Stefano Manfredi on Italian Food

Chris Gordon chats with Stefano Manfredi about his new cookbook Stefano Manfredi’s Italian Food.

Stefano, I reckon this book is one of the most comprehensive collections of Italian dishes, suited for Australian produce that I’ve come across. How long did it take you to pull together - and why did you feel a need to create such an ode to Italian food?

It took two solid years to write but in effect it’s a lifetime of cooking, travelling and research. It became apparent to me (an enthusiastic reader of books on food and cooking) that while ‘Italian cuisine’ is immensely popular all over the world, not much is really known about it. Instead, the cuisine has become lost in its own successful branding of ‘made in Italy’. Ask anyone to define it and they’ll invariably rattle off some dishes like pasta, pizza and gelato. Apart from the popular icons and misconceptions (I’m thinking of ‘Spaghetti Bolognaise’ which is not actually an Italian dish) very few of the countless regional specialities are known. Yet, Italy is really an amalgam of twenty regions, all incredibly diverse but bound together with a complete love of food and wine and an obsession with the quality of ingredients.

On a personal level the book also represents my own discovery of the land where I was born. I simply wanted to recount the stories and place these recipes in context.

I particularly enjoyed reading the history of Italy and about its love affair with food. How often do you manage to get back there? I imagine, despite your heritage, that a visit to every region in Italy would have been necessary to gather such an ode to the individual regional tastes.

Italy has a fascinating history, one that’s given the world so much in many spheres of endeavour. In some respects this wealth of culture can be a burden to both maintain and move forward.

I go back two or more months each year. This past year I took a group of Australians to Sicily on a culinary tour taking in Catania, Etna, Siracusa, Noto, Modica, Palermo and Marsala. The south is stunning! I’ve also been to all the regions except Sardegna. It is in my plans for the next couple of years.

My artichokes are going crazy in my garden so naturally, I love that you have so many recipes for their use in your book. I also love that you have the basic recipe for preparing them right in the front sections, alongside many other recipes. Many of these recipes can be made and then stored - what’s stored in your fridge?

Basic methods are very important. They are the building blocks like notes are in music. The array of stocks, sauces and pasta preparations in the book form the touchstones for many recipes. Much of Italian food came from a frugality borne from poverty. There is also an elegant efficiency dictated by conserving in times of plenty for times when there is little. The depth of a cuisine is not in grand dishes but in the exquisite flavours achieved from the ordinary without wasting anything.

In my fridge I have some pickled vegetables, some Grana Padano (probably the cheese I use most), a couple of litres of beef broth that I’m going to make a risotto with and some peas and leeks.

It’s Christmas time with the family – what are you cooking for the big family meal?

This year will be up near Coffs Harbour on the NSW north coast so it’ll be mud crabs, prawns and calamari on the barbecue. Very Australian. But our usual tradition is for pumpkin tortelli on Christmas Eve with burnt butter and Parmesan. It doesn’t matter how hot it is they always go down a treat. The recipe is on page 328 in Italian Food.

Thanks so much for your time. I’m looking forward to using your book over and over again.