The Joy and Genius of Traditional Italian Home Cooking

After decades of living, cooking, and foraging in rural Italy, writer Frances Mayes shares what she’s learned from “cucina povera.”

The Joy and Genius of Traditional Italian Home Cooking

At an Italian table, nonna—or grandmother—is the authority.

Photo by Davide Bonaldo/Shutterstock

During the weeks, now months, of the pandemic, I’ve been confined to my kitchen as never before. Ingredients I took for granted, such as flour, yeast, whipping cream, and brown sugar, have been erratically unavailable. Fear of shortages, fear of the unknown, spurred me to plant the largest vegetable garden of my life. As I weed around the carrots and tie up tomatoes, I recall my mother’s stories of the Great Depression and English friends’ memories of their parents’ World War II rationing and the intense deprivations long after. What else that comes to mind vividly is my own admiration for cucina povera, the traditional cooking of the poor in Italy. In times of want, which historically have been all too frequent, a cook had to make do with what was available. This is true in every country, necessity being the brood mother of invention. The inconvenience of no whipping cream has nothing to do with the scrounging and stretching of the cook facing bare shelves.

Before I knew the term cucina povera, poor kitchen, I tasted the results. When my husband Ed and I first visited the Tuscan trattorie in 1990, waiters offered two wines–bianco or nero—white or black. Menus could have been printed at a central office because they were all the same. This was fine with us—we loved wild boar with the wide-pasta pappardelle, the hearty bean and bread soup ribollita, grilled sausages, and the hefty grilled bistecca with oil and rosemary. After a while, we began to seek out the one or two specialties of each trattoria: sharp marinated zucchini at one, spinach gnocchi at another, the superb veal roast at a local hotel restaurant. One quality always stood out—the food was genuino. It tasted like what it was. The homemade wine, too. Some farmers were better vintners than others; I’ve had sour shellac at several tables. More often we quaffed down tumblers of earthy, fulsome “black” wine that tasted of the fruit it came from.

Back then, I’d brought several cookbooks along from the U.S., but when I began to be invited into Tuscan homes, and asked my neighbors how to make curly kale soup, or tortellini in brodo (start with a mature hen), or pappa al pomodoro (simplest of tomato soups), I shelved the books. They seemed fussy. I woke up to the realization that the immense variety of Italian food was expressed fully—and spontaneously—by frugal home cooks using what they had, no matter how limited that might be. The authority was nonna, grandmother, or bisnonna, great grandmother. None of my Italian friends used cookbooks at all—or even measuring cups and spoons, except sometimes for baking. And for that, most simply prepared crostata, fruit tarts, which they knew by heart. I’ve eaten at the best restaurants in New York and San Francisco, the ones with the hype, food shows, books. After dinners at the de Palme house and the Cardinali house and the Italiani house, I can’t worship at those urban temples. Italian home cooks have a depth of information on seasonal ingredients, a vast range of dishes they serve, and an inborn aptitude for knowing what’s ripe today. After years of cooking with them, I’m still in awe of the impromptu genius of the traditional cook. Follow the dropped crumbs and you’re led back to cucina povera.

Italian home cooks have a depth of information on seasonal ingredients, a vast range of dishes they serve, and an inborn aptitude for knowing what’s ripe today. After years of cooking with them, I’m still in awe of the impromptu genius of the traditional cook.

At the courts of the dukes, cardinals, and royalty, cooks had the freshest vegetables, best oil, cream, the choice cuts of meat. Aristocratic banquets featured stuffed peacocks with the tail in full spread, spun-sugar bird cages, succulent roasts and fanciful desserts. This tradition was not handed down. These were: lampredotto (the cow’s fourth stomach), stuffed pigs’ feet, and sausages. The quinto quarto, the fifth quarter, meaning offal, and discarded knuckles, tails, feet, neck, were left to the workers.

Cuisine was high/low because for much of history, Italy had a small middle class, unlike France, which developed a restaurant culture and an elaborate bourgeois cuisine. This is why, by my lights, Italians appreciate everything. Parts of the pig and cow I never thought would see light are served forth with relish, along with, hard to behold, a platter of songbirds. Hold one by the beak and bite, crackling bones and all. I have surreptitiously slipped many morsels of lamb heart, intestines of unweaned veal, and rabbit kidney to the side, but my friends love this country soul food. At Antonello’s, our electrician who has big casual dinners, we saw five boys head back to the stove for second bowlfuls of snails simmered in tomatoes and broth.

When I widen the aperture, I see cucina povera as a way of thinking and being, as well as of cooking. I’m always looking for what shapes the people of a particular spot on Earth: How do the land, history, and climate act to form the people into who they are? What does the poor kitchen have to do with character, with culture, even with how we are living on the planet? What does it have to do with my kitchen today?

