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Inspired by Italian Food: A Writer’s Muse

Award-winning novelist and Appetito Editor-in-Chief Andrew Cotto shares how Italian food inspires his work as an author.

Inside my seven novels, along with the familiar narrative essentials, there is a feast of Italian food. This happened organically as I love Italian food, and this passion extended to feeding my fictional characters.

Said passion is surely rooted in my Italian-American background. I grew up eating Italian food pretty much every day and twice on Sunday, as the mandatory lunches at my grandparents' lasted through dinner. Even though I knew I ate better than, say, my Irish friends, I wasn't quite aware of the majesty of authentic Italian cuisine until I got older.

My first career was in sales. A big part of my job was to entertain clients. My preferred method of entertainment quickly became the restaurants of New York City. Sure, I'd hit the red sauce joints for fun nights of family style platters and fiascos of Chianti; but, I also discovered higher-end, regional Italian restaurants that impressed my clients, but blew me away and began an obsession with the regional cuisine of Italy.

My first trip to my motherland was not to seek ancestry in Sicily but to feast in Tuscany and Rome. After two days in Florence, I decided to change my life: to temporarily move to Italy and become a writer. Soon enough, I was there, for one year, living in the hills south of Florence and writing my first novel, The Domino Effect, which included many references to food within the coming of age story of an Italian-American kid from Queens.

Back in New York, I wrote a second novel, Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery, featuring a chef for a protagonist who uses his expertise with Italian cuisine as a means of communication and, as a result, characterization. This use of Italian cooking as a narrative device continues in the sequel, Black Irish Blues.

My agent at the time, aware of the effective us of food in my books, suggested putting food at the forefront of my next novel. I knew just what to do and where to go.

Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure is the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave. What follows is a food-filled, wine-soaked adventure, driven by the everyday accessibility of high-quality products, lovingly prepared, enjoyed with local wines. Our protagonist is transformed by the fact that eating well in Italy is a right, not a privilege, and that eating well greatly informs his overall wellness, as he is physically nourished but also emotionally empowered. He’s happy in Italy like nowhere else, and the food is the reason. Oh, the wine doesn’t hurt either. The sequel, Cucina Romana: Another Italian Adventure, expands upon the experience. 

This magic of Italian food is on display in my other novels as well, including my latest, Pasta Mike: A Story of Friendship & Loss, where the nostalgia inspired by Italian food helps the protagonist reconcile profound grief. 

Oh yeah, I also do a little bit of writing about Italian food in my journalism. Check out my Pinterest page.

So, as a writer of both novels and journalism, when people ask what inspires my work and my decision to pursue this challenging vocation, the answer is easy: Italian food made me do it.

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