In Off Menu, Edward White serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
During a life of astonishing incident and variety, Gabriele D’Annunzio inhabited many guises. In the twenty years before World War I he established himself as a giant of Italian culture: an epochal writer often known simply as “the Poet” in Italy, a nationalist proselytizer, a storied lothario, and a daring aviator of spellbinding charisma. When the war came, D’Annunzio transformed himself into a soldier and a statesman who presaged the rise of Mussolini and the aesthetics of Fascism. A “poet, seducer and prophet of war” is how his biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett describes him, “an urbane socialite and man of letters,” as well as “a frenzied demagogue” who was “as ruthless and selfish as a baby.”
His life intersected with many famous and infamous people, such as his sometime lover and muse Eleonora Duse, one of the most acclaimed actors of her day. But away from the excitement, scandal, and infamy that defined D’Annunzio’s public existence, one curious relationship ran like a steel girder through the last twenty-three years of his life: that with his cook, a much younger woman named Albina Becevello, about whom little is known other than her cooking. At a time when certain thinkers—inspired, to some degree, by D’Annunzio’s ideas about aestheticism, technology, and national identity—were advocating a complete revolution in Italian cuisine, Becevello nourished and indulged her employer with recipes that would have been familiar to the people of the Italian Peninsula even before the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century.
Becevello was not a pioneering chef, but one who catered perfectly to her audience. As the authors Maddalena Santeroni and Donatella Miliani detail in their book about Becevello, D’Annunzio’s mania for eggs—he would routinely eat five a day—meant his cook became a brilliant exponent of frittata, the Italian variant of the omelet. Often Becevello could send him into raptures with an even more simple creation, such as her re-creation of the egg-and-anchovy dish he remembered from his childhood. “Albina, be praised forever and ever,” he once wrote her, “shine forever in the Constellation of the Egg and the Nebula of the Anchovy! Amen.” Santeroni and Miliani suggest that the relationship between Becevello and D’Annunzio gives the lie to the Poet’s reputation for misogyny. That seems a stretch, to put it kindly. But they’re surely correct in saying that through Becevello and her traditional cooking—her risotto alla Milanese and her spaghetti alla chitarra—a real human emerges beneath the layers of obnoxious and grandiloquent mythmaking in which D’Annunzio swaddled himself for the half-century that he occupied a central place in Italian public life. Read More