Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

At the Table with Skye McAlpine

Sunday Times columnist, author and cook Skye McAlpine has been entertaining with her delectable writing, recipes and photography all from her kitchen and dining table in Venice, Italy. Skye’s latest book  A Table for Friends (July 2020),  takes you out of the home from her debut A Table in Venice.

When I speak in Italian, it’s an oddity (and a great source of amusement to my Italian born friends), that a few words of Venetian dialect tend to slip in – usually in the heat of an argument or when I get carried away about this or that. You see, I learned Italian here in Venice: I didn’t learn from books or classes, but from the playground, in shops, at the market and in restaurants – where dialect is very much the lingua franca.

When I was six years old, my parents moved from London, where I was born, to Venice – and of course, given that I was six years old, I moved with them; their intention was to live here for six months, maybe a year, but inevitably La Serenissima, with her majestic old crumbling palazzi and winding canals, worked her beguiling magic on us. We fell in love with the impractical yet still deeply seductive way of life here in Venice – and one way or another, we have never never really left. For me, just as Venetian dialect and the Italian language are quasi interchangeable, Venice is the Italy I know – and the Italy I really love. It’s the place I call home. 

Skye McApline at home in Venice

It’s much the same story for food: I’m a cookery writer. My job is to create and develop recipes. I try them out and play around with them in my kitchen until I have something that’s just perfect – and then when what I’ve got is really good, I write about it in books or for magazines, so that others can hopefully cook it and enjoy it too. I love what I do. But the food I love most, the dishes I get most excited about tend to be variations on the theme of Venetian food. Buttery, creamy risi e bisi made with sugar sweet peas; sea bass baked in salt crust; pearl white grilled polenta with succulent seafood; zabaione custard whipped into a cloud like confection; tiramisù and sweet biscuits made with grappa soaked raisins and polenta flour. These are the flavours I grew up; and maybe it’s because for me each of these dishes are laden with nostalgia and childhood memories they taste especially delectable, or – quite simply – maybe it’s because, objectively, this is just very good food ; but either which way these are the flavours I love the most. 

Venetian food suffers from a bad reputation. A steady stream of transient tourists, thousands of them (millions even, in the world as we knew it pre Covid-19) pass through the city’s piazzas and colonnades each year; predictably, the city is full of trattorie peddling mediocre pizza and pasta to cater for this more undiscerning audience. But then this is also not what I would call Venetian food: for the good stuff, you have to look a little harder, seek out the little family restaurant that sits off the beaten path (my favourites are Alla Madonna, Trattoria Da Paolo, Trattoria Al Muro), or book yourself a table at one of the more illustrious favourites (Da Ivo, Al Covo, Harry’s Bar). Best of all, of course, is the food you eat in homes: that kind of unpretentious, but in my view utterly unbeatable home-cooking, was the subject of my first cookbook, A Table in Venice. I wanted to shine a light on this unsung and undersold aspect of Regional Italian cooking. And I hope that, in my own small way, that is what I did. 

Photo courtesy of Skye McAlpine

Skye’s new book is a celebration

A Table for Friends, is about something a little different. It is not strictly speaking a Venetian cookbook (though inevitably the story of life in Venice shines through each page); it collects together recipes from different corners of Italy – from Amalfitano creamy lemon spaghetti to the peppery salsa verde from Liguria that I so love eat to eat with cold, exquisitely rare roast beef; some of the recipes even carry the influence of my British heritage. But no, I would not say that A Table for Friends is even a regional Italian cookbook; more simply, it’s a book about how to cook for the people you love and how to enjoy doing it. My hope is that it will give you the confidence and wherewithal to relish cooking for others and the inspiration to do so more often – even, especially, if you don’t think of yourself as the kind of person who usually does cook.

The book is a celebration not so much of what Italians eat but of how they eat: that effortless, deliciously casual, dolce-vita-esque way that Italians have of bringing the most beautiful meals together with the very simplest of ingredients, whether it’s lunch in the kitchen or the extravagant feast that is Christmas dinner. Children and nonni and all the generations in between, gathered together round the table, each meal something special and memorable, the simplest and most universal of pleasures. That is what I love most about Italy and that is the inspiration for everything that I do. 

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