreplaceable, too.
You know, getting to know Italian cooking, especially Rome because that’s where I was. But I liked to travel a lot, all throughout the country. And being a foodie, the first thing I wanted to do was try the local dishes. I used to ask people, “What should I try?” and “How do you make this?” And I’m an avid collector of cookbooks.
Anywhere I went, I always bought a little local cookbook to find out what the local dishes were and try to recreate them when I get home and all of that.
Yeah, and I love how you put these cookbooks as reference in your blog posts whenever you can, because… you can quote them, and use the collective knowledge that they accumulated into themselves. So we were talking about adaptation and the fact that Italian food sometimes, as generations go by, changes. Evolves. Why do you think this is happening? Is it a matter of adapting to the local palate, or is it more the fact that the ingredients are not available, or that the ingredients are different?
That’s a good question. I think originally, of course, it was about availability of ingredients. I think if you look at first generation, Italian Americans in particular, that was a big thing. [And then some differences reflect an expression of the diaspora community.] I sometimes talk about Italian American cooking as a sort of celebration of plenty. This is immigrant cooking, so it was made by people who came from very humble backgrounds. Certainly in my family that was the case. [They celebrated] the fact that they now could afford to have meat any time they wanted. So Sunday dinners were often kind of “meat fests”: We’d have the pasta dish, dressed with Neapolitan ragu`, with sausages and beef and all these other things… And then yet another meat course would come after that, usually roast chicken or something of this kind. So it’s a lot about just kind of enjoying the fact you can afford to have all of this food that perhaps back home you couldn’t. That’s of course the first generation.
I think the second generation is a bit different. And I saw this also, by the way, in reverse when I was living in Italy. Children of immigrants put a huge premium on fitting in and assimilating, and feeling that they were part of the country they were born in. Sometimes even almost in opposition to their parents’ generation.
You’ve seen this probably–
I have seen this. I know a lot of Italians. They have Italian last names so I approach them in the workplace, and often they actually… reject their origins. They don’t speak Italian, pretty much by choice. Yeah. It’s strange, but in a way, it’s assimilation. It is forcing yourself to stop being typecast, because I suppose it happens.
Absolutely. I think that that goes for the cooking as well, and eating habits and the rest. You kind of, you want to be kind of more American than the Americans.
Of course, when you try to go back and recreate the dishes, that’s going to have an influence. And then there’s the third generation… I’m third generation – I think there’s a bifurcation here, because there’s some, like myself, who kind of want to recapture something.
Then there are others who just kind of keep on going and proceed with further Americanization, to the point where basically, other than the name, they are more or less indistinguishable from any other Americans.
Yeah, absolutely. The problem is that some of them own a restaurant…
Yeah. Yes. That’s when things go awry!
I saw this thing just yesterday. We were in this Italian café, I’m not going to say the name, and they had “Italian burgers”, okay? (You don’t see Frank, but he’s shocked!) With a side of pasta, of course (!) And I really like the place, actually. I go back there because they make really good omelettes, actually. They cook something that is not really an Italian dish, but they do it really well, and I really like them. But then they do these things… Just because they call themselves Italian, I think.
Yeah, that’s the marketing thing again. You sprinkle a little oregano on top of it or a little melted mozzarella or whatever, and suddenly it’s Italian this or that.
Yeah, I know. What’s even worse is when you throw in ingredients that totally don’t fit in with a dish. You just posted today your carbonara, and you talk about cream as a common addition in North America, into carbonara. Obviously, that does not belong in the dish. It’s totally unnecessary, it changes it entirely. You know, in this case, the addition of ingredients is done in the attempt to… I don’t know, make the dish more rich. To make it more flavorful. I don’t know. What do you think?
Well… I think that’s often very true, and I agree about the cream. I think it actually, if anything, takes flavor away. But yeah, it’s probably meant to make the dish richer and more [appealing]. Again, this celebration of plenty that I talk about, and it can go a bit too far. It becomes almost an overdoing- extravagant. That’s true for example, in the use of herbs and spices and so on, which in fact is, as of course you know very well, not at all typical of good Italian cooking. Just the opposite. It’s all about discretion and balance.
And balance. And I think, you know, the problem probably is that the fewer ingredients you have, the more they have to be right. They have to be flavorful, and they have to have the correct flavor. So maybe I’m thinking it could be that sometimes one adds more ingredients to try and compensate for the lack of flavor of local produce, which… wasn’t grown in the same sunny lands of Italy. I’m thinking tomatoes, as an example.
That’s the classic example, of course. It’s the bane of any Italians I talk to who come to the States, and I’m sure Canada is the same way… They always ask me: “Where are the good tomatoes?” It’s an endless search. Of course, you can find them if you go to a farmer’s market, but you have to really make an effort. The great thing about Italy is any old supermarket will offer you wonderful produce. Of course, it’s even better if you’re growing your own… I was very lucky because although I spent most of my stay in downtown Rome, for the last three years, we lived outside of town.
In a kind of a rural area. I grew my own vegetables, my own tomatoes, my own zucchine. We even had hens, a hen house, and we got the eggs. If you’ve ever eaten eggs right from the hen, it’s just something incredible.
