An interview with Mark Leslie author of Beyond the Pasta

On Wednesday I posted a review of a cookbook/memoir called Beyond the Pasta – Recipes, Language and Life with an Italian Family written by Mark Leslie.

Photo courtesy of Mark Leslie

The great thing about doing this review (aside from reading the book of course) was being able to *meet* the author Mark.

Photo courtesy of Mark Leslie

His humour and open nature came through just as much in the interview as they did in his book. I jotted down a lot of questions while I was reading the book, some of them were answered in later chapters, some of them were more about the family and their fates (and quite possibly none of my business) rather than the book or Mark’s experience, so in the end and after some editing this is what we finally discussed:

FdP: Did you already have the idea for the book when you came to Italy or did it come after?

ML: The idea for the book came after I was home. While I was in Viterbo, I sent an e-mail home everyday describing the day’s events…food, field trips, experiences, how I succeeded and failed with the language, etc. After my return a friend suggested that I expand those brief e-mails into a book. I laughed it off, since I had never written anything before. She kept after me about it and in the mail one day I received a note card with a hand-drawn skull and crossbones and the inscription Write your book … or die! Well, after receiving a *pirate threat* like that, I had to start writing it!

FdP: When you talk to people about your travels to Italy, what, do you find is the biggest misconception that foreigners have regarding Italian food and Italian culture?

ML: That Italian cuisine is only pizza, and old dowdy grandmothers making pasta by hand 24/7, which is then slathered with thick red sauce. Not true on so many levels.

FdP: Do you try to set them straight or let it go? How do they react? Do you find it hard to change their perceptions?

ML: It seems the only true way to change a person’s perceptions about food is to serve it to them. I am finding that the Penne with Cream and Mushrooms recipe in the book is the best candidate for that. In September, I was at a book event where a restaurant prepared an entire meal using the recipes from my book. When the Penne with Cream and Mushrooms recipe was served, I told the group to look down and notice that a true Italian cream sauce is only that – cream. They were quite shocked that the pasta wasn’t drowning in a sea of thick white sauce as featured in most American Italian restaurant commercials. Everyone loved the simplicity of the dish and the fact that you could taste the balance between each ingredient. It was such a hit that the restaurant used my recipe three nights later as their dinner special. I think that is how you change a person’s perception of a cuisine.

FdP: Having experienced how a normal Italian family prepares and eats their meals, what part of Italian eating habits would most benefit North Americans?

ML: Portion size and the minimal use of processed food. I also think that there is something important about the lack of fast food and fast meals. In Italy, lunch around the table can take 90 minutes and dinner, even out at a restaurant, can take over 2 hours. An Italian waiter would never push you out of a table in the hopes of flipping it two or three times before the evening’s end. In America, everything seems to be about speed: quickly prepared, processed food eaten all on one plate in 30 minutes. Who has time to digest? And then there is the whole American notion of *all you can eat* and *doggie bags*. I have never been served more food than I could eat at one sitting in Italy. When my plate hits the table in Italy, I never think to myself *How in the world am I ever going to eat all of this?* – and that is even after I have eaten two prior courses.

FdP: Now let’s flip the table so to speak, are there any North American eating habits that would benefit Italians?

ML: Because America is a *melting pot* of cultures, I think our cuisine tends to be more varied. In America, you might only eat pasta once a week, while enjoying foods from Mexico, Asia, Germany, or something from your family’s heritage the rest of the week. There are foreign restaurants in Italy, but I have never gone or been taken to one myself.

FdP: So many people think that Italian food is just about pasta, which is why I love the title of your book, how did you come up with it?

ML: I am glad you noticed that. The book does have several pasta recipes in it, but there is no recipe for handmade pasta. There are plenty of Italian cookbooks that have handmade pasta recipes in them and, don’t get me wrong, Nonna did teach me how to prepare pasta in several shapes, but since we didn’t have handmade pasta everyday (I ate as much factory produced, dried pasta while there as I do at home). I thought that people would have a truer sense of Italian cuisine, especially when it comes to home cooking, if the book wasn’t all about pasta. It took me a long time to arrive at the title of the book. I wanted it to say Italy without using that word in the main title. Actually, I had the subtitle Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family long before I had the title. I wanted people to key into the fact that the book wasn’t a pasta cookbook – it was something more, like my experience had been. Last September, I was doing a show in Hilton Head, SC and late one night after rehearsal, when I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about my manuscript (I had only just finished writing it at that point), I took a barefoot stroll on the beach, under the stars, listening to the crashing surf. And while alone, talking to myself out loud about possible titles, it just popped into my head and that was that. Let’s say it was an inspiration from the sea!

FdP: You dedicated the book to the family you stayed with in Italy, how did they react to the book? Has Alessandra read it?

ML: When I started writing the book in 2008, my only goal was to get one copy published to give to Nonna. It was later that year when I told them I was starting to write a book about my time with them. We all had a great laugh at the idea of it. When I sent them the proof of the cover image in early 2010, with Nonna’s hands making gnocchi, they were REALLY honored to see it coming to life. They received the book in mid September and when I called Alessandra to see what she thought of it (they never read any of the book before it was published), her reply was

Bravo! Marco, you have written a masterpiece … because it is all about us!

