Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton on Italian Food and Inspiration

July 22, 2014

We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We talk with The Canal House's Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer about home cooking and Canal House: Pronto!

Hamilton and Hirsheimer on Food52  Canal House Vol 8: Pronto on Food52

Shop the Story

If you know what's good for you, you probably know what Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer have been eating for lunch recently (because it lands in your inbox, just when your stomach is rumbling at 3 PM). Or you've picked up one of their cookbooks -- a few brightly colored volumes, perhaps, or that big red book that we turn to when we need something good and simple.

Hamilton and Hirsheimer's ability to wrangle simplicity into something beautiful bodes well for an Italian cookbook -- theirs, Canal House: Pronto!, is small enough to fold when one hand is occupied by wine, but thorough enough to feel like a quick, meaningful introduction between your kitchen and the food of Italy. All week long they're sharing recipes from Pronto! -- and today, we're asking them a few questions.

More: Enter to win a copy of Canal House: Pronto! -- and get a killer zucchini recipe to boot.

The Canal House's Zucchini with Anchovy Butter

There’s someone coming for dinner tomorrow night, and you’re not looking for anything fancy. When you’re deciding on a menu, what’s your thought process? What do you make for guests in the summertime?
When we’re planning a meal at Canal House, our cooking and book publishing studio, the menu we choose is determined by what looks best and freshest at the market. And if we want to throw a casual dinner, we choose things that we can make ahead and serve at room temperature.

We’re always looking to balance flavors and textures when coming up with a good menu. We want crunchy to play against tender, sweet against savory, richness balanced by brightness. We want something that we can easily put together ahead of time, so we can sit and enjoy our guests. Like everyone else in America, we love to grill in the summertime -- it’s easy and the smoky flavors from a charcoal fire are irresistible.

More: Try out Merrill's go-to summer pasta, served at room temperature.

We always welcome our guests with a little something to drink. When it’s hot, we like to offer them an Italian Dark & Stormy -- it’s light and refreshing. At the beginning of each summer, we do a rosé tasting and choose what will become our house wine for the season. We like the palest pink, driest rosés with no strawberry, and rarely spend more than $10 a bottle.

Rose on Food52

It is a Canal House tradition that we serve stuffed eggs when guests arrive. We garnish them any number of ways, but in the summer, we simply halve the eggs and dress them with a spoonful of luscious salsa verde made with herbs from our garden.

When tomato season arrives, we make one of our favorite pastas, Mezze Rigatoni with Tomatoes, Lots of Fresh Herbs, Hot Oil, and Mozzarella, and serve it at room temperature. It tastes like summer.

Summer Pasta with Tomatoes and Mozzarella

What’s your most-loved kitchen possession? Which gets the most use?
We have a very simple kitchen with two apartment-size stoves and a dishwasher that is often used as a dish drying rack, as we prefer to wash dishes by hand. Our food processor and stand mixer live on a shelf in the back of the studio. But on our kitchen counter, next to the bottles of olive oil and a bowl of kosher salt, is our Japanese earthenware mortar (suribachi) and wooded pestle (surikogi) that we use all the time to crush peppercorns and other whole spices. The unglazed ridges that radiate out from the center of the suribachi keep the peppercorns from rolling around and make the job go more quickly.

What do you love most about Italian food? What inspired you to write this book?
The inspiration to write Pronto! and our other book in the Italian trilogy, Vol. N° 7, La Dolce Vita, came to us on a cold, rainy day in early spring. Over a lunch of cannelloni, we got into a long conversation about why Italian food tastes so damn delicious. We sat there for a couple of hours discussing it. We have both traveled extensively in Italy, eating in every region, and in one sense we really do know Italian food. But the more you learn, the less you know. And we realized that for all the times we’d been to Italy, there was still so much we wanted to understand about Italian home cooking.

By the end of lunch we had a plan: We’d go to Italy, find a house with a kitchen, and cook. And that’s just what we did. We ate and drank and shopped and cooked, and by the end of our long stay, we were ready to come back to Canal House and start cooking Italian food our way. These books are a reflection of our love for the generous spirit and ingredient-driven deliciousness of Italian food.

Anchovies on Food52

Which ingredients do you think deserve more love? 
We’re mad for anchovies, packed in oil or salt; we just can’t get enough of them. We use them in our vinaigrettes, sauces, and stews to add a complex saltiness. But we’re just as often eating them straight from the tin on sliced tomatoes, stuffed eggs, a stalk of celery, or good toast rubbed with tomato and drizzled with olive oil.

More: Learn how to add more anchovies to your meals, just like the Italians do.

Who inspired you when you first started your careers? Who inspires you now?
It’s not the who, it’s the what: We grew up in big families where food came first. Wholesome, comforting home-cooked meals, the excitement of parties and restaurants, and traveling [to places] where food immediately connects you to the culture and the people. The deliciousness of these experiences inspired us then as they still do today.

Oh, and summer tomatoes, which have just arrived. We’ll be cooking and eating them all summer long!

Pasta photo, zucchini photo, author photo, and cover photo courtesy of The Canal House. All other photos by James Ransom.

Listen Now

On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • SusanR
  • katemlc
  • Deb
  • Jackie De Sordi
    Jackie De Sordi
  • VanessaJo
Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



SusanR July 23, 2014
I love getting my daily Canal House Cooks Lunch emails! It is almost like being in their studio with them. It reminds me of this site. I would invite anyone from here, or Canal House into my home for a nice homey meal, and to talk about cooking, ingredients, etc.
katemlc July 22, 2014
The link here is for a "dark and stormy" not an "Italian dark and stormy" - there must be a difference…?
VanessaJo July 22, 2014
I want to know, too!
Deb July 22, 2014
The freshness of ingredients and the simplicity of the cooking is why I love to travel and eat in Italy
Jackie D. July 22, 2014
I always feel so proud to be italian, especially when i see and hear how our rich cooking culture and know-how is appreciated in non-italians. I love to cook and I love this blog which I discovered not long ago. I've picked up so many great info from reading it. Keep up the good work to all the collaborators. Giancarla