Her motto is: “Make simple, healthy choices.” Clearly, we are talking about nutrition which perfectly matches with sustainability, high-quality and awareness, according to Antonella Ricco, a private chef and nutritionist in New York. She is a cook with more than 20 years of experience and an expert in sustainable cooking. She got her degree in Professional Holistic Health Coaching at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York and a degree in Culinary Nutrition at Natural Gourmet Institute in New York and at AJN Academy, a one of a kind institute in Europe.
Born in Puglia, Antonella arrived in New York in 2010, with her homeland still in her heart. As Vice President of “I Like Puglia International” and chef for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Texas, she prepared lots of dishes dedicated to and promoting her region of origin. In the Big Apple, she founded Cookita NYC, a not-for-profit organization for the promotion of high-quality food and its healthy aspects. At home, she cooks lots of vegetables, whole-grain cereals and whole wheat pasta, “strictly wild” fish and shellfish, she says. But also focaccia, panzerotti, fresh bread and homemade pasta. Tradition and gourmet join forces to educate and make people aware of what good cuisine is.
How can we fight the Italian sounding phenomenon? Only through people’s awareness of the most important differences between fake and real Italian products. Antonella always recommends trying new cuisines and urges people not to miss the four “New York musts:” rib eye steak, Sunday brunch with eggs Benedict, waffles and mixed berries pancakes and, last but not least, banana bread!
You are not simply a chef, you also deal with sustainable and healthy cooking. Can you tell us more about your approach to cooking?
The approach to my cuisine is simple. It’s based on one simple idea: considering nutrition and health as a whole. Every time I make a dish, I don’t only focus on high-quality and taste, I also look at its nutritional facts and sustainability. I start by choosing the right ingredients, consider the transformation processes, how food is preserved and how packaging and waste can be recycled. In order to do that, I have improved my skills and experiences as a chef and studied a lot, especially nutrition and health coaching. By doing this, I created a new professional figure that merges cuisine and nutrition in a holistic perspective. Today, I am a private chef, a certified culinary nutrition expert and a board certified holistic health coach. In the last few years, I’ve also been teaching people with intolerance, allergies, gluten-sensitivity and celiac related dietary restrictions to cook.
What kind of cuisine do you practice? What are its goals and where do you take inspiration?
My cuisine is a simple, healthy revision of Italian cuisine. In other words, nutrition applied to cooking. There are two main goals: creating dishes that prevent or slow down the cellular aging process in our body and prepare tasty dishes from the Italian and Mediterranean tradition. Health must never compromise the taste and vice versa. There is no magic trick or secret spell. Just nutrition rules and techniques applied to the traditional cuisine and grandma’s recipes. In my cuisine, even the meaningless detail makes the difference, as it does the way of designing entire menus, that is, treating, cooking, measuring and matching every single ingredient.
Today Italian cuisine is more popular in America. How is today’s cuisine different than the one from 50 years ago? How and why has catering changed for you?
Cuisine has always been a part of the tradition and culture of countries and, therefore, it evolves with them. In this evolutionary dynamic, Italian cuisine is no exception. It spread across America during the immigration waves, and, as Italians became a stable part of the American community, it developed and evolved accordingly. 50 years ago, our cuisine in America was mainly family-style, revised and adapted according to the available ingredients, and most of the Italian restaurants were family run and for an Italian-American clientele. Today, Italian cuisine is a mass phenomenon and catering is an industry that requires lots of investments and different types of skills.
Why do you think Italian cuisine is so popular?
First of all, we live in a globalized and technologically intertwined society, where communication, information and media have no border, no time limits and no geographical or linguistic barriers. This favored the exponential spread of formats and TV programs related to food and above all our cuisine, making it more popular at a global level. If you add it to the important work made by food & wine operators, both in Italy and abroad, to the great quality and the uniqueness of the Italian products, to the mastery of our many chefs and to all the people working behind the scenes to promote the Made in Italy brand, you have the big picture.
