Librarian writes own book on Italian cuisine

For the past 15 years, Anthony Riccio has worked at Sterling Memorial Library as a stacks supervisor — but his new book takes him far beyond the stacks.

Riccio’s new book, “Cooking with Chef Silvio: Stories and Authentic Recipes from Campania,” is a collaboration with Silvio Suppa, a chef at Cafe Alegria in Madison and Woodwinds Restaurant in Branford. He talked to the News Wednesday about his book, which focuses on the cuisine, culture and culinary history of the Campania region in southern Italy, and New Haven’s Italian heritage. The book was published last month.

Q. Could you tell us something about your book on Italian cuisine that’s just been released?

A: It’s an interesting way of looking at food. It asks, ‘What are these recipes telling us?’ And one of the ways in which it speaks to us, if we listen, is of the different invasions that came through Italy. The cuisine is made up of eastern influences from the Byzantine Empire that came through the Campania region between the fifth and seventh centuries and left its traces in the food. From the West you had potatoes, tomatoes brought to Naples as gifts from South America. The German Lombards brought their meat dishes when they pressed down from the North. There was a strong Arabic and Middle Eastern influence that made its way into Italy through Sicily. The gastronomy of Campania was made out of almost the whole world. That’s how these recipes speak to us. At a time when people want to go back to farm-to-table food, there’s nothing better than this cuisine to explore.

Q. How did you start working with Silvio Suppa?

A: I met Chef Silvio Suppa at a speaking engagement I had at his restaurant.

Q. How has Yale contributed to your work as an author?

A: I get wonderful support from my colleagues in the library. My supervisor at work has also been wonderful in understanding that some days when I come in to work and my eyes are a little red, it’s because I’ve been up burning the midnight oil and working on my project. The academic community, at least in the library, has been really terrific to me and I’m indebted to them for their support and appreciation.

Q. How did you start writing these books?

A: In Boston, I had lived in an Italian neighborhood [North End] and had recorded its stories and photographed them all, but for fifteen years all these stories and photographs remained in the attic. Then one day, it hit me like a thunderbolt. I was close to the people in Boston and had these remarkable stories that were in my attic. I realized that if I didn’t write that first book about Italian culture and history in Boston [“Boston’s North End: Images and Recollections of an Italian-American Neighborhood”] no one was going to. They’d be lost.

Q. Could you tell us something about New Haven’s Italian heritage?

A: It was a rich culture that was mostly spawned by hunger and poverty in old southern Italy. The Italians came here with a very strong ethic and moral code. In New Haven there were many other ethnicities — there were Polish, Germans, Jews, African Americans. There was a neighborhood called Legion Avenue with 22 ethnicities — it was a rainbow coalition; it was America. There are some beautiful stories in my book [“The Italian-American Experience in New Haven”] about how people got along very well because they came from the same poverty, hunger and social class and had the same aspirations.

Q. You’ve written these books from the perspective of an oral historian. What exactly did that entail?

A: I had a kind of formula from my first book: oral history, photographs and my research interviewing hundreds of elderly people — to reconstruct not just Italian but any kind of ethnic history. Italian-American culture is an oral culture, not a written culture which makes capturing it a race against time. You have to catch people before they pass on, taking their stories to the grave. When you can get [the stories] from the person who’s 90 years old and can recount stories of the Great Depression or working conditions in the 1920s, they just take you by the hand back in time. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my books.

Riccio is now working on his fourth book called “Farms, Factories and Families: Italian-American Women of Connecticut,” which will be completed in about two years.

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