“To cook properly takes a long time; no way out if you want to cook a good meal,” she tells me in a phone interview.
At 92, the Milan-born food writer still spends many an hour in her small kitchen with its view of the countryside and “a huge expanse of sky.” You will find her “under the very large window,” at the table where she cooks, reads, sews and eats, but, she stipulates, does “not work on the computer.”
Del Conte is Britain’s best-known and -loved authority on Italian cuisine. In 1976, at age 50, she published “Portrait of Pasta,” the first of 13 volumes on the food of her homeland. She followed up the pasta treatise with “Gastronomy of Italy” (1984), an encyclopedia of the food of her homeland, then “Secrets from an Italian Kitchen” (1989) and “Entertaining all’Italiana” (1991).
Forced to flee the posh, bourgeois environs of her childhood when the bombs came crashing down on Milan in 1943, she went to the village of Albinea in Emilia-Romagna to wait out the remainder of World War II with her family. A few years later, at age 23, she arrived in London to take an au pair position with a family at East Molesey and, soon after, through a chance encounter at Westminster Abbey, met Oliver Waley, the Brit who would become her husband and died 11 years ago. Still, after nearly 70 years in England, she doesn’t think of herself as British — or Italian.
In her 2010 memoir “Risotto With Nettles” she wrote, “I have become a hybrid, fitting properly neither here nor there, being neither English nor any longer Italian, always missing something when I am here or something else when I am there.” One could argue that her ambivalent identity is directly responsible for her success and appeal as a food writer.
“If you wanted to be understood by British people, you had to go through them,” observed Giorgio Locatelli, the London-based Italian cookbook author and chef. “You go to every house in Britain where they cook Italian food, you will see either her books or Antonio [Carluccio’s] books.”
Nigella Lawson, the English writer and TV personality, has done more than anyone else for securing Del Conte’s legacy. As Lawson sees it, “Anna translated Italian food for the English; she perfectly understood our cooking traditions, the constraints, the ingredients we had at our disposal.”
The two women, who’ve become good friends, have a word for this “translation,” what Del Conte defines as an “adaptation of the Italian recipe for the British palate”: Britalian. Asked for an example, Del Conte points to risotto. Noticing her adopted countrymen’s reluctance to cook risotto “at the last minute for a long time,” she researched until she discovered “a mix between a pilau and risotto” from Genoa. She calls it a “halfway-risotto” and figured it would appeal because it starts on the stove and finishes, hands-off, in the oven, an appliance preferred by the English, though seldom used in Italy because of the temperature and climate.
Her recipe for Piedmontese rice with butter and cheese offers another alternative to the traditional absorption method deployed for risotto. The short-grain rice is cooked on the stove top, like pasta, then stirred into slightly melted fontina cheese and lightly browned butter. The result has the creaminess of risotto without requiring as much attention or time on the part of the cook.
Tomorrow’s pasta dish, the one she has spent the day half-cooking, is another product of Britalianization: It’s baked, like a casserole. “It is not really very Italian,” she says of its combination of smoked salmon (an English favorite, she notes), bechamel and Gruyere. It’s a recipe she adapted from one attributed to the last chef to Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
These sorts of concessions have helped her put Italian-style dinners on tables throughout Britain. “Anna is really the English Marcella Hazan,” Lawson said via email. (Coincidentally, Del Conte was called upon to adapt Hazan’s first two titles, starting with “The Classic Italian Cook Book,” for the British market.)
Lawson’s 2009 tribute to Britain’s resident mistress of Italian cuisine in the Guardian was my introduction to the nonagenarian legend. I’m not sure I would have found her otherwise. I dug in, starting with a best-of anthology, “Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes” (2006) and couldn’t stop until I’d tracked down the rest of her books. Eventually, I abandoned Hazan, finding I preferred Del Conte’s work. The difference wasn’t in the flavors or authenticity of a lasagna or osso buco; it had to do with Del Conte’s voice, which comes through in every sentence she writes.
