Italian Food as a Muse: A Writer’s Inspiration
by Andrew Cotto contributor
October 6, 2020
Award-winning writer and La Cucina Italiana Contributor Andrew Cotto shares how Italian food inspires his novels.
Inside my novels, along with the familiar narrative essentials of characters and setting and plot, there is enough Italian food to fill an Italian cookbook. I didn’t do this by design, I just kept feeding my characters Italian food until it became clear that my muse is la cucina italiana!
I’m Italian-American, so I grew up eating the food of my Sicilian ancestors. As an adult, though, I converted into an identity I consider “American-Italian” which refers to my profound embrace of the Italian peninsula from American shores. This romance began in New York City where I started eating in restaurants featuring cuisine from regions beyond the familiar homelands of Italian immigrants.
My first trip to Italy was not to seek ancestry in Sicily but to enjoy the cuisine of Tuscany and Rome. After two days in Florence, I decided to change my life: to temporarily move to Italy and become a writer (a career dream I had deferred until that point). Soon enough, I was there, for one year, living in the hills south of Florence and writing my first novel, The Domino Effect, which included many references to food within the coming of age story of an Italian-American kid from Queens.
Back in New York, I wrote a second novel, Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery, featuring a chef for a protagonist who uses his expertise with Italian cuisine to navigate an unwelcoming environment and eventually solve a mystery.
At this point, my agent recognized food writing as my forte. She suggested a novel set primarily within a restaurant, featuring a famous chef, but I had another idea.
Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure is the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave. The primary reason he does not want to leave is because: The. Food. Is. So. Good!!!
There’s a traditional plotline, too, involving a pursuit of ancestry in Italy and escape from personal issues in America, but the main character’s motivation, and the 24 meals from which it is inspired, is driven by the everyday accessibility of exquisite food products, lovingly prepared.
Our protagonist is transformed by the fact that eating well in Italy is a right, not a privilege, and that eating well greatly informs his overall wellness, as he is physically nourished but also emotionally empowered. He’s happy in Italy like nowhere else, and the food (and wine!) is the reason.
And that’s what I’ve come to realize through my own obsession with Italian food: It is, through a perfect combination of elements, the source of immense goodness in the world. People who love Italian food have a love of life that is unrivaled. Personally, there’s nothing I’d rather do than enjoy la cucina italiana with people whom I care about (preferably in Italy).
And, as a writer, when people ask what inspires my work and my decision to pursue this challenging vocation, the answer is easy: Italian food made me do it.