Interview: Michele and Charles Scicolone

In Italy, food and wine are inseparable. From a young age, Italians from many regions learn that wine is a type of food, a complement to the traditional fare. Michele and Charles Scicolone are another natural match. Michele, a food writer frequently published in various magazines and the author of several cookbooks, has family roots in the Naples area. She lauds the simplicity and attentiveness Italian chefs bring to cuisine. Charles is a self-taught wine expert and ex-sommelier who learned to make pizza just for the thrill of it.

Interviewer: In Italy, a lot of traditional food is prepared by non-natives these days. Why is that?

Michele: Many young Italian chefs are leaving behind the country and the cuisine and learning to cook international foods. They do not realize that they have a fabulous, rich tradition and it is unnecessary to learn how to cook everything else. It is a shame, but it seems that non-Italians are more interested in learning how to cook the traditional foods than we are. Charles and I met with the director of Slow Food in the Amalfi Coast region, and he showed us an orchard of beautiful lemon trees; these lemons were the size of grapefruits. He told us the young people have no interest in the lemons, and they hang on the trees because no one comes to pick them. But I think there is hope that the movement will swing back in the other direction and we will see Italian chefs committing to learning Italian tradition (and staying in Italy) once again.

Interviewer: Were you always interested in food and wine?

Michele: After I graduated from high school, I held many different jobs, but I knew I wanted a career in food writing. After I got a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Hunter, I interviewed at magazines and eventually got offers from Lady’s Home Journal and Redbook.

Charles: I used to teach middle school history. Michele and I went on our honeymoon in Italy, and that was when I discovered how amazing wine and food could be together. It was an epiphany. My family is from Sicily but my mother was a terrible cook and so this was my introduction to traditional Ital.ian food. I came home and opened a wine store in Brooklyn called Van Vleck. I taught wine classes and worked at Enoteca I Trulli as the wine director for twenty years.

Interviewer: What do you look for in an authentic Italian wine?

Charles: There is a movement, especially in the north of Italy, to make Italian wine taste more like wines from California. In the past in Italy, everything was local, including the wine. They eat and drink regionally, and that is what I think makes the pairings so perfect. Freshness, locality, and simplicity.

When I look for a wine, my primary concern is how it will pair with food. Wine should not be overwhelming. At Lidia, Lidia Bastinach’s restaurant, I recently tried two wines with an octopus dish. The first, Vespa Bianco, complemented the octopus, while the second, Tokai Plus, was too rich and sugary.

The only way to understand wine is to taste it and drink different wines with many foods. There is no way to tell if a wine is good by simply looking at the land where it was grown-you have to taste it. But soil does matter to taste.

Interviewer: What are the goals for your touring companies, Tour de Forks and Cantalupo Tours?

Michele: First, we know that for some people this is the tour of a lifetime- it’s personal, not a big bus tour, so we want them to enjoy themselves. But it is very gratifying when people tell us that they have learned a lot.

Charles: I love sharing our favorite pizza, near the Amalfi Coast and in Naples. It is important to not only share the food but also the history behind it. Culture, geography and regionality are incredibly important to understanding and appreciating Italian food. And the Italian people are gracious and always helpful.

Interviewer: What kind of problems do you run across on your tours?

Michele: Well, Italian coffee culture is something novel to many of the guests on our tours. I do my best to prepare them and explain that Italians drink their cafe which we refer to as espresso, at the bar and never take it to go. Italians aren’t big milk drinkers and don’t take cappuccino after breakfast. Nevertheless, one woman who toured with us went into a coffee bar and demanded a big cup of coffee in a paper cup to go.

Interviewer: What was it like to collaborate on your book, Pizza Any Way You Slice It?

Michele: Charles can’t make a sandwich, but made the pizzas and did the research while I did the writing and editing. We make a good team; we bounce ideas off of one another.

Charles: Michele knows what she is talking about. We never have any problems working together- the food comes first, and the wine compliments it. Our relationship is the same way- I’d rather be happy than right.

Interviewer: Did your research have you eating pizza in New York as well?

Charles: Yes. The best Neapolitan-style pizza in New York is at Keste, in the West Village.

Interviewer: Tell me about the Soprano’s cookbooks.

Michele: After HBO contacted me and told me they wanted me to do a cookbook based on the show, I thought about it for a while. I decided that I wanted to associate with a show that was called Shakespearean in scope and had excellent writing. The show breaks down negative stereotypes.

About a third of the recipes inside are directly mentioned on the show. Drawing on our Sicilian and Neapolitan backgrounds, the same as the characters in the show, I synthesized the rest. I got to collaborate with Alan Rucker, a comedy writer who is a friend of David Chase. I was hesitant at first, but we formed a great bond over email and the phone. Writing is usually solitary it was nice to collaborate.   He came to me in confidence once and said, “Don’t tell anyone, this is a great secret, but what is ‘gabagool’?”

Interviewer: If you had unplanned dinner guests arriving in 30 minutes, what would you prepare?

Michele: Pasta, of course, with a simple tomato sauce. And always use the San Marzano variety of canned tomatoes- don’t be fooled by the brand on the label.

Interviewer: Is there any authentic Italian food in NYC? And what is Italian-American food?

Michele: Unfortunately, I have yet to find good Italian food in New York. I think it is partly a problem of volume- in Italy, the food is prepared in small batches and service isn’t rushed, but in New York tables for dinner are turned over every 45 minutes.

Italian-American food is a whole different category. People don’t realize that the Italian food traditions grew out of poverty, and the Italian-American dishes we know today came as a response to the bounty immigrants found when they got to the United States. Hence traditional Italian food uses meat sparingly while Italian-Americans favor meatballs and chicken parmigiana.

Interviewer: What is your advice for prospective perspective food writers in today’s market?

Michele: I’m used to writing and getting paid, but it is now essential to keep a blog in order to market yourself. Whether or a blog or elsewhere, write as much as possible; Writing demonstrates your voice and style. Meet as many people in the industry as you can. And believe in yourself. People discouraged me; they told me there were very few jobs in food writing. Nobody helped me, but I worked really hard and I succeeded.

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