Thirty years ago, Frances Mayes abandoned her life as a university professor and poet in San Francisco and blew her savings on a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the rolling hills of Cortona, Tuscany. Eleven books later, including The New York Times bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes continues to call Bramasole—Italian for “it yearns for the sun”—her home away from home. She and her second husband split their time between Tuscany and Hillsborough, where they’ve lived for the past ten years on a former farm with a thriving vegetable garden, just two miles outside of town.
In mid-August in Raleigh, Mayes appeared before two hundred fans at the Art of Living Well Speaker Series at The Cardinal at North Hills, a senior living community. There, she shared stories of eight-hour dinners seated outdoors at long tables under the stars.
The Georgia native has always believed that the sun was her oldest friend. In her Italian farmhouse, Mayes says she learned to live by the seasons and with the sun, rather than the clock. Italians thrive on local markets and cultivate every last inch of the land they live on with flowers and vegetables. Mayes says that food in Italy isn’t a cult, but a culture—a sense of community that’s been influential to her work.
Mayes’s new book, See You in the Piazza, is a travel narrative that journeys to some of the best off-the-beaten-path restaurants in Italy, unearthing a quintessential taste for each region.
“The most vivid pleasures of Italy are the simple ones,” she writes.
The INDY spoke with the celebrated author about why she’s chosen Hillsborough as her second home, as well as the up-and-coming Italian chefs, who, like many Southern cooks, are innovating with creative, modern spins on traditional, time-tested classics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
INDY: Why Hillsborough, of all places, when you could probably live just about anywhere? Does it remind you of Tuscany?
FRANCES MAYES: Hillsborough and Cortona are definitely linked. There’s an intense sense of community. San Francisco, where I lived for decades, is a cordial city, but there are fewer binding elements. I didn’t know, when I chose Hillsborough, how intense the social life would be, but it reminded me of where I grew up in Fitzgerald, Georgia, so I had an instinct for the life there. It’s a village that’s just packed with creative people—it’s where all the writers, painters, photographers, and artists live, so it wasn’t like moving to the country, even though we are in the country. We’d first lived in Durham when we moved to North Carolina, but we started making friends with all the writers in Hillsborough and saw that it was the right place for us.
Not everyone has the ability to pack up their life and move to Italy. So how might one bring the spirit of their travels to a place like Italy back home?
There’s so much going on with food in Italy right now, it’s just burgeoning the way San Francisco was forty years ago. There’s this innovating happening all over Italy, and I tried to get at that in See You in the Piazza—we were traveling everywhere to find new, unexpected places, and I realized how many incredible restaurants we found in these little, out-of-the-way places. I was realizing this pattern of chefs who love food, who had gone off to work in Milano, Rome, Paris, or the U.S., and had, like most Italians, this great attachment to home. So, after they’ve gone out and learned, they brought it back home with them.
What were some standouts?
La Subida [a family restaurant] in Cormòns [in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region] makes a pasta called “tadpole,” a new technique for pasta I’d never seen before. You mix the pasta dough—it’s quite thin—and you stand over boiling water with a colander with large holes and push the pasta dough through the colander. It comes out in these little tadpoles, and it was so good. It wasn’t easy, though—I had to make it three times before I caught on. Another one was from Del Cambio in Torino, a rice dish that uses two kinds of rice, venere [black rice], that you toast overnight in an oven at a very low temperature, and carnaroli [medium grain rice], that you boil without covering it. You’ve got these two types of rice in the dish, and it’s just stupendous.
Ingredients are everything, and the ingredients in Italy are very good because food is so important to Italians. They won’t put up with bad food. If you’ve got a restaurant and it’s not good, it’s not going to last, whereas here, some restaurants can limp along forever serving really mediocre food.
Where do you shop for real Italian ingredients in Hillsborough?
I don’t do a lot of Italian cooking here because I can’t get the same things I get in Italy—and I also love Southern food. When we come back in the summer, I’m all over the corn, tomatoes, shrimp, butter beans, and lady peas, if I can get them. But there are some things I can’t get here, like good polenta. They think here that polenta is cornmeal, and it’s not. Real polenta is a coarser grind. Usually, I do a lot of lightened-up Southern cooking, with not quite as much butter and cream as my mother used.
A lot of chefs are doing that here.
Most of the recipes in See You in the Piazza are not traditional Tuscan nor Italian recipes, because I wanted to reflect what these young chefs were doing, which is taking their local ingredients and being creative around them, just like what we were saying about Southern food. Several of the recipes are difficult, but traditional Italian food isn’t difficult, it’s easy. The ingredients are so good you don’t have to torture them. In these recipes, the chefs are mixing up the ingredients and having a lot of fun with them. They’re serving things in a real witty style, like roasted quail on a bed of hay, or they make a dessert that looks like an egg which you have to open. These kinds of whimsical, playful things are not a part of the Italian tradition—this, Nonna made it this way, and that’s the best way. Traditional Italian food is fantastic, and I love it, but it’s really great to see this new thinking coming in as well.
What do you think Americans could learn from Italian culture?
I don’t know whether it’s fit to print, but largely ignoring politics is one helpful thing. You can’t escape it here, and it’s poisoning our lives, the inundation of news and horror—a terrible government and a horrible president. The Italians are cynical—they’re also joyous and generous, but they do not take politics into their every waking moment the way we do.
SPAGHETTI ALLA CHITARRA, RED SHRIMP, OLIVES, AND SQUIDSpaghetti alla Chitarra, Gamberi Rossi, Olive Leccino, and Calamaretti Spillo
Note: Spaghetti alla chittara is a type of egg pasta from the Abruzzo region of Italy. Traditionally, the noodles are cut on a machine with bronze strands reminiscent of guitar strings, which controls the width and produces a rougher texture. If spaghetti alla chitarra is not available, substitute with regular spaghetti or linguine. –Andrea Rice
The wooden form with bronze strands that cut the pasta resembles a guitar. Chitarra is known for the way sauce clings so nicely. Chef Alessio Di Micco of Ristorante Corteinfiore in Trani, Puglia shares quick and easy shrimp recipe is redolent of the South. I add a few shakes of hot red pepper flakes.
1 pound spaghetti alla chitarra (or pasta substitute)
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
16 cherry tomatoes
12 leccino or taggiasca olives (or niçoise), pitted
16 red shrimp, shelled and deveined
½ pound young squid, cleaned and cut in small pieces
1 cup fish stock
Salt, pepper, and chili flakes (to taste)
In a large skillet, in the oil, sauté the tomatoes and olives. Add the shrimp, squid, and seasonings. Add the fish stock, bring to a boil, then immediately lower the heat and simmer for about 12 minutes. Cook the pasta al dente in copious salted water. Drain. Serve on a hot plate with the seafood and sauce.
Reprinted from See You in the Piazza, New Places to Discover in Italy, by Frances Mayes, via FrancesMayesBooks.com with permission.
Contact food and digital editor Andrea Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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