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Articles by: Francine Segan

  • Art & Culture

    The Italian Food Connection

    Tell me about your connection with Italy.



    My connection with Italy is old. I grew up in San Francisco. Wherever I was, North Beach was always just around the corner. San Francisco’s version of Italian-American isn’t really Italian-American—it’s more pure, more Italian-Italian, more Southern Italian.  For me, my primal memories of food revolve around Italian cooking.

    Did you start cooking or did your family cook when you were young?

    My dad, not my mom, was the chef in the house. My mom was very good at opening bags of frozen food and heating them up.

    My dad, however, was an amazing cook. In fact, he used to eat at all the great Italian restaurants in the 1960s. He was a traveling salesman. He would come home and he would duplicate, to the letter, these wonderful dishes that he’d eaten.

    Back then America’s idea of Italian food was usually veal scalloppine and scampi. Wow, what delicious food! My dad made a really fine classic ragù. So, I fell in love with the fundamentals of Italian cooking at a very early age.

    On your travels to Italy, which regions affected your love for Italian food?

    The entire country, really. But the places that moved me most were Bologna and all of that fabulous, rich, earthy food that tastes like pure umami. Also, food from the deep South, in particular Salerno and around Naples. It’s like you’re in this completely different food universe when you think about those two parts of Italy. Both had a great impact on me.

    How did you divvy up the Italian articles during your nine years as editor-in-chief of Saveur?

    When I was working at Saveur, understanding Italian culture through its extraordinarily
    delicious and different kinds of cooking was completely natural. Our readers literally craved
    Italian content. You could dedicate an entire magazine to it every year for decades and still
    not tell half the story. The same goes for Rodale’s Organic Life; the basic ways in which Italian
    food is cooked matches the kind of material and content our readers are looking for. It’s
    the way they cook: this very pure, un-fancy, gorgeous way of cooking that celebrates the
    delicious taste of an ingredient. You can pull all sorts of tricks in the kitchen, but if you don’t have really great, delicious, fantastic ingredients, you’re not getting the real experience.

    Are there any articles you have assigned over the years that stand out as best capturing Italy?

    There are so many. But I think my very favorite Italian piece at Saveur dates many years back,
    from about 1996 to1998. The entire staff collaborated on a forty-five page piece on Venice,
    on Venetian food and culture. It was eye-poppingly beautiful! I can picture some of the recipes
    right now…

    How much attention will you pay Italy in your new magazine Rodale’s Organic Life?

    Because Italy has been such a leader in organic foods—it’s where Slow Food was born, after
    all—I predict it will appear in our pages often. As a matter of fact, we have an upcoming
    story about organic Sicily, and our January issue features an organic pasta, Monograno
    Felicetti. What I love about your work is how much color you add— culture, travel, history...
    My internal motto is: if you’re really interested in understanding a place you’re not familiar with, look at what that place eats. There is no better way to get at the heart and soul of a
    culture than to taste what it eats. It’s also a very pleasurable way to do anthropology!

    * Noted public speaker and food historian Francine Segan co-produces with i-Italy the TV series “Americans in Love With Italy.

    Watch the episode of James Oseland and Francine Segan >>>

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Mondo Nutella: Spreading a Piece of Italy Throughout the World

    Lately, Nutella is starting to make its way from the breakfast (and snack) nooks of Europeans, who have been enjoying this delicious cocoa and hazelnut spread for over 50 years now, to the hearts (and tummies) of Americans. 

    Padovani begins his informative and highly enjoyable book Mondo Nutella on a humorous
    note. The book’s first chapter, “Napoleon’s Fault,” traces the origin of Nutella back to the shortage of cocoa in continental Europe that the emperor caused by blocking trade with Britain. 

    As a result, Italian chocolate-makers decided to mix the declining supply of cocoa with hazelnut and created what is known in Turin as “giandujot.”

    A european delicacy “made in Italy”

    Thanks to the marketing genius of Michele Ferrero, this delicious and (for its time) innovative product derived from the more solid giandujot that literally “spread” throughout Europe beginning in the 1960s. 

