All Things Italy January 2023

January 12, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Something old, something new . . .

The Rotunda under winter morning fog, University of Virginia

Dear Friends, 

“Something old, something new” rings of weddings rather than January resolutions. The more common adage, of course, is “out with the old, in with the new.” But the former phrase has been on my mind in recent days. Not just because my oldest son announced his engagement, and his wedding plans for 2023 are in the works, but for reasons that I unfold in this month’s newsletter.  

One example, related to the wedding plans: my husband and I took a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, where we met many years ago (something old for us). This time our trip was about our son’s fiancée and her family (something new for us), who hail from there. In addition to meeting the family, we walked all over the Grounds, where I got my start in graduate studies in English and my husband studied law. We visited old neighborhoods and peeked at former apartments. We connected with old friends, not seen since the mid-80s. We hiked outside the city, as we did on one of our first adventures together.  

Of course, we also talked about “The Wedding,” now designated with upper-case letters, having earned a title, as such major events do. The venue plans are for a site in the Blue Ridge. Irony of ironies—the couple’s choice of locations, Afton Mountain, recalls for my husband and me the locale of an awful head-on car accident we suffered, before we were even engaged. Emergency vehicles, blood transfusions, two weeks in the hospital, lots of rehab, lingering wounds, and emotional trauma. Yes, “out with the old and in with the new” is my wish, as far as Afton Mountain is concerned!  

Our three days in Charlottesville, you can likely sense, ended up being as much about our memories as the young couple’s plans for the future. 

During New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Charlottesville, as I reflected on the past, I couldn’t help but think about how difficult “out with the old, in with the new” is for many of us. Instead, we hang on to the residue of what’s old, even as we hope for something new. A difficult hike, a tragic accident, challenges of graduate school, and sometimes tearful conversations.  

View of University of Virginia “new” Health Sciences building in the background, from Charlottesville hotel rooftop on New Year’s Eve. The expanded hospital, where my husband and I spent several days while in graduate school, is nearby.

My mother often said in her later years that when she looked back on the past, she could only remember the good parts.  

I wish life were so easy for me. 

“New” bike rack & ramp outside Wilson Hall, which houses the UVA English Department. During grad school I cycled to the Grounds until the car accident. The ramp would have eased my time during the rehab phase, when I hobbled on crutches.

Yet the memories—especially ones that are not so wonderful—help us to look forward to a better way of navigating the present and future. Whether a mountain or a marriage, there are certain to be struggles which past experiences can sometimes help us negotiate.  

As I consider Italy, especially as I plan two trips in 2023, it remains terribly difficult to set aside what I already know—the old—as I prepare for the unknown. But it’s also probably not wise to forget about those past experiences. My mantra, then, is not “out with the old, in with the new” but “something old, something new.”   

That theme influences what follows.  

Last month I promised attention to some shows about Italy, so below I turn to a now-old series, Stanley Tucci’s In Search of Italy. To me, someone who has been in Italy often, the show still offers bits of newness. 

This month I also give attention to my book Engaging Italy—something now a little old to me (I started working on it in 2013!)—as well as to new research on nineteenth-century women abroad. 

I hope you’ll enjoy reading along. 

What’s New with Italian Food and Stanley Tucci? 

If I had one euro for every time someone asked me whether I had watched Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy, I’d have roundtrip airfare and a month’s lodging paid. Ok, I’m exaggerating. But you get the point.  

Stanley Tucci, 2018 (Credit: Greg2600, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

For months (more than year, actually), I have answered that question in the negative. I think I had a subconscious resistance to thinking I might learn anything new. Perhaps I also resisted the way Italy is often romanticized on the screen. Honestly, I also didn’t have the proper streaming subscription. (I am ultracheap when it comes to video entertainment. It was YEARS after the invention of the VCR that I owned one, and I didn’t have a tv for my first two years of graduate school.) Finally, after friends posed the question so many times, I decided to set aside some holiday money for the proper streaming subscription and some holiday time for binge watching.  

