In Heat, the founder of Granta and former fiction editor of the New Yorker enters the food-obsessed world of Mario Batali and travels to Tuscany to learn the trade.
What was worse, your first time in the kitchen of Batali's Babbo, or your first time being crushed at a Tottenham Spurs soccer match that you wrote about in your first book, Among the Thugs?
It was a very similar experience. Basically, you're going into a place where you're not wanted, where everybody is extremely aggressive and a little menacing. They are principally organized by their own group—almost autistic—laws.
During your apprenticeship in Tuscany, what was the most memorable meal you prepared?
The big challenge was learning how to make tortellini properly—the kind of light pasta that you can't get anywhere in New York and that's filled with bone marrow, pork butt, chicken breast, prosciutto, mortadella, parmigiana and nutmeg.
You've also recently cooked a pig. Which parts did you use?
I cooked everything this time, except the lungs, which I still regret. But I did find a recipe from Apicius [a first-century Roman cook], where you basically fill the lungs with honey and cook them slowly in milk.
Was there something in Italy that you weren't quite able to replicate when you came back here?
Something very simple. At di Palo's in Little Italy, you can get the best parmigiana cheese in America. He knows how to treat it, how to respect it, he imports it at a quick speed—but still it's not as good as what you get from a trailer at a market in Italy on a Sunday morning.
Your wife describes you as an obsessive. Does this fuel your writing?
I'm obsessive by nature and what I write about is whatever interests me at a given moment. I'm more engaged by moments when the world behaves mysteriously, and then I want to know why. For instance, everyone in England just accepted that on Saturdays [when soccer matches are played] males went around, got drunk, started fights and destroyed the town.
You originally got a three-book deal with Sonny Mehta. What are the other two?
One is a book about New York called Spying on My Neighbors, and that originates with about 70 or 80 radio broadcasts I did with the BBC as a letter from New York. The other one is a much more personal book called A Brief History of the California Aerospace Industry, and My Father's Contribution to Its Failure.