    Michele Ferrero proved his genius right off the bat, renaming the product his father Pietro created in a pastry shop in Alba, Northern Italy. The product was originally called “Supercrema.” Ferrero combined the word “nut,” whose root comes from German, one of the most widely used languages in Europe, with the suffix “-ella,” giving the name a more “Latin” flavor.

    He also placed great emphasis on the quality of the products used to make Nutella and other goods attached to the Ferrero brand, which is a common selling point for successful Italian products. As a result, sales went up and Nutella became a staple product, beloved by children – and their parents – all over Europe.
     

    Nutella and pop culture
    As Padovani explains in his book, much of Nutella’s success derives from its association with famous figures – in fact, the book has an entire section dedicated to the social significance of Nutella, including its string of advertisements featuring prominent Italians and foreigners. Thanks to such ingenious marketing, the product became an integral part of Italian, French and German society.

    Its presence in popular culture is astounding. From TV ads to websites to social media outlets, Nutella is found everywhere. Even more striking, as well as extremely effective, is the unsolicited celebration of the product by influential figures, including politicians, actors, musicians and athletes.

    Reflecting their genuine love for Nutella, people often mention it on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook. And sometimes those people just happen to be Lady Gaga, who made casual mention of her fondness for the spread while tweeting about the success of her new album. Official or not, the wealth of online publicity has certainly played a huge role in the recent diffusion of the delicious spread on this side of the Atlantic.

    The land of peanut butter may not lack for spreads, nevertheless it has enthusiastically welcomed Nutella into its supermarkets, restaurants and kitchens. Credit for its popularity is also due to initiatives like Eataly’s Nutella Bar in New York, where the creamy chocolaty spread is served with Italian favorites like gelato, fruit, pastries, and other European staples like crepes and waffles.

    Too see the epidose with Francine Segan with Dino Borri and Gigi Padovani >>>

  • Art & Culture

    Italian Cinema: Where Art and Comedy Coexist

    Where does a film buff go when he or she visits Italy?

    I think if you really want to do almost anything in film, you have to go to Rome, because that’s where most of the producers are, but Bologna, for example, has the best film archive in Italy. They do wonderful restorations, especially of early Italian silent films, and we once helped the archive with a big restoration project, and we have continued to work with them over the years. But actually one of the recent shifts in Italian film is that it has become quite regional. You now have filmmakers who live and work not only in Milan and Sicily, but in Naples, in Bari, and places you never really thought of as filmmaking centers. But now, of course, with the new equipment people can make films anywhere.

    That’s very true. What have been some of the more successful Italian films in the Lincoln Center series?

    Of all the Italian shows that I’ve done, I guess the one that I’m most proud of was a very big show on Neo-Realism. Italian Neo-Realism is, for me, one of the watershed moments in film history. It’s really kind of a game changer – not only for Italian but for world cinema. Unfortunately, as happens over time, when people say in the U.S. would talk about Neo-Realism, they were only talking about three or four films, and those were always the ones that we showed.

    Can you give us a little 101 on that time period?

    We are talking about right after the war, when Italian film studios were largely destroyed or very seriously damaged during the war. Italian filmmakers began taking their cameras out into the streets, shooting with natural light in real locations. Very often the films told stories about common people. In a way they offered a very different kind of cinema than people had been used to. And it had a huge effect all over the world. It was a different way to make films.

    Can you name a few exemplary films we might know?

    Rome: Open City, The Bicycle Thieves, La Terra Trema. Those are the classics one thinks of when you think of Italian Neo-Realism, the four or five that get shown repeatedly. And they should. They’re great films. But it always bothered me a bit that the movement was actually much broader more interesting than people tend to know. So I decided I wanted to do a very large series on Neo-Realism. After a few years and with the help, of course, of friends in Italy, I was able to put together about 40 films from the period 1945 to 1954. We held a major retrospective of the genre at Lincoln Center in 2009. I was very, very proud of that series because I think it helped shift the discussion and open people up to a whole other group of directors, such as Lattuada, De Santis, Germi, and others who had, in a certain way, been forgotten a bit in this country.