Cameramen from Rome, delivery drivers, journalists from Milan, chance travelers from the Veneto or Sicily, who come to my house in Tuscany, may be citified, but within minutes they’re asking about the olives, testing the plums, pocketing a few lemons to take home. My neighbors are out for daily walks but they’re not just walking. They’re picking dandelions, spiky greens, snapping my fennel flowers; jumping a ditch and risking a broken collarbone for a few sprigs of asparagus. A foraging instinct spirals in the DNA. Foraging is kind of in with chefs worldwide, but I’m not thinking of a morning out collecting seaweeds or fiddlehead ferns. Italians forage out of an abiding bond with seasons and land.

Fig trees grow across Italy; harvesting wild mushrooms

Fig trees grow across Italy; harvesting wild mushrooms

Photos by Aabele; Alfie Samba

Those genius cooks of cucina povera, what did they look for? And now, too? In spring, after the gathering of yarn-thin wild asparagus, we move toward the time for crunchy green almonds, picked before the nut develops. In early summer, pick young stinging nettles and borage for filling ravioli. Fig trees pop up all over Italy, even in pavement cracks of parking lots. Get up before dawn to gather snails from damp stone walls. Green walnuts for making nocino, a spicy after-dinner drink. Truffles and mushrooms, of course. Fennel, both flowers and seeds. What a treat to find sour cherries. Wild mint to flavor meats and in the south to wrap with ferns around cheeses. Chestnuts! In hard times, chestnuts were lifesavers, gathered for making flour, as well as for roasting, stuffing, and serving after steeping them in a little wine. The difficult taste to acquire is the revered dessert castagnaccio, like a thick crêpe—a poor kitchen sweet if ever there was one. Chestnut flour, a bit of olive oil, a little rosemary. No sugar. Even with latter day additions of raisins and pinenuts, it’s still flat and ugly—loved for sentimental reasons.

Foraging: the opposite of selecting produce coated with wax, plastered with stickers, or passing up strawberries from Chile in winter. No prewashed lettuce compares to raunchy puntarella, a green related to chicory. During the rush of summer bounty, the extra artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, cooks preserve them sott’olio, under oil, to be pulled out when needed. Domenica and Gilda, great impresarios of their family kitchens, each put up around 300 jars of tomatoes at the end of summer. Beans and hot peppers. Fennel flowers and tomatoes dry on screens in the sun. The porcini and chestnut gathering among the majestic golden trees in fall signals the beginning of dinners by the fire. This is true today, true when I first arrived in Tuscany, and true as far back as memory goes.

Cucina povera’s defining heritage is that Italians have a deep-rooted connection to the earth. A second gift: a waste-not philosophy, crucial for us Earth dwellers. Cucina povera: Use every ounce of the pig, snout to tail, grill whatever your fishing line pulls in, grow what you can, shop frequently so that bunch of carrots or broccoli doesn’t wilt before you get to it. The habit arose from lack of refrigeration but results in less waste. Italians still have tiny refrigerators compared to most in the U.S. Shopping daily seems not a chore but a time to hear the news and talk about what you’re going to do with the kumquats or beets.

The primary waste-not example is bread. Loaves are bought almost daily from the local forno. This habit goes way back. (Oddly, the word connects with “fornication”—prostitutes used to gather around the bread ovens for warmth.) There’s going to be leftover bread. Ecco, the summery bread salad, panzanella. Ecco, the hearty bean and bread vegetable soup, ribolitta, and the bruschette, vehicle for a thousand toppings. A local man who was a child during WWII told me his breakfast then was a slice of bread moistened with wine and sugar. Babies today are given a hunk to soothe their gums.

Before a loaf turns hard as a baseball bat, there are the blessed crumbs. Who could imagine the myriad uses of humble bread crumbs? Toasted and tossed over pasta, crumbs in the poor kitchen mimicked parmigiano. Add an anchovy if you have one, with a splash of olive oil. Or red pepper flakes. Almost out of flour? Mix some with bread crumbs for a semblance of pasta. Now, I never toss out bread. Crumbs top soups, baked pastas, or salads. I love the story of the arsa flour in Puglia, which is valued for the great round loaves of that region, some weighing 8, 10 pounds; bread that is so hearty and delicious that you find yourself eating it like cake. Landowners used to burn off the wheat fields after harvest and the workers culled the ground, collecting charred grains to supplement their stash of flour. The toasty flavor became desired, and now you can enjoy farina arsa bread in the many great fornos of that region, especially in Altamura and Orsara.

