I grew up around the Mediterranean in the 1970s when my father’s work as a foreign correspondent took us there. What I loved about the Mediterranean was it was very rural and the people were still tied to the land. We spent time in Madrid when I was really small. Later, in Beirut, I definitely have memories of yogurt and flat bread and foods like that.
In Lebanon, we spent a lot of time on the island of Cyprus—it was an easy escape from Beirut. My parents and their friends rented a house so there were six or seven kids running around. This was a wild experience because the grownups just weren’t paying that much attention to us, so we were running wild in the fields. My mother cooked for the whole group and I remember our trips to the market, where everything smelled and tasted great, and the stop at the butcher, where we’d buy a whole lamb, freshly slaughtered that morning. This was simply the lifestyle of the region; it was completely normal to me and I took it for granted.
And then, there was Italy. My parents bought a farmhouse in Tuscany that was next to a family farm. My introduction to Italy and its cuisine was that farm, that immediate connection to where food comes from: You picked something from the garden and that is what you ate for lunch. If you wanted chicken for lunch, you picked it up, wrung its neck, and plucked it—there you go, now you’ve got chicken for lunch. The house had a big garden and a great kitchen. I feel like I spent most of my childhood in the farmhouse kitchen with my mom, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in food as a kid. My mother wasn’t writing cookbooks—yet. This was before she became a famous food writer. But that kitchen was where it began: She was interested in the food and she was a writer, but she hadn’t put the two together yet.
Even though my parents were American, I had never lived in the states until I was 15 and went to boarding school in Maine, where my mother’s family has a long history. When I arrived, I was horrified by what was presented to me as food. Everything was so processed and junky, with no flavor whatsoever. People made things from out of a box or a can. I remember the first time I had pizza in the U.S.; it was unrecognizable—soggy bread with weird, hard slices of tomato on it. And the mozzarella wasn’t fresh, if it was mozzarella at all. One time, someone took me out to the North End in Boston for “Italian” food. We ate a veal Parmesan with a side of overcooked buttered noodles. I had never seen such a thing in Italy! This was not Italian food. I realized that the food I grew up with was very special. This made me miss Italian food so much that I decided I had to learn how to cook for myself. The shock of American food brought me back to the food of my upbringing, and I appreciated it so much more.
It was then that I started to delve into cookbooks, really studying them to make things that I knew and liked. During college, also in New England, I was able to spend a summer working in a restaurant in Italy. At first, it was just a way to get back to Italy. But that was when I started to learn how to cook professionally. Once I got out of college, where I had studied art, I would often pick up kitchen jobs for up to three months, and I liked it. I liked the rhythm of it. But it took me a while to find my way into kitchens professionally in a committed way. It took a while for me to say, “OK, I really like doing this.”
While I was working as a photographer for suburban newspapers, I started working for Barbara Lynch and Todd English in Boston at a restaurant called Michela’s and then again at Figs. I couldn’t get out of bed to go to a photo shoot, but I’d get up in the morning, open up cookbooks, come into the restaurant, and asked questions: “What if we made this? What if we made that? How about this?” At a certain point, I realized I was having a lot more fun cooking than taking photographs.
These days I feel I’m stuck way too much here, in my New York City kitchens. That’s why my family still has a house in Italy and I make it a point to go there every year: We have about 150 olive trees and we pick and press olive oil over a period of about ten days every fall. It is so satisfying to have control over the entire process of making the olive oil, and it’s even more satisfying to have my own olive oil, to know exactly where it came from and the personal care with which it was made. That very same olive oil is available in my restaurants in New York and reflects so much of my cooking style.
My cooking is based on lightness and simplicity and the olive oil–based cooking of the Mediterranean. (Although I am also in love with the idea of a Middle Eastern restaurant, as those are flavors I just love and want to cook more.) Though I grew up in a few countries, I like to say that Italian cooking chose me. It’s what I relate to the most and feel most comfortable with. This cooking takes me back to the wonderful flavors and memories of my time growing up in what I thought was the most incredible place in the world. These recipes celebrate the simplicity and purity of that time, and the food I grew up with.