    What are a few of these lesser known but worthy films?

    Oh gosh, there are so many. The Railroad Man by Pietro Germi, or Lattuada’s The Thief or Senza Pietà – I mean, these are films that give us different shapes and flavors of Neo-Realism. In a way, I wanted to round out that picture [of Neo-Realism] as much as I possibly could. And again I think it had a nice impact; the series was extremely popular. And I’m glad to find in academia people now have a somewhat broader notion of what Neo-Realism was about.

    Can you tell us some other periods of Italian filmmaking that you think readers ought to know about?

    Again, there’s so much. Italian cinema is just one of the richest of all national cinemas. Certainly the period in the 50s and early 60s was a moment when Italian cinema seemed to be able to do no wrong. On the one hand, Italy had what you might call very serious artistic masterpieces by people like Fellini and Antonioni, and a little bit later by Bellucci or Bellocchio. At the same time, they produced fantastically successful popular cinema, wonderful Italian comedies from that era by Monicelli or Dino Risi. I think one of the strengths of Italian cinema was that both of these segments coexisted.

    It is a rich film history. What about contemporary Italian movies?

    Well, I was really happy that last year the Oscar went to La Grande Bellezza, which I think is a terrific film by Paolo Sorrentino, but there really is a lot of really good Italian filmmaking going on. I think it’s really not so much the fault of the Italians as it is of our own very limited film culture here in the United States. Very few cinemas show foreign language films and unfortunately the audience for that kind of cinema has dwindled.

    Is there a hallmark of Italian film that differentiates it from a Spanish or American film?

    I think it’s very difficult to make such distinctions. How do you describe one brand of cinema that contains both Antonioni and Totò? There is an enormous range of sensibilities presented there. So I think it’s hard to really say there is a single essence of Italian film. Again, for me, I would say that one of the hallmarks of Italian cinema has been its ability to keep a balance between popular cinema and a more ambitious kind of filmmaking. 

  • Francine and F. M. Abrahm
    AS SEEN ON i-ITALYTV: Francine Segan interviews F. Murray Abraham
    Art & Culture

    Italy Is My Second Home, It’s That Simple!

    Murray Abraham may be best known for his Academy Award-winning performance as Antonio Salieri, the famous Italian composer, in the film Amadeus, but he has also starred in such fine films as All the President’s Men, Scarface, The Name of the Rose, and last year’s hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel. He’s also made dozens of films in Italy. This year, he starred in the Mystery of Dante, directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Louis Nero. In 2004, F. Murray was given the “Premio per gli Italiani nel mondo,” an award from the Italian government. F. Murray is also renowned for his theater and television work, and is a regular on the award-winning series Homeland. I’m thrilled he’s accepted to chat with us about his connection to Italy. 

    Let’s start with your ties to the bel paese. What does Italy mean to you?

    Italy is very important to me – for a couple of reasons. First of all, my mother is from Italy: Giusseppina. Because she was so proud to be Italian, she made sure that her three sons were very aware of the country. I have also made a lot of movies in Italy with very good people. It’s my second home. I’m very offended that people have a stereotype of what Italy and Italians mean. They seem to forget the Italian Renaissance; they seem to forget Galileo and Michelangelo and Leonardo and Caravaggio. They forget that they are some of the greatest artists who ever lived. 

    Tell me a little bit more about your mother. What was it like when you were little in her home? What Italian things did she add?

    My mother was from a family of fourteen. My grandfather, Bruno, was a coal miner, on his hands and knees six days a week for 24 dollars a week. He raised fourteen children. My mother was the world to me. I’m a real Italian son; I worshipped her. When I wanted to become an actor, everyone was against it except my mother. 

    Can you tell us a little about your recent portrayal as Dante

    I can tell you that that is one of the most important films I made – a very little film, but very important. Nero was responsible for it. I think Nero is one of the most important filmmakers in Italy today. He’s a very smart man and we based a lot of what we did on the classic mystics in history. There are still important, very independent filmmakers like Nero. There aren’t enough of them, but I think they’re coming up. 

