Italian

The Italian Woman Who Changed Home Cooking Forever

How Anna Del Conte survived the war and transformed the British palate.

by:
March 29, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

When Anna Del Conte was 19 years old, she went to jail. Twice. The first time, in February 1944, she was riding her bike past curfew in wartime Italy when a couple fascist soldiers stopped her on suspicion of couriering to partisans in hiding. (She was on her way to a party.)

As she recounts in her 2009 memoir, Risotto With Nettles,

...the commissario began to interrogate me, while delving into my rucksack and fishing out the contents, one at a time—my heavy flannel nightdress, which he declared deliziosa, the toilet bag, and everything I’d packed for the night, including my precious salame, a present intended for my hosts. He looked at it with even more lust than he had the nightdress, then took out a penknife from his pocket and, ponderously, began to skin it and cut it into chunks, one of which he shoved in his mouth, before offering a piece to his underlings, who accepted with unctuous gratitude. I was incensed.

Many want to claim that food isn’t political, but to those people I offer Del Conte. I find that it’s hard to talk about food without situating it within a nation’s context, which in and of itself is always political. The way Del Conte centers the traumatic incident around this salami in 1944, a year and some change before the end of World War II, signals not a skirting of the war at hand, but rather a reverence for food and its scarcity. Obviously her incensation was not just that the salami was stolen, but that the commissario used it as a scare tactic and as a symbol of control.

“It’s good,” he told her, eating her host’s gift, “but a bit too fresh.”

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Following this passage, she casually walks through why the salami was so fresh (it came from a neighbor’s pig that was slaughtered just a month prior) and then a detailed account of the many foodstuffs it was later turned into (including the salami and coppa di testa, or pig’s head brawn—what the French call head cheese, “one of the most interesting dishes I learned to make during the war”). The story of the stolen salami is a prime example of food that tells not just personal history, but national history as well.

The second time Del Conte went to jail, nine months later, the Black Brigades came to search the house, taking her and her family to the same barracks where the commissario stole her fresh salami. Though the Del Contes were only held until midday, their friends, the Pellizzis (whose pig was made into salami), didn’t return home for 23 days.

The bounty of the slaughtered pig serves as a dark contrast to what the Pellizzis had to eat in prison: “some soup and a piece of meat, which the soldier on duty fished out from the pot using the same fork he’d been eating with.”


“One cannot understand a cuisine and its development without seeing it in relation to the history of the country in question,” Del Conte writes in the introduction to her encyclopaedic Gastronomy of Italy (1984), what would become the bible of Italian food for cooks all over the world. It reads a bit like Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Food Encyclopedia, but with lush Roman paintings and little black and white sketches of fish species, pasta shapes, and regions of Italy sprinkled throughout the bulging volume.

There are many analogies one could make about Del Conte’s influence on the way we see Italian food today: What Larousse Gastronomique did for French food, Gastronomy of Italy did for Italian food. Or: What Marcella Hazan did for Italian food writing in America, Anna Del Conte did for it in England. Her number-one fan, Nigella Lawson, calls her "the Marcella Hazan of England."

In fact, Del Conte adapted Hazan’s first two books for the British market: The Classic Italian Cookbook, which she called “the best book on Italian cooking in the English language,” followed by More Classic Italian Cooking. Her own cookery books, including Portrait of Pasta (1976), Entertaining all’Italiana (1991), and The Classic Food of Northern Italy (1995), were all critically acclaimed. As she writes, “the achievement I will always feel most proud of is that I was the first cookery writer to put authentic Italian pasta on the British plate.”

Charlotte Druckman probably said it best in her gorgeous profile of Del Conte in the Post: “One could argue that her ambivalent identity is directly responsible for her success and appeal as a food writer.”

I’ve always felt that Del Conte’s greatest quality was her ability to translate one nation’s food for another. "To emulate an Italian in the kitchen, you need to prioritise flavour," she writes. "Italian food is relatively simple; its success is based mainly on the flavour of the key ingredient, so this must be the highest quality. The Italians spend far more on food than the British, in spite of having a smaller income." It’s precisely this careful attention to cultural differences that has allowed her to bring Italian cooking to the British with such empathy.

How could she not? She was only 24 when she fled Mussolini-era Italy to work as an au pair in England, where she would marry her husband, Oliver Waley, never moving back to her hometown in Milan. Little did she know that she'd soon be crowned "the doyenne of Italian cooking."

"Her prose is considered and understated, her erudition illuminating yet underplayed," Lawson wrote in The Guardian in 2009, when Risotto With Nettles was published. "Above all, she understands that food has a context—historical, social, creative—but that this is nothing if recipes don't work. She is eminently reliable, the trustiest, most inspiring teacher. Every paragraph she writes is shot through with her sensibility, which mixes wryness, intellectual rigour and practical commonsense."

Del Conte's recipes for lemon risotto, spaghetti with tomato sauce, and bucatini alla carbonara, have certainly changed the way I cook and eat Italian food in my own home, as well as the way I taste it in restaurants. She taught me, for instance, to dress my pasta with sauce, not my sauce with pasta. She taught me not to overdo things in the kitchen, to let the ingredients speak for themselves. She taught me to use herbs and spices sparingly ("Both are added to enhance the flavour of the main ingredient, not to distract from it"). She taught me that any Parmesan cheese added to a dish "must dissolve, imparting an overall flavour like a seasoning."

