Health magazine caught up with Chef Batali in Fall 2007 to talk about healthy Italian food and the American appetite, and to hear more about how he created the recipes for The Celebrity Italian Table Cookbook, which benefited Second Harvest.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in working with these celebrity dishes?
A: I know Marisa really well. I know Debra very well. So I just went with what I perceived to be their natural kind of Italian-ness of what they would like. They gave me their ideas, and I pretty much went with the classics. I didn't tweak it very far. I think everybody likes what I did. They haven't given me kisses or blessings yet, but they haven't given me any complaints.
Q: Why do Americans like Italian food so much?
A: I think Americans like Italian because the national table of Italy is covered with food that Americans perceive as comfort food. Penne Pomodoro translates to every child, adult, and grandpa and grandma in the whole country. And if they don't have pomodoro, and they have a little Parmesan and a little butter...the whole world of pasta is easily translatable and non-intimidating. Yet its exotic enough to remind you that you want to go to Italy or of the last time you were in Italy.
Q: Do you think you have to go to Italy to really appreciate Italian food?
A: What you learn best when you go to Italy is how great true simplicity can be. That doesn't mean you can't find it here, but once you're there and see that's what they're doing all over Italy, it makes more sense when you eat it herejust a simple plate of perfect pasta.
Q: When you think Italian, what do you think of?
A: Gastronomically, the first things I think of are Prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan, oregano, balsamic vinegar…the ingredients that make up the larder of Bologna.
Q: Pasta's gotten a bad rap in recent years because it's high in carbohydrates. Is that fair?
A: If you're carb-a-phobic, it does have carbs. I think the larger issue and the reason Americans are so fat is that we don't think about portion control. If you have 100 gramsabout 3 1/2 ouncesof pasta with some kind of vegetable, you're certainly not going to get bigger unless you don't do some kind of exercise. Yeah, it has gotten a bad rap. I think in small portions and done the right way, it's healthy, delicious, and good for you. It's comforting. People say being happy is an important part of their real health.
Q: What would you do differently to make a pasta dish lighter?
A: I don't think you have to disturb the balance of a dish. I would just say serve a smaller portion. I wouldn't say you should remove an ingredient. I think it's healthy any way. You just can't eat 3 1/2 pounds of it. If you eat 3 ounces of pasta and a peach for dessert, you're going to be in good shape.
Q: The book features table settings, including one from your New York City restaurant Babbo. Whats essential about recreating that kind of fine dining experience at home?
A: I think it's about recreating all the details you can get your hands on. It's all about making sure that there's a thought process in each of the things you put on the table, whether it's how you light the room or what china you put on your table. It should still feel like your house when you're creating these kinds of special meals, but you should spend a few minutes to have some kind of thematic idea in mind when you do it.
Q: When Americans think about traditional Italian cuisine, we think about pastas and pizza. What are we missing from the tradition?
A: A lot of Americans misunderstand that pasta can be a main course, but a lot of times it's served as an appetizer. A lot of people don't really take the antipasto off the menu and make an entire meal out of five small dishes.
Q: Celebrities are notorious for dieting. Are any of these recipes created with staying slim in mind?
A: Marisa's dish has a few mushrooms. Debra Messing's dish has just a tomato-y sauce. Natalie Portman's dish is vegetarian on purpose. These are all dishes that aren't super-rich. Chris Daughtry's has a little Gorgonzola in it, but everyone's looking to be healthy here.
Q: What's the one thing about Italian food that most American's mess up when they're cooking it?
A: The most common mistake most cooks make is to put too much stuff on a pasta dish. The dish is about the noodle, and the sauce should be more like a salad dressing. It should cling to the noodle, not engulf the noodle. The noodle is the main event.