    You have performed with some of the great female Italian actresses—Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale… Do you have any good stories to tell? 

    Let me tell you something about Sophia. We were working with Lina Wertmüller, and my mother, at the time, God rest her soul, was very sick in America. I asked Sophia if she would mind calling her to say hello, because all Italians love Sophia. She called my mother and spoke to her for about 25 or 30 minutes. That’s just the kind of woman she is. It meant everything to me. If for some reason I had to leave America, my first love, I would move to Italy immediately. When I’m in Italy, I feel like I am at home. It’s that simple. I think most people feel the same way. I teach once a year at Cinecittá. I teach Shakespeare and I have a translator for people who don’t speak English because my Italian is terrible. Last year, for example, I taught The Merchant of Venice and I had everyone perform certain scenes. It was such a good experience that I have been invited back every year. I just feel like I could live there very easily. It’s as though I had another life at one time and I lived in Italy. No matter where I go there – the north, the south – because I ‘ve worked all over, I’m always welcome there. I never feel uncomfortable or unsafe. People talk about Italy like you have to be careful, but that’s not true. That’s a lie. I love good wine and I love good food, so I think I must belong in Italy.

  • Life & People

    Falling in Love with NYC’s Italian American Culture

    Despite being an Irish-American, your passion for Italy and Italian American cuture emerges in several works of yours. Where does this Italian connection come from in your life? 

    Well, I’m from the Bronx originally and I lived there until I was nineteen. My father was a 
    meatpacker and my original connection to Italy was through meat. My father would come home with white butcher paper with blood running through it. It was the meat he brought home from the slaughterhouse for us to have for dinner.

    I only had certain kinds of meat before I went to an Italian-American household for the first time. They had a garden in the back and a bocce court and they marinated steaks in olive oil with oregano and garlic. They cooked them on an outdoor fire made with old grapevines. When I tasted that, I realized there was another world – that world, for me, was called Italy.

    So this love, which was first kindled by food, is that what led you to make Moonstruck? 

    ""Moonstruck" is my love letter to Italian- American culture in New York. I grew up with it. One of the houses I went to was my friend Alfonso Antonio Striano’s. I stayed at his mother Theresa’s one night. When we got ready to go out to the club, Al was combing his hair very elaborately at his mother’s vanity table and sprayed his hair with a product called “Hidden Magic,” which was, as far as I knew, a product for women. I spent the night, and in the morning his mother served me for breakfast this falling-apart meat in marinara sauce. "
     

    For breakfast? 

    "For breakfast! With a can of Coke. I thought I was in outer space! In my house, it would be toast and eggs or cereal or something. I was like, “Where am I?” But I realized I really liked it. They would talk  very openly about sex while you were having your breakfast. It was everything that my house was not; it was the other half of my life that I walked through the door and found. That’s why, later on when I became a writer, I wrote that love letter to Italian Americans in New York and called it "Moonstruck". "
     

    Why did you make Ronnie, the Nicholas Cage character, love opera?

    "One of the questions I ask when I’m making a movie is: What am I going to photograph? What do I find beautiful? I find the opera very beautiful, both the physical production and, obviously, the production of exquisite sound, music and the human voice—it’s a celebration of all that is possible with the human voice. 
     

    To put that together with the exoticism that I experienced in these Italian-American households—in their clothing, in their food, and in their attitude toward life—it all came together for me as an opera. It was very important for me to make the culminating experience, this connection these two people have, be the opera, because, in a way, that was Italian-American culture for me. "

    I had the wonderful opportunity to see your play, Cellini, in Italy. What motivated you to write about Cellini?

    "As soon as I read his autobiography I was on fire to do it! It is an incredible document that Cellini dictated to a fourteen year-old boy while under house arrest for sodomy in Florence. It was in the vernacular, and the vernacular that Cellini spoke in the sixteenth century was so close to the vernacular of the Italian-American New Yorker… It was no leap at all for me to adapt this and feel like I knew these people. And then at that same time I had run into a Sardinian who worked in New York named Antonio Sardù. He had come to see a play of mine that I was staging at Vassar College. He said to me, “I have a dream of raising money and getting together a group of artists to go to Italy and work there and put on a play.” And I said, “You’re going to do it one year from today! I’ve just read this book. I am going to write a play about "Benvenuto Cellini". You raise the money and we will go.”
     