And I have. My grandmother had eggs from her chickens. You’re right. It was incredible.
And we had peach trees, too. The peaches off the tree were something else. Of course, if you have a peach like that that’s dripping and sweet and lovely, you don’t need sugar on it. You don’t need anything on it. It’s just beautiful the way it is. I think you’re quite correct about how best quality ingredients makes lots of different extraneous flavors unnecessary. But if you don’t have that kind of quality ingredients, then of course, the temptation is to make up for it in other ways.
Yeah. I can see that. Frank, I wanted to also talk a little more about you as a food blogger and the food blogging activity itself, and becoming as popular as you have become. The question that I have for you is, did popularity change you? Do you feel the pressure of having so many viewers to keep up and produce always more interesting [posts] and continue the volume of production?
Well, yes and no. I do try to blog once a week, [although lately I’ve been so busy it’s been more like once every two weeks]. I try to keep to that rhythm and not go beyond it, in part because I don’t want to raise expectations of people. In the middle of the week, or on off weeks, I will post old posts on my Facebook page. The great thing about cooking is, of course, nothing goes out of date. You can take a post from two years ago and send it out there, and people who haven’t seen it before will enjoy it. This posting schedule is realistic for me. I have a day job, like many bloggers. I kind of envy those who are dedicated full-time to the food business. That would be fantastic, but I’m not, so this is kind of a hobby for me. But I do try to stick to this schedule because I know that there are people who occasionally, if I slip, will send me messages like, “What happened? Where is this week’s installment?” Of course, I feel awfully guilty about that!
I’m hungry. What happens?
Yeah. Right? But I try to keep it realistic. So you know, once a week is a realistic level [of commitment] for me.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you get a lot of requests? Do people ask you for a certain dish?
Yes. Yes. I do get requests from time to time. I try to put them on my list but I have a blog plan, so it can be a while until I get around to them. I’m trying to hit all the major dishes in the various regions. The vision I have for Memorie di Angelina is, more than a blog, as kind of an online cookbook.
So I am trying to be, if not comprehensive-because that’s practically impossible when you’re talking about a subject as vast as this one-but as complete as I can make it over time. So I do have a plan that I’m following, and if a request falls well within the plan, I’ll do it. Occasionally, it’ll be a request for something that’s actually Italian-American rather than Italian. That’s the other thing.
I keep those requests on the “back burner”, because once in a while, usually on Columbus Day, I do like to feature an Italian-American dish.
So you have a plan. Do you think you can just go on forever, just because it’s such a vast world?
Yes. Well, forever, perhaps not. But I won’t live forever, either, unfortunately. I think it’ll be a while until I run out of [dishes to write about]. I don’t really need “ideas” in the sense that, unlike other bloggers, I don’t really try to do creative things too much. But occasionally, I’ll feature my own take on a classic dish. Dishes generally have lots of variations, especially the more famous ones, so I’ll express my preference.
I bring that much of my own personality to the dish, but I try to be faithful to the classic recipes. That makes it easy in a way. I don’t feel the need to invent things.
Of course the repertoire of Italian dishes is so enormous that it’ll be awhile until I run out of recipes.
Which is really fantastic. I guess there are also many other ways to present your work. I saw you have a Flipboard, I think it’s called, now.
Yes. Yes, my Memorie di Angelina Flipboard
has become quite popular. It’s really taken off, and I’m pleasantly surprised. It was kind of a lark. We had a snow day once, and I said, “Let me put one together.” And the response has been excellent.
Fantastic. I saw it. It’s really nice. It’s like a digital cookbook, a recipe book. I love the format. It’s awesome. Yeah.
I’m quite pleased with it.
Have you ever thought about publishing an actual book?
I get that question quite a bit. I guess my answer is I’d love to, but when would I possibly find the time? This is the thing. Again, having a day job makes it difficult. But if I ever feel like I can take a couple months off, sabbatical, maybe. Why not?
Why not? Looking forward to that. I just want to end this interview – thanks so much, Frank, it was amazing, of course – with one last question about your time spent in Italy.
If I were to ask you now, you’ve been back for a few years now, what do you miss the most?
Wow. That’s an interesting question. I guess, I mean… the food, I guess, would be one big thing. Probably the biggest, I mean, from the point of view of someone who is so obsessed with eating and food as I am. As we were talking about, the excellent quality of the raw ingredients you have to work with. It makes cooking so… In a way, almost too easy. You know?
There’s so little you have to do to those ingredients to make them taste good. It’s fantastic. And beyond the food, of course the beauty of the country. And the warmth of the people. That’s a cliché, but I think it’s true. Well, Romans can be rough, too. But they’re always honest. I think the thing is that they may not always be polite, but they’re always themselves, and I appreciate that.
Fantastic. Thanks, Frank. It was a great pleasure having you here. Well, we’ll keep in touch, and–
Maybe later on, we’ll have another chat together.
Look forward to it. Take care, now.
Fantastic. Thanks so much again. Bye-bye.