Meet the expats making a career out of Italian food

Living in Italy, cooking and eating Italian food… for a living. It sounds like a dream, but here are three women who made it happen. They tell The Local how they fell for Italy and its cuisine, and how they made a career out of it.

Meet the expats making a career out of Italian food
Katherine Wilson, one of the three expats, cooking with her Italian mother-in-law. Photo: Tara Crossley

Katherine Wilson has published a book, Only in Naples: Lessons in food and famiglia from my Italian mother-in-law, about how Italian cooking changed her life.

“I came to Italy after college to do a three-month internship at the US Consulate in Naples. It was supposed to be a brief trip before starting my real life. But when it came time for me to leave, I realized that I had fallen in love with a city and a culture, as well as with a man and his mother.

That was twenty years ago. I’ve never seriously considered going home.

The food in Italy seduces you. It’s not a rational appreciation, it’s what Italians would call carnale: visceral, impossible to describe or understand. The preparation and consumption of food is at the center of life in Naples: it’s where relationships are played out, love is expressed, conflict is negotiated. You can’t fully appreciate and participate in Neapolitan culture if you don’t get inside the recipes.

Italian food is made up of fresh, simple, delicious ingredients that are full of natural flavour, used in recipes that have been handed down for generations – they’ve stood the test of time. My favorite is Neapolitan ragù. When it’s been simmering for 12 hours (or even the “rushed” version that’s cooked for six or eight!) and is dense and deep red, served with rigatoni and fresh parmesan. You can taste it when the love is missing, as my mother-in-law reminds me.

Photo: Tara Crossley

I got the idea to write the book about ten years ago. A lot of Italians asked me why I would leave the greatest country on Earth to move to Naples, while Americans wondered what it was like to be married to a Southern Italian man, and to have to deal with his mother. I wanted to share how I was transformed by this city and this family, and how I was freed of many things that had kept me from enjoying my life in the US. I often feel like I have two identities, and writing the book was a way to stitch together those two identities.

When I lived in the US, I thought my appetites were something to be managed and controlled, suppressed. In Italy I learned that they’re something to be celebrated. I hope that people finish the book full of hunger. For food, for love… and maybe even for a trip to Naples!”

Debby Manz helps to run cooking and food holidays in Le Marche.

“My interest in Italian food began when I saw what my Italian neighbours were growing and eating. Eating fresh pasta and the most delicate, tasty prosciutto crudo from our butchers who personally oversees the animals he uses in his products made me realize what real food is. There was nothing processed or out of season.

We moved to Italy in 2004. My husband and I had two small children and I was pregnant with the third. We craved more space, land to grow vegetables, a more balanced work-life ratio, and an adventure. Le Marche is considered to be the 'real' Italy; the villages, the restaurants and the way of life is arranged for the local people not particularly for tourists.

Italian Food and Flavours is an initiative started by a group of English friends and neighbours in collaboration with a local Le Marche chef and restaurant owner, and we offer cooking holidays in the rural setting. The team all have different strengths, whether cooking, languages or web design.

Photo: Private

I hope the guests take away a passion for real food, made from scratch with local, seasonal ingredients. I hope they learn what genuine, first pressed olive oil should taste like, how homemade pasta can be made by hand with simple ingredients, how great it is to see the healthy animals who produce the best cheese you’ve ever tasted.

And although Le Marche is little known in the wine world, I hope they realize how good the wine is. We hope they feel the warmth of the Italian sunshine as well as the warmth of the local people.”

Rachel Roddy blogs and writes about cooking and recipes from Rome and Sicily.

“I was travelling in Sicily and Rome to learn Italian, and ended up in Testaccio living in a flat above a trattoria. I had always cooked and written and began blogging in 2008 – when there weren't so many blogs – to document it for myself.

The blog led to a column with [UK newspaper] The Guardian, and I have written one book (My Kitchen in Rome) and am working on another. The books are very much about understanding where you are through food; when you write about food, you're writing about everything really, because it's such an integral part of life.

Photo: Rachel Roddy

The first book was about Testaccio, where the cooking is really resourceful – for example, I was a bit squeamish about offal, but it's so ordinary here that the older residents would be more shocked if you said you were buying chicken breasts, it seems extravagant. The second will be about Sicily, which is on the coast, so you feel the Arabic influence and because it's hot and volcanic you get really extraordinary tomatoes and aubergines.

I like finding things in common between different cuisines. I have a tendency to romanticize Italian food, but it deserves it. Everything is tied up with food in Italy, all the seasonal celebrations, and traditions have been preserved more.

My neighbours and friends were wonderful teachers. When you ask someone to teach you a recipe, all language barriers go down. Some Italians, especially my partner, can be critical – but I was happy to learn. I had never cooked Italian food so I was happy to be taught how to do things.

Photo: Rachel Roddy

My advice for anyone visiting Testaccio is to go to the markets, buy food from the stalls and find a sunny bench near Monte Testaccio. And as for anyone who wants to be a food writer, there is always space for a new voice, so read good food writing – and start writing yourself.”

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.