Am I glad that I did? Yes, at least now I can answer “yes,” to anyone who asks me in the future. That is, certainly, from the perspective of cultural literacy—American cultural literacy rather than Italian cultural literacy. His show captures and concretizes what Americans think and will think about Italians and Italian food in the years that come. What Rick Steves did for Americans traveling to Europe during the last three decades, Tucci has begun more recently for those traveling to Italy. And he has delighted armchair travelers as well. 

What’s not to love about a youthful, older man (he first went to Italy in the 70s as an adolescent), who springs about stone streets in hilltop towns, communicating effectively with locals, eating and drinking all he wishes, and getting neither fat nor drunk?? 

Certainly, there are a few things. But, channeling my mother again, rather than focusing on the negative, I’ll name only one item of frustration (and then move on to what I found most admirable in his two seasons and 14 episodes). 

Tucci introduces each episode by explaining that he’s exploring each of Italy’s twenty regions to understand his heritage. (He’s “Italian on both sides,” he almost always states in the opening.) In the conclusion of the final episode, he sums up his discovery: “Italy as a single pure entity is to be found only at the table.”  

But it’s impossible to consider “Italy as a single pure entity.” In fact, the phrase contradicts a key point of the series and what each episode reveals: the diversity of each region. 

As Tucci explores Italy’s twenty regions, from the lesser-known islands of Sicily and Sardinia, to the better-known Tuscany and the Veneto, he does capture—beautifully and with warmth and humor— several truisms about the country’s foods and cultures. For those his show should be praised—even if the truisms are not totally surprising.  

Among them:    

Each region has its own traditions and specialties, based on what is/was available. Liguria’s pansotti, similar to what’s called ravioli elsewhere, is most often filled with herbs and sauced with walnuts—readily available on the rugged hillsides overlooking the coast. This local sourcing means that even within regions, variations exist. 

Coastal areas depend upon fish, whereas hilltop towns inland in any region serve up different plates. The distinction appears in numerous episodes, whether featured in snapshots of smaller islands near the larger Sicily and Sardinia, or in a hilltop village on the island of Ischia, where rabbit is a specialty. Even in the Veneto, not far from the abundant seafood at fish market in the coastal cities, some delight in duck hunting, a feature of the low-lying lagoons outside the urban areas.  

The terroir contributes to the taste of local produce. In the first episode, in Naples, he points to San Marzano tomatoes. My dad said the same of Rocky Ford, Colorado, cantaloupe and my mom of Missouri Boot Heel peaches. And, of course, Tucci underscores the point in other episodes with the numerous grapes and wines he discusses. 

Much of Italian eating tradition has been based on feeding large families inexpensively. As a result, grains reign. Bread, pasta, polenta, risotto are always present. High-protein, low-carb diets are difficult to sustain with a smaller income. 

There were and are exceptions to this type of sustenance, of course. Tucci reminds us during his dinner with a princess in Palermo. The eating of the elite, with French-style sauces, French names and French foods remain as a residue of the Bourbon rule of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries in Sicily and southern Italy.  

In all the regions there are entrepreneurial and inventive chefs who are putting new spins on local produce and local culture. And, in a period of abundance and accessibility, the portions served up for Tucci are small and beautiful.  

And, in each region, there is food activism going on. One online reviewer criticized Tucci for the politics on the show, which is labeled a “cooking show.” I agree that the label is not totally apropos. However, I like the way in which Tucci highlights food sharing and civic-minded food action that’s happening across the peninsula.  He shows us concern for the hungry and the displaced—north of Naples innovative immigrants feed other Romani and others at Chikù. In Bologna retirees joyfully labor in a secular food center to feed those in need.  

Of course, these political elements keep the show and eating from being about merely what pleases our insatiable appetites with eye candy and vicarious indulgence—like the famed “Lemon Delight” of the Amalfi Coast.

My favorite line from the entire show is in Tucci’s concluding episode. Ligurians pride themselves on being cheap and frugal. Both he and those he interviews say so. But Tucci responds and powerfully revises the concept: “Thrift isn’t stinginess—it’s a cure for overconsumption.”  

“Thrift isn’t stinginess—it’s a cure for overconsumption.”  
Stanley Tucci, Searching for Italy

This saying might be adopted by the rest of us, as a way to better eating and better living in the new year.


Recently, I’ve been getting a new question: What do you think of The White Lotus, season two?  

