Ingredients are like musical notes, says cookbook author Letizia Mattiacci, and cooking is like composing music. The results, when done well, are pure harmony. Recently, Seattle audiences explored the unique culinary harmonies of Umbria with Mattiacci as their guide. Mattiacci, who owns Alla Madonna del Piatto Agriturismo and Cooking School outside Assisi, recently published her first cookbook, “A Kitchen with a View,” featuring more than 50 family-friendly recipes that are flavorful and easily prepared by anyone who wants to cook at home.
In Seattle, the kick-off city for her book tour, Mattiacci held several cooking events as well as an olive oil and wine tasting and a slide presentation about life in Umbria. Other stops included Boise, Idaho; Palm Springs, Cal.; and Nashville, Tenn. We interviewed Mattiacci one spring morning on the shores of Lake Washington.
Your first career was as a behavioral ecologist. How did you transition from a life of research to one that focused on food and cooking?
As a scientist for 15 years, primarily working with universities, I traveled a lot. I spent a year in the U.S. and also lived in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. During that time, I found out if you are Italian, people immediately think you know about food. I was always bringing huge trays of food to parties. After a while, my husband and I wanted to settle down and start a family. The thought of a cooking school surfaced around 1996, and we opened our business in 2003.
How did you decide on Assisi?
I am originally from Perugia. One year when we were visiting my family during Christmas break, we saw a large run-down house on the hillside overlooking Assisi. It was ugly and falling apart, but we fell in love with the hills and the view. It took us about five years to renovate the house.
Tell us more about Alla Madonna del Piatto.
We rent rooms and I teach guests how to prepare authentic Italian food. It’s home cooking with an emphasis on the word “home.” I am not classically trained and I have never spent a day in culinary school. My focus is on simple combinations of excellent local ingredients, with minimal manipulation. When you use the very best ingredients, you can leave the food in peace and let it speak for itself.
What makes your cookbook different from all the others?
My book combines my recipes with the personal stories of people who contribute to our local culture. Food is important to the culture of a place and so many things are needed to put a meal on the table. There are people who produce your food, like butchers and cheese makers, as well as artists who increase your enjoyment at the table, such as weavers who make the tablecloths or ceramic artists who create beautiful bowls. In my cookbook, I describe my life from my kitchen window with its beautiful view, and then I go out into the community and introduce readers to the people who help me produce a local meal.
Who are some of these local artisans?
Take porchetta, a famous Umbrian specialty. We buy our porchetta from Danilo Trabalza. He makes only one porchetta at a time using the very best pork. But it’s not just the meat. He uses fresh herbs from his garden so it is even more flavorful and locally produced. Or Marta, who makes fine hand-woven textiles on an antique loom, a family tradition. I wanted their stories to be told in my book.
How did you decide what recipes to include?
My focus is on foods that use fresh ingredients picked in season, and so in the book, the recipes are divided by the four seasons. Some recipes came to me immediately; others took a year to create and refine. And it wasn’t just about the food. Some recipes tasted fine but they just were not interesting. All of them were tested to make sure they worked for the general public. For example, orecchiette pasta was too difficult for most people to make by hand. They got frustrated with it, so that recipe was not included.
Do you have a favorite dish?
I am very proud of my pear-amisu. The use of pears makes it fresh and novel. I cook them in our local Sagrantino wine, a robust red. No matter how much pear-amisu I make, it all goes. It is a recipe that gives me a lot of pleasure.
What advice do you have for people who want to experience the “real Italy” when they travel?
Look for the locals and support them. These people make great sacrifices to do what they love; it’s not an easy life. So skip the outlet shopping and instead buy a pottery piece from an artist at the market, see how cheese is made on a family farm, or stay at a local agriturismo. Try, taste and stay local. When you experience something that belongs to that place, you will have a truly memorable experience.
For more information on Letizia Mattiacci and Alla Madonna del Piatto, visit: http://incampagna.com/