This interview is a collective one. Or maybe not. We’ll talk with a chef, a television star, a food historian, a culinary anthropologist and a Mediterranean Diet advocate. All in one person, a wonderful Italian American woman.
Amy Riolo has such a beautiful and contagious smile, in a time when contagious is not a word we use lightly. Luckily for us, and for the incredible number of people who knows her via the numerous and successful things she does, she won’t stop smiling and sharing her passion, her Italian passion, with all of us.
Good morning Amy, and thanks for being with us. As a first question, I would like to ask you to tell us something about yourself and your Italian-ness: where were you born, in what part of Italy do you have your origins?
Good morning to you! It is a pleasure to be interviewed by you! I would be happy to tell you about my Italian-ness! I was born in Jamestown, New York. I am a fourth-generation Italian American, with great-grandparents from Calabria on both sides. In the little town I grew up in, most people had roots in Sweden or in Sicily and I remember thinking about what distinguished us as Italian even as young as age three.
Usually Italian American women and men learn their first cooking lessons in the family. Was that the case for you as well?
Yes! All of my family played a role in my culinary education from the start. My mom used to sit me on the counter and let me roll meatballs and Italian cookies with her. My maternal grandmother taught me to make Easter bread and Christmas cookies. My father used to watch National Geographic with me and we would discuss what the different people of the world would eat. My paternal grandfather was a cook in the military, so I used to cook with him as well since he lived next door. He was used to rations in World War II, and was always challenging me to cook with substitutions or missing ingredients. I used to hate it as a kid, but it became really important in my career and in cooking around the world. I never got to cook with my paternal grandmother, who passed away when I was only three, but they tell me that she loved baking like I do. My grandfather remarried a Greek lady, and she became my YiaYia. I learned traditional Greek recipes, religions, and customs from her. Of course, as you know, Calabria was the core of Magna Grecia, so it was an extension of my (Italian) roots.
I’d like to start from the art of cooking, even if of course you’re much more a chef, as if being a chef wasn't already something wonderful and challenging. What is your relationship with cooking, with food, with the art of creating dishes from ingredients that you choose, process, cook, bring together and combine?
One of my friends, the great African American poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller, wrote these lines for me; “There are love notes in the kitchen, just heat and serve.” I love them because I do believe that food is edible love that we can demonstrate to everyone. I firmly believe that each meal is an opportunity to honor our ancestors, our communities, our world, and ourselves. That sentiment is with me from the time I start planning a meal or a dish through when I cook it and serve it. Fortunately, this is the essence of genuine Italian cooking, so I am not alone. I like the way that you asked this question because cooking isn’t about just one thing, it is about all of the subjects in the world combined; science, accounting, art, history, culture, nutrition, mathematics, philosophy, diplomacy, etc., etc., and your question shows that you understand this.
Personally, there are several factors that I enjoy the most, beginning with making the menus. I often think of a sentiment or a poem that I would like to express with my meal, and then I begin to plan. There are few things I love more than writing menus. In cooking the food, I like the challenge of being able to coax the maximum flavor, nostalgia, and health benefits out of a few ingredients. I like to use food to create a positive emotional shift in myself and others.
When I am writing, I want my readers to learn about history and health while being able to recreate my dishes or ideas at home. I like to say that by the time you finish reading one of my books, you will not only know about the food and history of a certain place, but of the people who created them.
As I was saying, you are much more than a chef. You are a food historian, a culinary anthropologist and a Mediterranean Diet advocate. You are a successful writer, and a media personality, and educator. Can you please describe how do you do all of this to our readers?
I hope so! I jokingly say that I have occupationally-imposed ADHD, which means that I need to juggle a lot of different ideas at the same time in order to stay satisfied and be creative, but I know that other people focus in different ways. I am fortunate to have built my career in a way that many parts of it organically overlap nowadays. I spent a decade researching culinary history, and more time than that writing and presenting on the anthropological aspects on how people eat for universities, the Library of Congress, embassies, and organizations like the Smithsonian and National Geographic. I am able to incorporate that work into my writing, educating, and filming.
I never set out to do all of these different things. The only thing that I knew was that I was more interested in educating people than in the day to day operations of running a restaurant, so in 2007 I made a vow to myself that I would find a way to make writing about the things I love be my livelihood. My mentor told me that I would never make enough money to support myself from writing alone (many people hold this belief in the US), so I should try to do three things at once. At the time, the three things were write books, teach, and write magazine articles. They wall worked together and paved my career path.
Over the years the “three things” have changed due to the market and technology. In terms of time, it is my books, the private culinary tours that I lead to Italy, Greece, and Morocco, selling my own line of top-quality Italian products called Amy Riolo Selections, and working as a brand ambassador for organizations such as the Maryland University of Integrative Health, Ristorante d’Amore in Capri, and the Pizza University & Culinary Arts Center that keep me the most busy.
I am also the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a company called ISE, LLC which helps Italian companies market and promote their products in the US. To answer your question about how I do everything, I would have to say that I work a lot more than most people. Even though what I do is fun, and I love it so much that sometimes it doesn’t feel like work, it still is. The logistics behind what I do alone is a full time job, let alone the actual work. I usually work 6 days a week, and up until the pandemic, I was always working 7 days.
I have a different schedule every day, but I try to schedule in time for what brings me joy. I keep detailed lists and schedules and have learned to break down the big projects into daily work so that I don’t miss deadlines. Most days consist of a combination of cooking, baking, writing, communications, meetings, podcasts and interviews, media queries, marketing efforts for my books and products. I usually film once a week, which involves its’ own prep work.