She is eminently reliable, the trustiest, most inspiring teacher. Every paragraph she writes is shot through with her sensibility, which mixes wryness, intellectual rigour and practical commonsense."
Nigella Lawson

I’ve also always felt that the best leader is one who doesn’t ask to lead. When Del Conte was asked to do cooking demos in front of live crowds, she hated the idea at first. "Frankly, I never enjoyed doing them," she writes in Risotto with Nettles. "I don't like to be on a podium or addressing a number of people. But I thought it would be good for my image.

"At one of these demonstrations I saw a beautiful girl in the front row, listening attentively to every word and, at the end, she came up and introduced herself. It was Nigella Lawson, who became a great champion of mine. I felt honoured. Nigella knows Italian food better than any other British-born cookery writer and is able to describe it so well. A few years later I told her the same words that Sir Walter Scott said to his great admirer, Alessandro Manzoni: ‘Now the pupil has eclipsed the master.’”

Del Conte, now in her 90s, lives in England.

What has Anna Del Conte taught you over the years? Tell, tell in the comments.
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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

23 Comments

Kkkaye May 5, 2019
I took a cooking class from her at Books for Cooks in London. It was a very small class so we got to see her and ask questions informally during the demo. I have her cookbook A Casa.
 
Zouhair F. May 5, 2019
In General, I love Italy and Italians,, I bow in front of this Great Lady, because she is a very precious Treasure of eperience , knowledge. and rich heritage..I wish her everlasting happiness..
 
Lisa May 5, 2019
If she was 19 years old in 1944, she didn’t flee Mussolini’s Italy at the age of 24 (1949). By that time Mussolini had been killed by partisans and had been dead for four years. Yes, I love to cook, but I like my history accurate, too!
 
jpriddy May 5, 2019
Perhaps a subtlety/confusion in wording here—"She was only 24 when she fled Mussolini-era Italy to work as an au pair in England"—as the author refers to a broad period of time, not the dictator himself?
 
Lisa May 5, 2019
Believe me, the Mussolini era was dead and gone by then and Italy had become the tumultuous democracy that is today.
 
Kristinka May 6, 2019
Perhaps there is a more detailed autobiography elsewhere with more detail. My Jewish grandmother fled the Czech Republic just AFTER the Allied invasion - apparently the Communist regime coming down the pike was a bridge too far after surviving Nazi occupation.
 
Lisa May 6, 2019
Kristina,
I’m happy your grandmother survived and there were certainly good reasons for fleeing Europe after the war, but the allied invasion was not one of them. It wasn’t an invasion, but a liberation, and of course, it was the Soviet Union, not the allies who liberated Czechoslovakia, (not the Czech Republic).
 
julie May 5, 2019
I also bought her book - Gastronomy of Italy, published in 1987 in a used book shop in Germany just before I left to return to Australia In 2005. Gastronomy is my Encyclopedia of Italian food. I saw the tv programme with both Anna and NIgella, the love and esteem each hold for the other is wonderful.
 
Melinda S. April 1, 2019
Being Italian-american with both parents growing up during World War II in Italy, this hits home. Which book would you recommend for my first purchase?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 1, 2019
Hi Melinda, ohh definitely 'Risotto with Nettles': https://www.amazon.com/Risotto-Nettles-Anna-Del-Conte/dp/0099505991?tag=food52-20

Lovely writing, personal narrative, yet each chapter ends with a recipe. Best of both worlds, if you ask me.
 
Bella95 March 31, 2019
As a 23 year old au pair in Italy I vividly remember one of my friends telling me that her father and grandfather, who were from Northern Italy, refused to eat polenta. During the war it was all they had, flavoured by rubbing it with a salami that hung from a string over the table. When the war ended they swore they would never eat it again.
 
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Eric K. April 1, 2019
Wow, what an image. Thanks for sharing, Bella.
 
Monika March 30, 2019
I made 2 of her recipes this week -- her Ragu ala Bolognese, and budina ricotta recipe. Both were fantastic!
 
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Eric K. March 30, 2019
Great choices, delicious.
 
MICHELE L. March 30, 2019
Check out the Luganega e Peperoni in Salsa. It's divine!
 
Nancy May 5, 2019
Sounds delicious. Which cookbook was this in?

Does anyone have a suggestion which of her cookbooks to start out with?
 
Monika May 5, 2019
Both recipes are in The Gastronomy of Italy. I think I would start with that book, and then get the others -- it has the basics, the key recipes.
 
Maggie S. March 29, 2019
SO beautiful Eric. The pasta-dressing tip I've tucked in my pocket for later.
 
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Eric K. March 30, 2019
Thank you, Maggie.
 
MICHELE L. March 29, 2019
Thank you for this story! I bought one of her books in a used bookstore years ago and it's one of my favorites. I didn't know her history before now and this makes me love the book all the more.
 
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Eric K. March 30, 2019
I'm so glad. I, too, discovered her in a used bookstore!
 
Cynthia March 29, 2019
There way she cooks sounds wonderful
 
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Eric K. March 30, 2019
It's full of wisdom and lightness.