Interview: Learning to Cook Italian

Photo Jan 28, 11 43 29 AM

Confidence in the kitchen comes from repetition,” This quote from Erica De Mane, author of The Flavors of Southern Italy“>The Flavors of Southern Italy and Pasta Improv: How to Improvise in Classic Italian Style, really strikes a chord. Erica’s books have inspired me to become a better Italian cook and to look more deeply at how my own cooking continues to evolve. A New Yorker with southern Italian roots, Erica’s cooking skills are in her DNA. 

What type of cook are you? Do you like to stick to recipes or are you more improvisational and free-form?  I think it takes great confidence to put aside the recipe and create from one’s knowledge and experience. This is Erica’s strength. Her cookbook offers more than just interesting recipes. She teaches a deeper understanding of how herbs, spices and ingredients complement each other and fuse to create new tastes. She grew up surrounded by Italian cooking, traveled through Italy, and now lives in New York City, so Erica knows the complexities of Italian-American and classic Italian cooking. Erica is a flavor guru. She cooks by improvisation, letting her depth of knowledge be her guide.

Her book is broken into 3 main sections:

  • Fundamental Tastes, Southern Italian Style
  • Essential Southern Italian Flavoring Ingredients
  • Recipes
  • Favorite Southern Italian Wines

I have learned a great deal from Erica, and when I grow up, I want to be just like her. 


Erica is a writer, blogger, cook, and artist who lives in New York City. Erica was drawn to cooking at age seven; it was bound to happen in a household filled with dishes from Campania, Puglia, and Sicily. By age 17, Erica was hooked and had already developed a refined palate for this complex cuisine. Her family lived in Darien, Connecticut, and even though her Italian grandparents wanted to blend into American culture, the meals were 100% Italian. Young Erica soaked it up. Spending her adult life in New York City, she continues her culinary education by eating out at fine Italian restaurants and paying close attention to the chefs. She has taken many trips to her grandparents’ homeland to learn about their beloved cuisine and to broaden her knowledge.

An Italian Dish: How did you learn improvisational cooking?
Erica: Although I now improvise in my cooking, I learned the classics of Puglia, Campania, and Sicily in my youth. I used to get anxious and bored, so I started cooking and improvisation became my cooking style. My mom and grandma would get angry, but it was my way of being a kid. That’s what happened when I got into the kitchen. I never followed my own recipes. For example, I would cook Eggplant Parmesan using my mother’s traditional recipe, but then I started adding different herbs and spices and making it my own. I can’t imagine always making things the same way in my cooking, but I adhere to southern Italian flavors and the spirit of southern Italian methods. My cooking is recognizable to southern Italian people.

An Italian Dish: Talk about your use of southern Italian spices.
Erica: My mother made ravioli filled with ricotta and cinnamon with tomato sauce for Christmas, a classic dish from Naples. The region of Campania often uses cinnamon, and there is a great deal of overlap with Sicilian and Naples cuisines – ever since the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. But blending of spices is evolving in southern Italy; for example, famous chefs in Regusa, Sicily, are using native ingredients, but doing it in different way, and evolving the Sicilian traditional cooking palate. This evolution is happening to me.
Southern Italy uses fennel, but no dill. They use anchovies, vinegar peppers, escarole, arugula and peaches steeped in strong white wine. Basil and oregano are used in southern Italy especially in Campania.
Over the last 10 years, I have become involved with north African flavors and they have crept into my southern Italian cooking. 

An Italian Dish: Who are your cooking idols? Mentors?
Erica: People want recipes, people really rely on recipes. It seems strange to me. It forces me to record things, like an unchangeable unit. I would like to write recipes in the style of  Elizabeth David or Richard Olney who write instructions in prose style and don’t give ingredient amounts.

An Italian Dish: What is your experience with Italian-American cooking vs. traditional Italian cooking?
Erica: I find that Italian-Americans make dishes traditionally. Certain dishes have been preserved by Italian-Americans as if they were etched in stone, but the classic form of some of the dishes don’t even exist anymore in southern Italy because their cooking has evolved. These dishes are still made by families here in America, but in Italy they are not recognized anymore, they have evolved. This can be a tender subject. 

An Italian Dish: What are some of your current projects?
Erica: I recently bought a house that has room for a large herb garden. I can grow wild fennel, and wild mints that are native to southern Italy. This is a life changer for me because now I have a place to grow fresh herbs to use in my cooking. In the spring and summer I will be doing herb and spice cooking classes in my home. I will be changing up different herb combinations and putting 2-3 herbs together and explaining what that taste is and how to use it with classic southern Italian dishes. I am currently working on a new cookbook that will have my own drawings.

Thank you Erica for giving us your time and an autographed copy of your book, The Flavors of Southern Italy. Erica’s first book was Pasta Improvvisata which has recently come out in e-book form with the new title, Pasta Improv: How to Improvise in Classic Italian Style.

Speaking of southern Italian flavors, here is a sample of one of Erica’s dishes that is alive with southern Italian flavors. This cabbage coleslaw has wine-soaked raisins, scallions, and pine nuts. When these flavors “marry” they do an exquisite dance on your taste buds.

After the recipe, you will find more information about entering to win Erica’s book.

Sneak Peak . . . 

Coleslaw with Sicilian Flavors

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

From Flavors of Southern Italy


  • 1 small savoy cabbage or red cabbage, trimmed of outer leaves, cored and sliced very thin
  • 5 scallions including tender green parts, cut into thin rounds
  • Large handful of lightly toasted pine nuts
  • Handful of golden raisins, soaked in dry white wine
  • –  1 small red peperoncino chili, seeded and minced
  • pinch of sugar
  • pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar or Champagne vinegar
  • Generous handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped


  1. In a large serving bowl, combine the sliced cabbage, scallions, pine nuts, raisins with their wine, chili, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Toss briefly. Add olive oil, vinegar, and basil. Toss well. Let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes to let the flavors marry.


Buon Appetito! I hope you have enjoyed this interview with Erica.

10 thoughts

  1. I often improvise. Not sure about my favorite recipe but last night I made spinach soup from Marcella Hazen’s book. I used my mixed greens instead of spinach, threw in some broccoli that needed to be eaten and used half and half instead of milk. The only spice she recommends is nutmeg which I did use. Yum.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jan. I love Marcella Hazen and think she is the queen of Italian cooking. Great idea to use her base recipe and then add your own spin based on what is in your fridge. The combination of spinach, milk and nutmeg is interesting. I bet it is delicious!

  3. My husband uses fresh fennel in Minestra and it wakes up any greens that he chooses to uses. Since we live in FL now, I have fennel in my garden year round!

    1. Hi Rosemary,
      I love this! What a treat to have fresh fennel year round. A great idea to have a base like fennel that works with any of the greens he chooses. Thanks so much for your comment. Best of luck in the contest!

  4. I can’t wait to make the Italian coleslaw, once fresh basil is available again. It sounds so refreshing. Thanks for bringing this book and southern Italien cuisine in general to our attention, Ellen!

    1. Hi Lynn,
      Oh, I am so jealous! Tuscany is so beautiful and the food is so interesting and delicious. What are some of your favorite dishes to prepare?
      Thank you so much for your comment. I can understand how you could get focused on the Tuscan cuisine. Best of luck in the contest. For the next several weeks I will be concentrating southern Italian dishes to preparation for a trip I am taking in the autumn. Stay tuned!

Your comments are always welcome!