Chef Matt Accarrino Talks About Travels In Italy and the New SPQR Book

Back in 2008, A16 and SPQR owner and sommelier Shelley Lindgren put out a book called A16 Food + Wine with then chef Nate Appleman, concentrating on the cuisine and wines of the southern Italian regions of Campania, Abruzzo, and Sardinia. Now she and SPQR chef Matt Accarrino have put out a slightly different sort of book, part travelogue, part wine tour, and part cookbook centering on each of the unique regions of Northern Italy. It’s called SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, and it’s organized around the ancient Roman roads that ran through Central and Northern Italy. Each section covers the notable wine producers and varietals of each region, and features recipes created by Accarrino that are inspired by dishes in each region, many of which have made appearances in the restaurant. Today, Accarrino spoke with Grub Street about the experience of researching and writing the book with Lindgren (with the help of writer Kate Leahy), and about his take on modern Italian food.

How long have you two been working on this book?

Matt Accarrino: Two years? The genesis of the wine program at SPQR was organized around these Roman roads, and Shelley suggested traveling around these roads together. We took trips to Italy in 2010 and 2011, and there were a lot of interesting experiences along the way that made it into the book. For instance, I went to stay at this winery in Le Marche and went to the fish market at three in the morning with the winemaker and his mother. We came home with about 60 pounds of fish, and this woman, Anselma Taddei, cooked with me for about fourteen hours. Several of the things we made together, including the passatelli en brodo, are in the book.

Also we went to a lagoon near Grado, and there were these huts in the middle of this lagoon, on an island. They’re like the greatest man-caves ever. They somehow have electricity out there, and they have fresh water from a well under the lagoon, and we brought in about fifteen pounds of seafood, mixed baby shrimp and anchovies and stuff. And I’m thinking it’s going to take an hour to sort all this stuff, but then I watch while this guy just dumps everything into the same bucket of salt water, and the anchovies and little fish all float to the top and the shrimp all sink to the bottom.

He had a can of San Marzano tomatoes on a shelf, and a few other things, some dried pasta, and I made dinner, taking the shrimp and sauteing them in the shell, cooking them with the tomatoes and some garlic and then sent everything through a food mill that he happened to have. It was one of my experiences there of cooking con niente (with nothing), and we just ate out there and drank this orange wine, and it was fantastic.

So, it’s not a travel book, and it’s not a restaurant cookbook, but there are elements of both in there. It was really a fun experience.

So you and Shelley traveled together a lot but you’ve also been there on your own, right?

I’ve stayed with family in Puglia, and I’ve worked in Italy too. Being able to go back and draw on that experience was great.

Who wrote which section first, wine or food, or did you work independently?

In general we worked separately, but we had a lot of shared experiences — like that experience in Grado, Shelley was there and had the wine and shared that shrimp pasta dish. I would bring in recipes that I thought were evocative of my impressions of an area we were in, and we’d go from there. And Shelley had certain producers she wanted to write about in each region. We were aiming to pair the wine and food together, throughout the book, kind of like how we work at the restaurant. She doesn’t just bring in wine and I come up with dishes to pair with it. It works both ways. I’ll cook something and she’ll go find a wine she thinks will work. There was a good amount of collaboration.

How many of these recipes were your own creation, versus takes on things you ate while in Italy?

I’d say 100 percent. What I try to do is to have an overview, studying the ingredients and ideas that come from a particular area, and then using my own inspirations, and California ingredients, create things that work for my sensibility. For instance, we went to Umbria, and a guy took me foraging for wild greens and herbs. And like a lot of times when were roaming around, I would just kind of Macguyver it, looking at what I had in front of me and being like ‘OK, what am I going to make here?’ In that case it was this torta. It was kind of like something my grandmother would make, so I took this flavor memory that fit with was indicative of the area, and we created a torta recipe out of mixed braised greens.

Another example: We went to this town Pascoli Piccino, and they have a certain type of olive there that they stuff with sausage and cheese and bread and fry it. You get served these olives wherever you go around there, and they were actually similar to something we used to make when I worked for Todd English about twelve years ago. So, I thought to myself, why don’t do a crudo and add these olives, and that became the fluke crudo dish in the Le Marche chapter.

I’ve often had the sense that SPQR was like a modern restaurant in Italy, not particularly tied to traditional dishes but riffing on them and inventing new ones. Would you say there were particular restaurants in Italy, like in Milan, that inspired you in that regard?

Yeah I’m never trying to recreate any precise, authentic experience at the restaurant, it’s always through my own lens. In this book, overall, I was trying to incorporate my own training and my own heritage into an interpretation of Italian cuisine that is my own. There are several chefs I can think of who are definite inspirations. Antotello Colona, who I worked for. His family had a trattoria in the countryside outside Rome and he eventually took it over and modernized it, and it eventually became a one Michelin star restaurant. He was doing modern takes on classic Lazio-style dishes. I went back to visit him and now he has his own farm and a restaurant in Rome itself and he’s doing really contemporary stuff, using those traditional dishes and adding gels and all kinds of stuff.

Then there’s this place Trussardi alla Scala — which basically means “upstairs from Trussardi.” It’s a little restaurant on the second floor of this handbag company’s flagship store in Milan. They’ve got a Michelin star and that’s an incredible place.

Another great one: Maro Uliassi, in Le Marche, and his restaurant Uliassi. These are all guys who are taking ingredients indigenous to their area and doing modern takes on traditional dishes.

What are your two personal favorite regions, food-wise?

Friuli and Le Marche. The seafood in Le Marche and what some people are doing with it there — it’s just one of the more undiscovered regions. If I were to buy a house in Italy, it would be there. I feel comfortable there.

And I love the oxidated, orange wines in Friuli. I love all the smoky, Slavic elements of the food. The strong cheeses, bread dumplings. The combinations feel new and interesting to me. They make a lot of white wines there and I love white wine. There are some places in Tuscany that are great, don’t get me wrong, but I hate feeling like I’m trapped in a tourist area and can’t escape. In places like Le Marche and Friuli you feel like you’re really apart from all that.

What would you say is the most under-represented region, culinarily, in the U.S.?

Le Marche. And one reason is that not enough Americans have traveled there and brought back recipes and ideas. Another good reason you don’t see much food from there is that it’s this long narrow region with a lot of coastline. They have this whole variety of fish there that we rarely see here. So, consequently, the dishes don’t translate well. My family in Puglia says “little fish is good fish” and you just find all these small things in the sea there, whelks, snails, different types of clams and shrimp that just aren’t from the Pacific. Like that shrimp dish I made in Grado — in the recipe I’ve adapted it, and you can find those little bay shrimp in the shell sometimes around here, but that dish is never going to be like it was when we pulled those shrimp out of the water and I made it right then and there, with those shrimp.

Lastly, is there a trick to making homemade pasta? Because I’ve never gotten it right.

The most important thing with working with any dough is that it’s all about feel. You can’t go by an exact recipe, and you have to adjust things minutely depending on how the dough is rolling. You can’t be afraid to add a little water if it doesn’t feel right. Cooking by feel is almost as important as using a recipe. That’s where the soulful and passionate cooking of Italy happens — being able to put yourself in the food.

Related: Coi and SPQR Land on Newsweek’s Best in the World List

Chef Matt Accarrino Talks About Travels In Italy and the New SPQR Book