We laughed a lot. She has an incredible sense of humor, as does everyone in that family.

FdP: How did living in Italy for a month change your lifestyle? Eating habits?

ML: I really look for the freshest things when shopping at the grocery store. If I was planning on cooking a zucchini dish that evening and they don’t look so good, but the yellow squash does – I’ll change to yellow squash. I definitely learned that from Nonna – always buy the freshest ingredients.

FdP: Did you find it hard to integrate what you learned in Italy into your everyday life?

ML: Not really. Fresh ingredients simply prepared to showcase their flavors is not a hard thing to get in the habit of doing. In some way, it took a lot of pressure off of trying to prepare complicated *knock-out* dishes seven days a week. In Italy, I learned how to “knock you out” with ease and simplicity.

FdP: So many people believe that by eating *Italian* you will gain weight and that all Italians are heavy while in Italy it is believed that the *Mediterranean diet* is extremely healthy. How would you weigh in on this (pun intended – and let’s imagine that there is no gelato in the diet!) subject and have you noticed any changes in your own health/body?

ML: When I come back from Italy and tell people about ALL the food I ate, they always ask *How much weight did you gain?* I think they want me to say that I gained 50 pounds in two weeks while there. However, the fact is – I lose weight while on vacation in Italy! Some of it is diet (and I never pass up the chance to each as much gelato as possible) and some of it is the fact that I walk everywhere in Italy. I think, on average, most Italians walk more than most Americans. That basic exercise, reduced portion sizes, and the reduced amount of processed food and fast food really contributes to a healthier well being.

FdP: Do you shop differently now?

ML: I do. I tend to shy away from pre-packaged, processed food. I buy smaller cuts of meat in smaller amounts, too. It shocks me to go into a store and see fresh onions, already diced, in plastic containers for people to just pick up and buy. I think, if I don’t have a minute to chop an onion to release its freshest flavor at the moment I need it, then I don’t have the time to eat, let alone cook.

FdP: Any thoughts about doing a similar experience in another part of Italy?

ML: Yes and no. No, in the fact that Nonna cooked dishes from regions across Italy – from Venice, in the north, to Palermo, Sicily. I feel that I have a good sense of Italy’s cuisine. Yes, in the fact that Italy is also a vast land when it comes to the language. It is said that, even today, if a Venetian were to meet someone from Palermo that they would have a hard time understanding each other – even though they are both speaking Italian. I have been to several regions in Italy, but I am still yearning to go to Puglia (the heel of the boot) and far north toward Milan, just to experience the differences there.

FdP: At one point you wrote about craving bacon and eggs one morning, now that you are back home, is there a particular Italian ingredient or product that you miss?

ML: Is there time for a list?! When it comes to baking there is a product called Lievito Pane degli Angeli by Paneangeli. It is a leavening agent flavored with vanilla and pre-measured into packets. For the yogurt cake recipe in the book I had to substitute baking soda and vanilla extract for Nonna’s use of one packet of lievito. The cake still tastes great, but there is no substitute for the very Italian experience of tearing the packet open and smelling its heavenly vanilla scent before adding it to the batter. In fact, I craved it so much that I brought home a box of lievito from my last trip to Italy.

FdP: There are a lot of Italian products that don’t make it across the Atlantic (e.g. raw milk cheeses) which ones do you think Americans would go wild for?

ML: Funny that you mentioned cheese. Pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheeses are some of my favorite and I think few Americans know what there are, let alone their taste. In America, you can readily find Pecorino-Romano cheese, which is a salty, hard cheese used to grate in/onto dishes. However, in Italy, you find a wide range of pecorino cheese: soft, young, old, locally produced, even sheep’s milk ricotta. Also, I think Americans would really go wild for gelato. Now, you may say that you can get gelato in America now and that it is gaining in popularity and availability here in the states … BUT … there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, the same about the flavor of gelato in America and the real deal in Italy. Maybe it is the Italian air, or the fact that you have to go out to a gelatoria to get it, or that you have the opportunity to be sitting in a piazza and enjoying the view of an ancient fountain or building while eating your due gusti (two tastes) of the pure Italian heaven. Mi piace gelato molto! And I think Americans would, too.

FdP: You mention in the epilogue that you travel to Italy every year. Are you planning another book?

ML: At the moment, I am playing around with the idea of the second book being all about Nonna’s recipes … a cookbook with all 130 recipes I learned while living with the Stefanis. In my head its title is I am a Meat: An Italian Food Adventure. Of course, to understand the true humor of the title you’ll need to read Beyond the Pasta first.


Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to answer my questions and for all the support he offered for both posts. If you have any questions for Mark head on over to his website.  Don’t forget to leave a comment here on this post or on last Wednesday’s post for a chance to win a copy of his book, Beyond the Pasta – Recipes, Language and Life with an Italian Family!

2 comments to An interview with Mark Leslie author of Beyond the Pasta

  • When I was in L.A. recently, everyone wanted to know how I lost weight while in Italy.

    Mark sums it up well.

    This sounds (and looks) like a great cookbook.

  • Great, great interview Joanne! I loved when he said he was never served more food than he could eat in one sitting in Italy, and never said how in the world am I going to eat all this, even after two courses! I wish that applied everywhere, but sad to say portions are overboard here, anyway can’t wait to read the book!