How much of being Italian is fundamental for your work?
Being Italian is fundamental to my very existence. I don’t know what it would be like to be anything else. I have always had a strong desire to create, to see more beauty, and to care for others in a way that is very typical in Italy. Even my love of the past and history, my desire to follow in my great-grandparents footsteps and desire to pass traditions down is integral to everything to me. The feeling of being “at home” only ever occurs to me when I am in Italy. I get it in Crotone, Calabria when I see the Ionian Sea or when I walk through the centro storico where my grandfather used to live. There is a deep sense of belonging that I get from my relatives in Italy that affects me at a core level. It is like I was always missing something until I went there and met them. It is as if Calabria created my sensibilities and all of Italy confirms them. I have written about many topics, countries, and cultures, but it is my Italian sensibilities (love of beauty, art, la buona tavola, and history) and a deep desire to foster harmony that informs my work the most.
In the practical sense, I also work in Italy a great deal. I have business partners in Abruzzo and Molise. Relatives in Rome and Calabria. Producers of my Amy Riolo Selections products in Liguria and Emilia Romagna, and friends and colleagues everywhere, especially Napoli. Nowadays I spend more time speaking Italian on a daily basis in the US than I do English because I am in constant contact with Italy.
How difficult is it to educate the American people to the original Italian culinary culture, with all its characteristics?
Educating Americans is not difficult at all, because generally speaking, especially in the Washington, DC area where I live, people are interested, curious, and want to learn. What is extremely difficult is “undoing” more than a century of mis-information about Italian food in this country. In this lecture that I did for the Italian American Museum of LA, you can see how prejudice and industrialization, as well as a need for a new consumer market caused all kinds of incorrect information about Italians and Italian food to become common in the US.
When you combine that with restaurants and food product companies that want to make money off of the Made in Italy brand without putting the quality and craftmanship behind their dishes and labels, it is no wonder people are confused. Even the Italian Americans are confused. Fortunately, I have dedicated my life to this, as have many other passionate and qualified people, and together we will help people to be able to discern what is authentic so that they can make better choices to live and eat in a better and more healthful manner.
If you were to describe the difference between Italian and Italian American cuisine, what words would you use?
Quality vs. Quantity. In Italy quality has always prevailed over quantity. In the US, it is the other way around, and the food of all immigrant groups, not only Italians, fall victim to this. When it comes to food, the biggest usually does not mean the best. It’s better to spend money on the best produce and ingredients you can, and use less of them to be healthier and happier.
You mentioned this earlier: what is your idea of the problem of Italian sounding, the use of products that pretend to be Italian but are not, and which does enormous economic damage to the export of real Italian products?
In my newly released 11th book, Italian Recipes For Dummies, I have an entire section called “Stocking an Italian Pantry” which includes info on “Identifying Prized Italian Products and “Learning to Read Labels to Get More For Your Money.” I have also led conferences and written magazine articles for the topic. The truth of the matter is that if you buy the genuine products, you are guaranteed that they are made according to standards and traditions which not only keep communities thriving economically, but are part of a healthful lifestyle. If you are buying a fake Italian cheese, for example, that is full of chemicals to maintain its’ color and preservatives to maintain is’ freshness, made with milk that wouldn’t be permissible for drinking in Italy and not aged properly, you are getting scammed, not saving money. It infuriates me that companies are allowed to falsify information on labels, use misleading terms and often misspell Italian words so that they can make a profit. This is especially harmful to Italian Americans who over a century ago were forced to eat “American” food in the slums in New York by doctor-led campaigns to transform them into healthy Americans, and now are being offered fake Italian products. There are four and five generations of Italians in this country who lost both their culinary culture and their connection to the language.
What is the future of Italian cuisine in the United States, I mean the trend toward which our cuisine is evolving in the restaurants that continue to open in large numbers in America?
I see several new trends: 1) Italian ingredients in American restaurants – the use of Prosciutto di Parma, Calabrian peppers, and olives from Sicily, for example, is growing, even in non-Italian restaurants because people love the flavors. 2) New Italian Cuisine – a lot of Italian restaurateurs are opening up hip eateries and using Italian products in the American style, such as “burgers” made out of stracotto di manzo and serving Italian potato croquettes along with them instead of fries. Or they will offer a ham and cheese sandwich made out of prosciutto and Italian cheese instead of American ones. Others are making things like the classic American breakfast French Toast with Panettone instead of bread. 3) Pizza – Neapolitan and Neo-Neapolitan pizza trucks, restaurants, and to-go options in cafeterias and supermarkets continue to grow. 4) Street Food – Cibo di strada is growing in popularity in the US and many chefs are opening these types of restaurants instead of fine dining.
And what's in Amy Riolo's future instead?
Many more books, new Amy Riolo Selections products, and a new filming project.
Are there any new upcoming ventures that you would like to give our readers a preview of?
Yes! I am now working on my 12th book – Diabetes for Dummies, a medical book which teaches what everyone needs to know to avoid getting diabetes, or to live their best life once they are diagnosed. I’m writing the recipes for it as we speak. I am honored to co-write this book with Dr. Simon Poole. Last year I became a founding member of A.N.I.T.A. (Accademia Nazionale Italiana Tradizioni Alimentari), and I am also looking forward to exciting initiatives with them.
The last question is necessary, I hope you will forgive me but I have to ask it: sauce or gravy?
Sugo, sempre! LOL! That is my way of being politically correct and avoiding the topic. We always used the word sugo, but I use sauce in English. I am more concerned with how Italian Americans make there sauce than what they call it.
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