Driving around Italy, you spot the old planting configuration of a wheat field bordered by olive trees and grapevines. There you have it, the sacred trinity: wheat, oil, wine. Cucina povera’s triumph: wheat, which means pasta and bread. Ah, what the home cooks did with pasta! Hundreds of shapes, whimsical, practical ridges to hold the sauce, delicate plump pillows, nails, radiators, braids, spirals, stars, elbows, lilies, half-sleeves, butterflies. Poetry and fun and most of all inventiveness from flour and water—nothing more basic, and yet even the simplest accompaniment can reach the sublime. Chickpeas or bitter greens, any bitter green crushed into a pesto, a handful of herbs, whatever you have. Good oil, and, with luck, a few shavings of truffle. Pasta’s infinite varieties prove the brilliance and solace of the poor kitchen.

Olive oil, in the Mediterranean world, is not just an ingredient, it’s a libation, a holy substance that connects you to the earth and promotes a sense of belonging in time.

The transformative ingredient in Italian food remains great olive oil. We began pressing ours as soon as we cleared the land that had been abandoned for 30 years. Picking olives in October connected us with the ancient cycle of the seasons. Olive oil, in the Mediterranean world, is not just an ingredient, it’s a libation, a holy substance that connects you to the earth and promotes a sense of belonging in time.

Our brand new oil, glowing like liquid emeralds, was a revelation. Trying to duplicate my friend Giusi’s stuffed zucchini, her arista (pork roast), even her plain green beans, we’d fallen short. Ours were good. Not as good. We watched closely. Whereas we drizzled olive oil into the pan, she flipped off the spout and poured. She used three times what we did. Four times.

We copied. Our food sparkled, and we learned: Douse your salads and grilled steak—but also rub a daub on an insect bite, baby’s umbilical cord, or stretch marks, or dry skin. Steep some with lavender and flavor your bath water. Pour a dribble on an orange and sprinkle with salt. Fry with it, yes, regardless of what you read to the contrary. For her family of four, Gilda uses one pound of butter per year. But she uses, as we do, at least a liter of olive oil a week.

I think the abiding connection to nature and the respect for what it gives lie at the heart of why Italians seem to feel at home in time. We become happy when we fall into natural rhythms, seasons, expectations. I love to see the ritmo, the rhythm, of dinner, which arrives in four distinct courses. Antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce. Each is savored and concentrated on. At the call “A tavola!” to the table, you flush with pleasure; you are coming into a celebratory ambience. Something wonderful is about to happen. No one speculates on how many calories are hiding in the ravioli.

I used to think the word “sinful” was the automatic adjective for “dessert.” Even in Sicily where they really know about hard-core desserts, it’s a concept I’ve never heard. Nor have I heard of a dish referred to as “your protein” or “a carb,” and there’s no dreary talk at all about glutens or fat content. After a long Italian dinner, I feel not only the gift of exceptional company, food, and wine but also an inexplicable sense of well-being, of revival. This healthy appreciation is directly connected to cucina povera. Revere what you have. Food is natural, eaten with moderation, yes, but with gusto. Here we are at the heart of the matter. Those great grandmothers knew all about gratitude and respect for what’s served forth.

In my years in rural Italy, growing vegetables, cooking, and foraging, everything I knew about wine and food enlarged. It’s transforming, when you feel doors you didn’t know were closed swing open.

“You never grow old at the table,” Tuscans say. The grinding wheel of time stops at the dining room door, leaving those who pass the pasta bowl suspended in the aromas of rising steam. In my years in rural Italy, growing vegetables, cooking, and foraging, everything I knew about wine and food enlarged. It’s transforming, when you feel doors you didn’t know were closed swing open.

We are at a big moment for change. The pandemic gives us a chance to rethink, control, reinterpret. I keep reminding myself that the Italian Renaissance flowering occurred after the plague. The wartime, hard-times grandmothers facing meagre cupboards developed one of the most loved cuisines in the world. Their heritage could not be more genuino. Here’s poet Cesare Pavese: “A gulp of my drink,” he wrote, “and my body can taste the life/of plants and of rivers.” The abundant ancestral table remains set for the best life has to offer.

Frances Mayes is the author of Always Italy, See You in the Piazza and four bestsellers: Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany and In Tuscany. All are about taking chances, living in Italy and the “voluptuousness of Italian life.” A widely published poet and essayist, Mayes has written numerous memoirs, books of poetry and novels. Formerly a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University, she now devotes herself full time to writing, traveling and restoring a historic garden. She and her husband divide their time between North Carolina and Cortona, Italy.

>> Next: Frances Mayes Will Never Tire of the Tuscan Sun

Always Italy, See You in the Piazza, Women in Sunlight, Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany, Under Magnolia Year in the World, TS Cookbook
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR