Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome

I began this quirky, genre-defying book one sunny May morning and by the time I had got halfway through it, I was really enjoying myself. I had had no idea what to expect but was prepared for either a fatuous trawl through Rome’s “eateries” or for rapturous gushing about dining all’italiana being so much more “vibrant” than the drab way we do it at home. Al Dente is neither. And as I read on, I found myself making a mental list of things to check out next time I am in Rome. The ice cream place near Termini station, the statue of St Catherine of Siena, the Villa Farnesina (apparently Raphael’s frescoes are surrounded by borders of lewd fruit; I had never noticed. But now that I come to check, I do see something tumescent above the head of Hermes…). Maybe I won’t go to the trattoria with the Che Guevara poster, where the owner hates the bourgeoisie and imposes a necktie ban. Hatred and prohibition sit uneasily on this good-natured book.

David Winner. Simon & Schuster, 2012

At least, I thought it was good-natured. It purports to be about food and Rome, and yes, it is about those things, but not only, and sometimes only tangentially. It is about history, about film (Fellini and Antonioni), about art (Raphael, Caravaggio), about religion, about human relationships. Winner’s previous books have been about football and I expected the tone of Al Dente to be blokey. It isn’t. It’s amusing without being ho-ho. And Winner writes exceptionally well, with a wonderful, unpretentious, effective use of language. I enjoyed the image of ancient Rome as a horse carcase slowly being eaten by a buzzard. But it was at about this point that the book started to go wrong.

It wasn’t just the strange and rather surreal encounter in Caffè Greco with the elderly Frenchman calling himself Marie-Henry [sic] Beyle. Were we supposed to interpret him as the ghost of Stendhal? It wasn’t clear. No, it was the buzzard: a Christian buzzard. Aha. Soon enough it becomes apparent that Winner has a bone of his own to pick clean. First we learn that Michelangelo studied the kabbalah and came from “tolerant, more secular Florence” and then that Dante’s best friend was a Jewish poet, as if we need to claim these two great souls as righteous gentiles before getting started. But hang on. Savonarola outlawed Florentine-Jewish money-lending in 1495, when Michelangelo was twenty. How tolerant is that and how secular was Savonarola? And is Blech and Doliner’s theory about a subversive message encrypted in the Old Testament figures of the Sistine ceiling pseudo-science or an avenue for fruitful new research? Or both? Winner doesn’t help us to decide. It begins to feel perilously as though a good idea is being stretched too thin over too few pegs. We need more support before we can tread confidently on this kind of ground.

And what happened to the food angle? Or for that matter to the beauty promised in the subhead? They got lost. The sudden descent into Jewish-Christian polemic turns what was elegant, idiosyncratic fusion cuisine into a kind of unwholesome stodge, over-boiled and half-baked at the same time. What’s the point of it all? Winner suddenly sees everything in terms of black and white and the nuances of all those Fellini films he loves so much are lost. Which is a pity, because nuanced history is always more interesting.

But let’s return to the positive. On the back dust jacket there is a short blurb offering up the work to the reading public and modestly hoping that it gives them “something to chew on”. It certainly does. And when the indigestion passes I’ll be left with the feeling that I took something away, something useful: an insight into human attitudes as well as insider knowledge of where to find the best tiramisù on the planet. Both of them very valuable things.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, contributing author of Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) and compiler of Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome .

A celebration of Lucca

“Lucca is one of the most beautiful small towns in Italy.” So begins the description of the town in Blue Guide Tuscany. And it is true. Lucca, in my opinion, is as good as Tuscany gets. It was a Roman town, and the shape of its amphitheatre is atmospherically preserved in an elliptical piazza, ringed around by medieval houses. Its church façades are spectacular, richly carved in a characteristic mix of pink, green and white marble. Rusking sketched them obsessively.

Lucca is close to the great quarries of Carrara and Pietrasanta, where Michelangelo came in search of perfect, unveined blocks, and it has a tradition of excellence in carving. Its most important native artist is Matteo Civitali (1436–1501), whose expressive works are to be seen almost exclusively in and around Lucca.

Lucca is also a town of cyclists. Its old medieval fortifications are splendidly preserved, and around the top of the walls there is now a bicycle track, which goes all around the town offering magnificent views. It is also well worth hiring a bike and striking off into the surrounding countryside, lovely farmland criss-crossed by small streams, the houses all with characteristic haylofts with walls of louvred brick for ventilation.

Unlike many towns in Tuscany, Lucca was never subject to Florence and the Medici. From the late 14th century until the days of Napoleon, who arrived in 1799 as part of his Reorganise Europe road trip, Lucca maintained a proud tradition of independence. It is perhaps this that gives the town so much of its special character. It also has important musical associations. It was the birthplace of Puccini, and from 1805 to 1808 Paganini was here, working as court violinist to Napoleon’s sister Elisa, to whom the ambitious Corsican had arbitrarily presented Lucca as a principality. Her country home, the Villa Reale, lies in the foothills northeast of the town, at Marlia, and is open to the public (  Close by, at Lammari, in the church of San Jacopo, is the last work of Matteo Civitali (illustrated below). It is a tabernacle of the Redeemer, shown emptying his own blood into the Eucharistic chalice, a symbol of his sacrifice to redeem mankind.

Typical dishes of Lucca’s cuisine include tordelli lucchesi, pasta pockets filled with spiced meat and served in a meat and tomato sauce. Buccellato is a delicious, simple cake flavoured with aniseed and raisins (photo © As the old saying goes, ‘If you don’t eat buccellato, you haven’t been to Lucca.”

Romantic music in a Baroque setting

Tucked away in a sidestreet close to the church of the Frari is Palazzetto Bru Zane, originally a small palace or ‘casino’ where the Zane family would receive guests and host entertainments. Its stairway and first-floor rooms are richly decorated with woodwork by Andrea Brustolon and stuccoes by Abbondio Stazio, both of whom had studied with or been influenced by Bernini and his assistants in Rome. The frescoes are attributed to Sebastiano Ricci, the finest Venetian artist of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Today the palace is administered by the Fondation Bru as the Centre for French Romantic Music. Concerts are held in the Zane family’s original upper-floor concert hall, with its richly decorated ceiling and lovely carved wood balustrade. For information about concerts and tickets, see

The god Pan, detail of the concert-hall ceiling