“Describing flavor is the most difficult thing,” she tells me. “It’s even more personal than describing vision.” Her descriptions of everything strike one as both personal and instructive, from the aroma of truffles (“these fungi with their peculiar smell of gas mixed with a touch of Parmesan, garlic and armpit”) to a memory of gooseberries (“large and golden, like small Chinese lanterns. Mamma would sometimes put them in a pot with a glug of white wine and a few tablespoons of sugar; and when they went pop, they were ready.”). It extends beyond her prose to the recipes themselves; the headnotes and directions feature the same evocative language and sense of personality. And it makes you want to cook.
Del Conte’s style is in keeping with a British tradition of cookbook writing, and her work arrived at just the right time to expand on a newfound curiosity about Mediterranean cookery. “Elizabeth David had prepared the ground. But Anna was Italian and so was her sensibility, so her work could be considered authentic,” author and food historian Elisabeth Luard explained. “Marcella was and is well known among those who read cookbooks, but Anna’s appeal was to ordinary home cooks. She’s accessible, direct and uncomplicated.”
Lawson, too, admires “the elegance and archness of Anna’s writing, so particular to her now Anglo-Milanese sensibility,” and finds “her combination of erudition and practicality an object lesson in cookbook writing.”
Michelin-starred talent such as Angela Hartnett (of Murano in London, among others) and Locatelli value the author for professional reasons. Harnett scans the pages for ideas, and can’t think of “any chef interested in Italian cooking who does not own an Anna Del Conte book.” Like Del Conte, Locatelli grew up in Northern Italy. But his culinary ambitions were shaped by the idea that to achieve recognition in the restaurant world required specializing in haute cuisine. “Italian cooking was a little bit like a Cinderella,” he said. Del Conte’s way of presenting it — endowing it with the gravitas of French cuisine without trying to make it resemble anything other than itself — made him realize there was validity to the food of his old world and that “home cooking is as important as haute cuisine, especially for Italian cuisine.” He also credits her with schooling Brits on the ethos of ingredient-driven cooking informed by season and location.
Organized by region, Del Conte’s “Classic Food of Northern Italy” espouses that philosophy. First released in 1995, then, again, in 2004, it has recently been given an upgrade, complete with photography by Laura Edwards. As of Feb. 1, the updated version is available in the United States, where the author has remained mostly undiscovered. This might just be the book to change that. Three of its recipes — including that Rice Dressed With Fontina and Butter, Venetian Bread Soup and Pork Bundles With Pancetta and Herbs — showcase the simplicity, approachability and timelessness of her work, and the undeniable deliciousness of her food. “She’s a very good cook, you know,” Locatelli said. “She’s not just a good writer. Because a lot of good writers are not very good cooks.”
She has her off days. When I check in after her lunch party, she confesses that the Timballo di Pasta di Beckendorf was “not one of my best.” But she could serve porridge, and it wouldn’t matter; you would thrill just to sit at that kitchen table with her and listen to her stories.
Druckman is a New York food writer and cookbook author. She will join our live chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
3 main-course or 4 first-course servings
Think of this as the simplest, no-stir risotto. In Italy’s Piedmont region, says cookbook author Anna Del Conte, this dish is made with the local fontina (Valle d’Aosta), which you can typically find here at well-stocked cheese counters.
Adapted from “Classic Food of Northern Italy” by Anna Del Conte (Pavilion, 2017).
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, or more as needed
1¾ cups (12 ounces) dried arborio or carnaroli rice
4 ounces fontina cheese (see headnote)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the 2 teaspoons of salt and the rice; cook for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the cheese into ⅛ -inch dice; put half in an ovenproof serving bowl, then transfer the bowl to the oven.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Once the foam subsides, increase the heat to medium and cook for 5 to 6 minutes total, just until the butter starts to turn golden and some of its solids begin to brown. Then pull the pan off the heat. Pour half into the bowl in the oven.
Once the rice is done, drain but leave it quite wet and transfer it to the bowl in the oven. Mix thoroughly, and then add the remaining cheese. Toss until all the cheese has melted. Taste and add more salt, as needed. Pour the remaining melted butter over; serve right away.
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