PW: Your cookbook, Rustico, is so comprehensive. How long did it take you to write it?
MN: The idea was brewing for years. I'm Italian and I was born in Italy, and seeing my mom cook got me interested in Italian food, but there were also so many dishes I didn't grow up eating that I'd see as I traveled from one small town to the next. I noticed there were no books that treated the food of Italy's 20 regions democratically.
PW: You made a real effort to include less familiar regional Italian recipes, including many that come from small towns. How did you approach the research?
MN: I traveled all over. My husband and I would take a trip through four or five regions, and we'd ask people where the best restaurant was in their region. We wouldn't ask at hotels, but we'd ask the men in bars or the women selling fruit. Sometimes those people would invite us to their homes. Winemakers and oil producers invited us and cooked for us. It's very important to go to the source. It's one thing to hear about a dish and another to see how it really tastes.
PW: Were any of these recipes particularly difficult to track down or re-create?
MN: In a couple of cases I was hoping to include certain recipes, but then I thought, it's more trouble than it's worth. I was going to include a recipe for panelle, Sicilian chickpea flour fritters, but it's very complicated to make at home and the process is very picky, and it's already in so many other cookbooks that I thought, "Why bother?" I tried not to include too many complex recipes, but when I found busiati, which are a kind of Sicilian pasta, I included them because the recipe is interesting and I hadn't seen it elsewhere.
PW: Have you "adjusted" these recipes for American tastes or ingredient availability?
MN: No. The ingredient is the ingredient. The only substitution that comes to mind is in Seadas (Mint-and-Lemon-Laced Cheese Pillows in Warm Chestnut Honey) from Sardinia. You just can't get two-day-old cheese in the States, but if you drain buffalo milk mozzarella it works, and of course I say it in the recipe. But most of the time you lose the integrity of the dish.
PW: So these are exactly as they would be prepared in Italy?
MN: I did adapt the recipes, but an example of that would be Parrozzo (Chocolate-Covered Almond Cake) from Abruzzo. The cake is basically made of almonds, butter, sugar and salt. It's a typical recipe from Pescara, but if you make it following the amounts that a grandmother in Italy gives you, it won't come out right here. The butterfat is different, and our almonds have been dried more. You have to play with the amounts.
PW: When did the book sell to Clarkson Potter? What kind of process did you go through?
MN: I have a great agent, Judith Riven, who's been there throughout the whole process. When I had the proposal ready, we went back and forth and worked on it, and she was very thorough. When it was ready she sent it out to the first-tier publishers and got me meetings. I selected Clarkson Potter for a combination of reasons: the personality factor was there, and we had the same vision for the book. My concept was 20 regions and 20 chapters, and Pam Krauss at Clarkson Potter bought the idea exactly as I presented it.
PW: As Rustico makes clear, Italy has 20 regions, each with a vastly different cuisine. Why do you think Americans persist in lumping it all together as "Italian food"?
MN: It really isn't their fault. The people who have the restaurants and write the articles write about the things that are going to catch people's attention, and those are Tuscany and Sicily and Piedmont. The responsibility is in the professionals' camp.