Fred Plotkin is a self-styled “pleasure activist.” But that playful term doesn’t begin to encapsulate his extraordinarily accomplished and diverse background. Fred is one of the world’s leading authorities on Italian food and cooking, the author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, which has just been released in its 5th edition. A Fulbright Scholar, he’s taught a course on Fellini at the New School. As a wine expert, he has led tastings and organized cellars for restaurants.
Fred also knows a staggering amount about opera –- he worked at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera and authored Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. You may have heard him as a guest on the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday afternoon broadcasts, or caught him lecturing onboard a Crystal Cruises or a trip run by the Smithsonian Institution. The author of nine books and countless articles for such publications as Bon Appetit and The New York Times, Fred maintains a dizzying travel schedule but took a few moments to answer some questions about Italy, food and the pleasures of travel.
The 5th edition of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler is just out. I’ve used it as my food bible when I’ve traveled in Italy. How did it come about?
Most of my books seem to be the result of people asking me for advice and information about the things I love –Italy, opera, food, wine, among them. I have traveled more widely in Italy than anyone I know, including Italians. I have always had an eye and nose for that which is local and typical rather than touristy. Italy has an unmatched food and wine culture and I see it as something that should be documented so that it is not corrupted. Thirty years of notes formed the basis of the first edition of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler back in 1996 and there have been updates in 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2010.
How exhausting is it to update such a guide?
Well, you should know that I do not have a staff. Everything I have written about in this book I have seen, smelled, heard, touched and tasted myself. This is a very personal guidebook that reflects my taste and experience. I never say that something is “the best” without adding the words “I know.”
That is, I cannot tell you what the best restaurant is in Venice unless I have eaten in every one several times, in all seasons, and sampled a great range of dishes. I might say that a particular Venetian restaurant is “the best one I know.” Part of the task of updating a guidebook is checking that the prior listings are still valid. If a restaurant or store or cooking school is still great, I will never delete them from my book — why punish someone for keeping up quality? But some places slip, or close, and I want to add something new. It means sniffing one out, experiencing it and deciding it is valid. A key decision I make is whether a place represents the city or region it is in.
Vivoli in Florence in 1940.
For example, a British reviewer of this new edition (in an article that was otherwise highly favorable) took me to task for not listing the Grom gelateria in Florence. The reason I did not is that Grom was created in, and is typical of, Torino. Grom stores now exist in many cities — we even have 3 in New York. There is nothing particularly Florentine about the gelato at Grom, whereas Vivoli has gelati that inevitably brings Florence to mind. So if I want to send my reader for ice cream in Torino it would be Grom, but in Florence it would be Vivoli.
I try to combine places that have long traditions (such as the Perilli trattoria in Rome, founded in 1911) with ones that are new and interesting. If some place becomes just too trendy (such as da Felice, just a few blocks from Perilli) it tends to get cut from my book. If all the guidebooks and the international food press list a place, then it is often denatured and thus would not qualify for inclusion in my book. Many people who think of themselves as “foodies” are more interested in being in the know than being knowledgeable. My readers expect me, and trust me, to be a leader rather than a follower. Many places I put in previous editions then get written about by travel writers on short visits to Italy who suddenly say that some little Roman trattoria is the best restaurant in town. That is the quickest way to ruin a restaurant! So I must sometimes regretfully eliminate a place from my book because it has been destroyed by an onslaught of foodies. Experienced readers of my book tell me they can read between the lines in my listings to figure out which ones are not to be missed. For this new, 5th edition, of my book, I have created a dedicated page on my Web site to add updates and note new discoveries. I appreciate hearing from readers who share their experiences with me and tell me about things that have changed since the book went to press. But I will not include a listing in the next edition of a place recommended by a reader unless I have tried it myself.
My sense is that restaurants endure in Italy in a way that they do not in Manhattan – that you have a reasonably good chance of finding the same place in Bologna that you enjoyed a decade ago and that’s it’s still very good. That said, do you think Italians are able to maintain quality in the kitchen and dining room in a way that Americans find difficult to do?
In general, I agree with you. Most chefs in Italy do not feel they are supposed to reinvent traditional cuisine but to honor it and try to innovate by making classic dishes but use a different meat or spice. In Bologna, each chef has his or her own filling for tortellini or the broth in which they are served. Or they pride themselves on using a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano from a certain producer who takes great care in making the cheese better than someone else. Most regions of Italy have maintained quality in the kitchen and dining room, but they are being threatened by the fact that younger Italians and many tourists opt for fast food or other ways of eating that are fast and cheap. Part of the pleasure of eating in Italy is that one sits down with friends, old or new, and eats slowly while savoring food and company. Unless you are in a tourist trap, the chef and servers will never rush you. Many Americans think that “service” means speed and they assume that plates should be cleared fast, wine poured repeatedly (in Italy you pour your own wine at the pace and quantity YOU want), and that the check should be brought with the coffee, whether or not it has been requested. In Italy it is considered offensive to clear plates until everyone is done eating or to give a customer a check until it has been asked for. My big concern is that sometimes fruit and vegetables are picked too soon, so they are not at the peak of flavor and quality. It used to be a given that produce would be just right, but now I carefully inspect fruit and vegetables on display in a restaurant.