    Your play places Cellini in Rome and in Florence. What springs to mind when you think of Florence and Rome? 

    "When I think of Rome, I think of the Pantheon and seafood. In Florence, I think of the steak and I think of the [statue of] Perseus. It’s nice to have art and dinner as your left-and-right memories of a city.
     

    I grew up in an Italian-American culture and I really liked it. One of the houses I went to was my friend Alfonso Antonio Striano’s. It was everything that my house was not; it was the other half of my life that I walked through the door and found. That’s why, later on when I became a writer, I wrote that love letter to Italian Americans in New York and called it "Moonstruck". "
     

    Let’s conclude with Italian American Reconciliation and your special relationship with Italian-American actor John Turturro…

    ""Italian American Reconciliation" was the first play I ever directed and indeed I wrote it for John Turturro, with whom I had recently collaborated on Danny and the "Deep Blue Sea". I subsequently was going to do my first film with him, which was called Five Corners. This was in the late 1980s. John has grown a lot since. A few years ago, he did a beautiful film about the music of Naples ("Passione"), which I strongly recommend. We’ve always had a very strong reciprocal energy that came from the fact that I had this love of Italian-American culture. We just spoke the same language. "

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Do You Speak Espresso?

    Italy serves espresso in dozens of ways—from short shots (caffé ristretto) to “long,” from espresso with a touch of milk (caffé macchiato) to a glass of milk with just a dash of espresso (latte macchiato) to the in-between (caffélatte).

     Many Italians prefer their espresso al vetro, served in a glass, partly because it allows you to 
    see the gorgeous dark brew and frothy, caramel-colored crema.

    One of Italy’s most popular ways to make iced coffee is shakerato. Pour a shot of hot espresso and ice, mix it in a shaker, then strain it into a martini glass. The espresso should be freshly brewed to preserve the aroma and flavor. Espresso and ice can be mixed in an electric mixer for a frothier frappé shakerato. My favorite is made by a barista named Paolo at the Café Rivoire in Florence. He lines the glass with cocoa powder so that, when he pours in the frothy iced coffee, the drink has a lovely decoration. 
     
    Ways to enjoy espresso with a hint of chocolate in Italy
    In the Tuscan seaside town of Tonfano espresso is served in chocolate-edged mini wafer cones.
    The marocchino was invented in the 1930s in the town of Alessandria, in Piedmont, home to famed Italian hat makers. The drink is named after the rich brown Moroccan leather used at the time for making hatbands. The secret to making a marocchino is to use a dose of froth equal to the amount of espresso and add a generous layer of cocoa powder to divide the two layers.
     
    Bicerin is a decadently delicious concoction consisting of a bottom layer of thick hot chocolate topped with a shot of hot espresso and finished off with cool, softly whipped cream. Bicerin, which means ‘small glass’ in Italian, was invented at the Café Al Bicerin in Turin in the 1700s as an afternoon pick-me-up for its aristocratic female patrons. Echoes of the place’s history persist in the Café’s all-female employment policy, remarkably still enforced.  Owner Maria Costa explains, “Back in the 1700s only females were allowed to work in Café Al Bicerin so that its lady clientele could visit un-chaperoned. We have kept that tradition for over 200 years.” With a twinkle in her eye, Ms. Costa adds, “We have also kept the formula for bicerin a secret for those 200 years!”
     
    Italian Coffee Lingo
    Il caffé deve essere caldo come l’inferno, nero come il diavolo,

     puro come un angelo e dolce come l’amore — “Coffee should be hot as hell, black as the devil, pure as an angel, and as sweet as love.” In Naples you’ll often hear locals order un espresso con le tre C, with the three C’s. The C’s are code for comm cazz coce, an R-rated expression that refers to men’s anatomy and means “piping hot!” (and note that not just the coffee but the cup too is served so hot that it literally burns your lips). 

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