I respond with an old answer: I’ve not yet watched it, nor have I seen season one. But, it’s on my list.  

Maybe by the time the next new year rolls in, I’ll be ready to answer.  

Birthing Books & Engaging Italy Updates 

Writing projects are a bit like babies. Giving birth to one is all-consuming. Physically and emotionally, the new creature can deplete the creator, and yet that child also can be energizing at times.  

I am not the first to use the writing/birthing/book/baby metaphor (as many of you know). In “The Author to her Book,” New England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet penned the opening lines: “Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,/ Who after birth didst by my side remain, . . .” Despairing about her creative force, the mother and poet continued with reference to her child’s poor clothing, “hobling” feet, and “irksome” face—all flaws she felt unable to correct. They contributed to the “rambling brat” she was moved to “cast . . . by as one unfit for light.” And yet, after giving birth to that poem, Bradstreet created many others. She sent this one “out of door,” as she expressed, and then went on to create others. 

This baby/book analogy returned to me as I considered the turn of 2022 into 2023—the “something old, something new” phrase—and Engaging Italy. It was super exciting to see my baby head out the door of SUNY Press. It’s been both fulfilling and energizing to give talks about it, to see friends post pictures with their copies, and to sign a few.  

American Literature Professor Ashley Rattner with a copy of Engaging Italy at the SUNY Press table at the MLA conference in San Francisco

With the birthing excitement come moments of exhaustion and fatigue. A post-partum feeling of wanting to do nothing at all except eat, sleep, and read runs alongside sights of imperfections. Those hobbly feet and ragged clothing! But then, punctuating those moments, a familiar urge arises—to move on to the next new creation.  

And so, at the end of this month, I head to Italy, moving forward with the new project.

As a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome, I hope to sop up all I can from resident artists and writers, rich library resources, and the Eternal City. I am not quite ready to disclose the topic—but I can share that it’s an extension of Engaging Italy. Again, I can’t quite throw out the old as I consider the new. 

With all the hope and wonder of generating a new baby, I see the old one nearby, not to be forgotten. An attempt to balance the two still rules my days.  

Like most proud parents, I never tire of seeing people smile and share pictures of my “baby.” Thanks to those of you, who have done so.

Rhonda Almand French (right). Rhonda and I first experienced and fell in love with Italy as study abroad students. We reconnected in Florence in 2011, when I met her daughters Emma Kate Slone, Carolina Faye Minervini, and Hannah Inez Peterson (left to right).

I’d love to see a sentence or two on Goodreads or Amazon—just a few lines about something you liked or learned as you leafed through Engaging Italy. Those comments help potential readers and book buyers. And they make a difference as I move forward with the new project.  

Next month – news from Rome and a brief video review. Until then, keep dreaming of Italy, and do send me your feedback and questions. I’m always happy to hear from you! 

Upcoming Events – Next Week!  

Anne Hampton Brewster, ca. 1873 (from the Library Company of Philadelphia)

Mr. Kate Cromo: News Correspondent Anne Hampton Brewster in Rome, 1869-1890

January 19, 2023 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm CST

This presentation, part of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Fireside Chat Series, focuses on Philadelphian Anne Hampton Brewster’s career as a news correspondent in Rome. The talk will also provide a brief overview of the book. Brewster’s personal library, papers, and several other items were left to the Library Company after her death in 1892. Research in these materials laid the foundation for Engaging Italy and for the talk. The talk will be streamed and recorded. Register for this FREE event here.

Unsung History Podcast drops January 23, 2023

This conversation with Kelly Therese Pollack focuses on what drove me to write Engaging Italy, why I selected the three women in it, and how literature intertwines with history. The three women’s lives and the book’s relevance today are also part of the conversation. Find the Unsung History interview on any platform where you find podcasts and through this website.

Updates appear on my Events page, and I share reminders about them on social media. I hope you’ll participate and share them as well.  

Women’s History Month Talks?

It’s not too early to schedule a book talk for women’s history month. March will soon be here. If you or a group you’re a part of are interested, let me know. We would arrange to have book copies available for purchase and signing.

And a Reminder — SALE Coupon ends soon! Use the SUNY Press link here.

Etta Madden