Da Lucia, Rome.
If you were to recommend a couple of trattorias to good friends traveling to Rome, what would they be?
I mentioned Perilli, above. Another I love –because the flavors and atmosphere are so emphatically Roman– is da Lucia on Vicolo Del Mattonato in Trastevere. This is the restaurant that introduced the pasta dish called La Gricia to Rome in 1936. It was unknown until I wrote about it in the New York Times about 20 years ago, including the recipe. Now most restaurants in Rome claim it as part of their tradition, but you saw it nowhere else until the 1990s (I have been a regular visitor to Rome since 1973, so I know whereof I speak). Even now, no place I know makes a better La Gricia than da Lucia. Both trattorias still make fruit and vegetables central to their meals, with the preferred dessert being ripe fruit (served at room temperature) that you wash yourself in a bowl of cold water.
Antiche Carampane, Venice.
Name a wonderful find or two in Venice, a place where it can be hard to get past the tourist establishments?
Dining in Venice is much better than people think. Florence is more difficult. The problem in Venice is indeed the abundance of unabashedly touristic restaurants serving non-Venetian such as spaghetti alla carbonara, cotoletta alla milanese and pizza by the slice. I was there just a few days ago and found that areas such as Campo Santa Margherita, once the province of Venetians, are now tourist traps. Two restaurants that proudly, almost militantly, uphold tradition are Antiche Carampane and Anice Stellato.
And what is the most underrated area in Italy for regional cuisine?
Le Marche has all the wonderful fish and tradition of the Adriatic as well as inland foods that one might recognize from Tuscany and Umbria. But because Le Marche is less known than those other regions, it has been much more successful at keeping its food products pristine and its recipes uncorrupted. The lamb from the town of Visso is wonderful, the prosciutto from Carpegna exquisite, the vincisgrassi (the typical lasagne of Macerata) is amazing and there are all kinds of delicacies such as olive ascolane (olives filled with meat or fish and then deep-fried), formaggio di fossa from Urbino (divine pecorino aged in caves), fresh pasta from Osimo, brodetto (the seafood stew from Ancona) and lonza (a fig roll wrapped in fig leaves). And I could name many more mouth-watering temptations.
Opera is a huge part of your life. You appear regularly on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and you lead opera tours with Smithsonian Journeys. What are one of those tours like – equal parts music and food?
Life without opera would be unimaginable. Not only is it the most complete entertainment in that it combines music, literature, theater, visual arts, costuming, dance and other art forms, but it has the unique capacity to tell us so much –on so many levels– about the human experience. I live in the city with the world’s best opera company, The Metropolitan Opera, but I love to attend opera everywhere so I can hear operas or singers who have not performed in New York. There was a book that came out in 2007 that said that one of the great travel experiences is to attend an opera with me, so who am I to argue? I put together trips for Smithsonian Journeys, the International Kitchen and other companies that are, shall we say, very Fred Plotkin. They include operas and cities I love and people who travel with me learn about these works and see aspects of the opera houses and their cities that tourists never experience. And I select the restaurants, plan all the menus and choose the wines we drink. I tend to do one or two trips a year in New York, another in Italy and sometimes one in another country. A Smithsonian trip to Paris a couple of years ago was really special, and I am looking at doing a trip to Austria in the late summer of 2011. My full 2011 schedule is not yet announced, but anyone interested can occasionally check the travel page on my Web site and can always be in touch with me if they have questions or requests.
Fred pursuing one of his passions.
Fred, you maintain a speaking and traveling schedule that is daunting. Where do you go to chill out?I can’t say that I am much of a chiller-outer. I am a pleasure activist, which is to say that I enjoy and find meaning in almost everything life offers. My senses are always engaged, which is thrilling but tiring. I have a little hideaway in Liguria (aka the Italian Riviera) where sea, sky, sun and pesto take care of almost all of my needs. I also love going to spa towns in the Italian and Austrian alps, breathing cool mountain air, sleeping with the windows open, and eating hearty food.
Finally, we need to know: do you cook – and sing – at home?
I cook all the time (I am the author of five cookbooks) and find it relaxing as well as a means of controlling quantity and quality. I leave the singing to others!
For more about Fred, visit FredPlotkin.com