Interview by Mary Kovach, Ph.D.
Originally published in ItalyUSA Magazine
Italian-American author Andrew Cotto was born in the United States but realized his Italian dream in the Florence countryside. He was raised in northern New Jersey and often cooking alongside his mother and grandmother in the kitchen, tasting the traditions of his family. Progressing through his career as an author, he inadvertently coupled his two passions – writing and good Italian food. Embracing his Italian roots, Cotto writes about a fictional character and many Italian meals in his most recent novel Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure. In this interview, you’ll learn about a life-changing decision on an expected family vacation in Italy, as well as the impact food has on Cotto’s writing, memories growing up in Italian kitchens, how food from his novels inspired new dishes, and insight into his upcoming projects.
Kovach: You are a contributing writer for La Cucina Italiana and you recently shared how Italian food inspires your novels. When did you realize that food had such an impact on your life?
Cotto: I didn't realize it at first! I just happened to have the characters in my first two novels really involved with Italian food as a matter of heritage and also personal interest (especially with the protagonist in my second novel, Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery, who was a cook). People started commenting on the food writing in the books, and when it came time for a third novel, my agent suggested I go all in with the food, so I decided to write Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure and have food be a driving force in the narrative.
Kovach: I’m sure you have many memories growing up in your family’s Italian kitchen. Is there one particular signature dish that stands out as a family favorite? If so, what is it and who makes it?
Cotto: Yeah, we were every Sunday at my grandmother's for lunch, and she really was an amazing cook. I still make many of her dishes today, and if I had to pick a signature dish, I would have to pick two: Her veal spiedini and her baked chicken. I made the former with Cara DiFalco on Cara's Cucina, and I recently posted the recipe to the latter on the Facebook page of "Italians Who Love Food."
Kovach: Do you enjoy cooking, and if so, what do you enjoy making the most?
Cotto: I love cooking, and I do so almost every night. I grew up cooking alongside my mother, who was very much into gourmet food along with Italian staples. I worked as a cook at the best restaurant in the town where I attended college. Most of what I make is of the Mediterranean variety, with more and more emphasis on vegetables and legumes, lean meats and fish. That said, my favorite thing to eat is lamb chops "Scottadito." Just sayin...
Kovach: You have Sicilian roots. What are some of your family’s traditions that you want to pass on to the next generation?
Cotto: This question bums me out because I feel like a fail on this one. I wanted to instill in my children the tradition of eating together every Sunday and really appreciating sharing meals together, but it never happened. I still have hope, though, and think that this might be more of an option now that they are somewhat older and less busy with the types of activities that fill contemporary American adolescence.
Kovach: You had an experience in Italy that transformed your perspective on life, and in turn, the trajectory of your career path. What was that experience and how has your life changed since?
Cotto: I'll say. I was in Italy for the first time on vacation, and after two days, I decided to quit my job, move there, and write a novel. Now, it wasn't that spontaneous: I had been planning on changing my career in order to pursue writing and teaching (I was in my early 30s at the time and had had the same corporate job since leaving college), but the experience in Italy really transformed my worldview. Two years later, I was there, in the hills south of Florence for a year, writing my first novel. I came back to New York a year later, but the experience remains vital to my everyday life, and I have been back to Italy on vacation and/or assignment many, many times since.
Kovach: As a novelist, you receive many reviews and critiques from all over the world. Is there one in particular that stands out among the others and why?
Cotto: Publisher's Weekly described Outerborough Blues as "an ambitious noir thriller that reads like Raymond Chandler taking dictation from Walt Whitman." I considered getting that tattooed on my chest...but since we are focusing on things Italian here, I love every word of poet Anne Tammel's review of Cucina Tipica that appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, including the last lines that read: "Any reader with a passion for food, wine, literature, and - most of all - the streets of Florence and the hills of Tuscany, will find Andrew Cotto's latest novel a rare delight to the senses and intellect." Too long for tattoo consideration, but still...
Kovach: You recently appeared as a guest on Cara DiFalco’s Cara’s Cucina, who was recently interviewed in ItalyUSA Magazine. She read a scene from your book Cucina Tipica which inspired one of her recipes. What was the feeling like to not only write and publish a novel, but to inspire an Italian American cook to create a new recipe?
Cotto: That was great. As mentioned, I know Cara, but I had no conversation with her about making anything from the book. She just read the scene one day and decided to create, that very night, a braised chickpea dish that is featured in one of the novel's many food scenes. I found out about it when she posted the recipe, and it was quite an honor. We decided later to do an event on Instagram where she demonstrated the recipe and then I read the related passage (it's on Cara's YouTube channel).
Kovach: October 18 was the second “birthday” of Cucina Tipica. What moved you to place a picture of a boar on the cover of your book, and what did you do to celebrate its birthday?
Cotto: In some ways, it feels like the book just came out, probably because I'm still busy promoting and finding new readers, which is so validating and so much fun. The wild boar (or "cinghiale") on the cover is inspired by a cinghiale that plays a significant role in the novel. The one in the story is far larger and more menacing than that cutie on the cover, but I liked the aesthetic of the harmless boar in the Tuscan surroundings. For the birthday, I took a trip down memory lane with photos of the book in the window at Barnes & Noble next to Michele Obama's book as well as photos of the book in the hands of some well-known people, including Rosanna Scotto on Good Day New York, Dario Cecchini (the world's most famous butcher), Frances Mayes (author of "Under the Tuscan Sun"), world-renowned food historian Francine Segan during our event together at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, and pasta maker extraordinaire Evan Funke.
Kovach: What’s next on the horizon for Andrew Cotto?
Cotto: I've stayed very busy during the pandemic writing tons of articles, mostly about food, for various magazines. I also wrote the sequel to Cucina Tipica, which will be published in March of 2021 (Cucina Romana: Another Italian Adventure). Prior to that, I have a sequel to Outerborough Blues (Black Irish Blues) that will be published this December, and I've just begun my part of the promotional effort for that novel. Finally, I'm also working on proposals for some non-fiction books focused on food and how it informs our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Kovach: If people are interested in purchasing one of your novels and/or following you on social media, where can they look to find you?
Cotto: Oh, that's easy. The books can be found at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Cotto/e/B006SHJK4Q/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_book_1