How did the American approach to Italian food change in time? Are they more aware today?
The approach of Americans living in big cities has surely changed in the last few years. There is a bigger awareness of the quality of authentic Italian products, now easily available, thanks to our excellent importers and distributors. This has led to an increase of the offerings of Italian food. Innovative restaurants are proposing interesting food-and-wine formulas that meet the new, more elevated, American taste. We find a completely different situation in the average American living far away from the cultural of the big cities. They have very few opportunities to approach authentic Italian cuisine, also due to a real lack of raw materials or restaurants. In this case, the media coverage works more for the Italian sounding than for Made in Italy.
What should we do to promote the artisanal quality of our products and our cuisine and how do we fight Italian sounding?
It is mostly a cultural problem, rather than a trading one. I think the keyword should be ‘educate.’ Only when the consumer is fully aware of the difference between original and fake products, we’ll be able to fight the Italian sounding. But in order to convince the average American consumer (who looks at the price and chooses accordingly), we need to educate all the people taking part in the value chain for Made in Italy products, starting from the Italian producers and the American importers, up to the dealers and buyers. We must also remember that since last year, the Italian government started an international campaign called “The Extraordinary Italian Taste,” a project that has been co-financed by the Ministry for Economic Development and the Ministry of Agriculture. The goal of this campaign is to promote real Italian food & wine in the USA and in the world, protecting it from the many forgeries available on the market. The Institute for Foreign Trade and some Chambers of Commerce also joined the project through promotions and initiatives also involving Italian chefs. For example, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Texas, of which I am the official chef, and the Taste of Italy Ambassador.
You are also Vice President of I Like Puglia International. Puglia, your region, did a lot to promote both tourism and food. Which are the strengths of such operation?
I “IlikePuglia International” is a multimedia cultural platform officially accredited by Regione Puglia as the Association of People from Puglia in the World. It is the result of a joint effort of two Pugliese women: myself, based in New York, and President Annamaria Ferretti, director of “Ilikepuglia,” the regional newspaper based in Bari. The goal is to facilitate and promote intercultural exchanges between America and my native region. It is some sort of a virtual bridge to enhance the value of young immigrants from Puglia, especially women. It also gives Americans the chance to get to know a unique region as Puglia, rich in touristic, food-and-wine, artistic and cultural opportunities.
Do you think Americans are aware of the many regional Italian cuisines?
Talking about awareness and differences of the regional cuisines still sounds a little too early. Experiences such as Eataly have already started an interesting promotional process for regional products and their relative cuisines. But we are still far from a real awareness in the average American.
As a private chef, what do you cook? Which are the dishes you love to cook and which one are the ones people love?
Typical regional Italian cuisine. I cover all Italian regions; although, I have a thing for my Puglia. I also follow Spanish and Greek cuisines, and a fusion with the Japanese cuisine. My guests mostly love dishes and recipes from Southern Italy.
As a gourmet, where do you like eating in New York?
It is a question many people ask me, and when I answer I never give names. New York has so many interesting culinary realities. Naming just one would be reductive and unfair towards the others. I always suggest to discover new places and try new cuisines. If you still want to know where I really like to eat in New York, the best place is my house.
What do you miss about Puglia?
Its colors, its perfumes, the walks along the sea, my family, my little nephew and my dearest friends.
What about the top three real New York dishes one should try at least once?
Without a doubt rib eye steak, the legendary Sunday brunch with eggs Benedict, waffles and mixed berries pancakes and banana bread!
What does Antonella cook at home?
Lots of vegetables, whole-grain cereals and whole wheat pasta and “strictly wild” fish and shellfish. And when I have a strong attack of homesickness, homemade focaccia, panzerotti, fresh bread and homemade pasta. I make generous gourmet breakfasts and dinners as well.
Do you think Americans are learning to eat better?
Well, maybe after reading this article…