Any food writer knows who John Mariani is. Much-loved folks in the industry have mixed feelings toward him. I had just read Mariani’s blunt review of Grant Achatz’s new memoir, Life On The Line, and all the back-and-forth that ensued following that (like this article and this oneand this one). I also had just finished Bourdain’s Medium Raw; there were no nice words for Mariani there either. And I had SaltySeattle‘s tweet stuck in my head; she declared : “he is a self-aggrandizing idiot who lives under a rock.” I do respect Achatz. And Bourdain. And love Linda.
I was now curious. I am intrigued by a controversial character. I have a special place in my heart for talented people who are unaffected by criticism. And I respect anyone with a career as impressive as Mariani’s. You have to hand it to him. No one gets where he is without talent and serious hard work.
April 7 in Boulder. Me- standing by the bar waiting for a friend. Mariani – by the hostess’ table holding nothing more than a glass of water. He looked like his picture- an older man with potentially grumpy tendencies – (stereotyping, I know). Frasca hosted a dinner for Mariani’s new book How Italian Food Conquered the World. He came over and we talked- for a good while. The man was approachable and conversational. He asked that I contact him if I had any questions about the book, about traveling, about writing. Naturally, I had questions. He responded promptly and when I had more questions he ask that I call him. Intimidated as I was, I still got the same warm, kind Mariani on the phone. So what’s the controversy about?
My guess is that it is about a very opinionated man who wants simple food, who fears gimmicks, who rejects flash and glamour in food. Along the way, he has run over those who threaten the simple order of food. Close-minded? Maybe. Committed to authenticity and tradition? No doubt. The book made it more clear. It simmered down Mariani’s essence to reveal a deep commitment to simplicity in food, a desire to celebrate the roots and history behind it.
How Italian Food Conquered the World is a compendium of everything remotely connected to Italian food dating back to its early beginnings- prior to the existence of the modern day country and language. Mariani covers entire threads of culinary history, restaurant anecdotes, stories of Italian chefs, food producers, entrepreneurs, and recipes with ease. He skips around from one topic to another gracefully.
The tone of the book is almost that of a documentary narrated in the voice of a social and cultural anthropologist who tries to understand the process through which the world came to create, develop, and appreciate Italian food as we know it today. That is good and bad. It is good because of the instructive voice gives the material covered authority but bad as it gets sometimes overly academic.
The range of information covered by the book is fantastic. From the impact of politics on the food culture under Mussolini to the major transformation of Italian food through the exposure created by a non stop flight NY to Rome in 1958, any aspect of Italy’s history gets a fair shake and seems to seep into the process through which we fell in love with Italian food. Movies and shows are covered, from La Dolce Vita to the Sopranos. Production of refrigerators and consumption of pasta per capita are reported accurately. The history of Delmonico restaurant empire, originally a family business started in the 19th century, is covered in depth and so is the creation of the Caesar salad, a make-shift dish put together in Tijuana by an Italian immigrant who ran out of food before dinner service. With each page, you learn something new and surprising, and you want to just keep turning the pages.
The book is without a doubt a must-read for anyone interested in all the ins-and-outs of Italy’s gastronomic history. It is an instructive and enjoyable read and could make a fabulous present (or Father’s Day present if you are in the market for one).
Mariani shares fabulous recipes in the book. What he doesn’t share is his preferred cocktail recipe, a classic Daiquiri, the proportions of which he printed on the back of his business card. Here it is.
Daiquiri, a classic recipe
Ingredients: 1 freshly squeezed lime (emphasis in the recipe), 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 ounces gold rum.
Shake ingredients together with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass.
Photography by Jennifer Olson.