From regional gastronomic traditions to italian cuisine

He was a chef, but lived as a world citizen. And he certainly was in no need of a mental coach.

The author of L’Apicio moderno, ossia l’arte di apprestare ogni sorta di vivande (The Modern Apicius, or the art of preparing all types of food) led an intense life, from one end of Europe to another, but found the time to write a monumental treatise on cooking in six volumes as well as other gastronomic works.

The author

We know very little about Francesco Leonardi (ca. 1730 – after 1816), except from what we may be able to gather from the few personal references contained in his works.

Originally from Rome, his culinary apprenticeship took place in Paris, in the mid-18th century, in Marshal Richelieu’s kitchens. He then returned to Italy, to work in Naples for Michele Imperiali, Prince of Francavilla and Marquis of Oria.

In 1772 he was hired by Cardinal De Bernis, French Ambassador at the Vatican.

He worked in several campaigns by Louis XV, travelled throughout Europe with General Ivan Ivanovic Shouvaloff, Grand Chamberlain of Russia, and followed him to Saint Petersburg in 1778. Here he became head chef to Prince Grigorij Grigorevic Orloff and, on his death in 1783, personal chef and master of ceremonies to Empress Catherine II.

Because of the harsh climate, Leonardi left Russia and returned to Italy. In 1791 he was back in Rome, working as personal chef to Cardinal De Bernis, plenipotentiary of Louis XV at the Vatican, for whom he organized a sumptuous banquet with more than a hundred people to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin of France.

In 1803 he was in Austria, following Prince Soltikoff, and in 1804 he was in Naples, as head chef to the Duke of Gravina, until the arrival of the French and the departure of his master for Sicily in January 1806. He then returned to Rome where he worked as master of ceremonies at the lavish banquet given by Pope Pius VII at the Quirinal Palace for the Emperor of Austria, Francis I, on the occasion of his state visit to Rome in the spring of 1816.

The work

Although The Modern Apicius – published in Rome in 1790, and again in 1807-8 with the addition of two new volumes on the art of the pastry chef – was conceived by its author as a work for chefs at the service of princes, it presents many regional recipes, and names them as such.

There is no sense of inferiority towards the “national” French cuisine. Quite the opposite. At the end of the 18th century, following the French Revolution, the concept of territory had gained in importance. From the early 19th century onwards a large number of openly regional cookery books were published in Italy.

Leonardi was the first great chef to regularly use tomatoes and he claimed the invention of the classic Neapolitan combination of pasta with tomatoes as his own. What is certain is that his sauce, made by simmering seedless tomatoes with onions, celery, garlic and basil, is used to this day on many of our dishes.

When Leonardi published The Modern Apicius, he stated that he was working on another challenging work, the Dizionario ragionato degli alimenti (Annotated dictionary of foods), of which only the first three volumes are known (up to the letter E), published in Rome in 1795 by Paolo Giunchi.

Gianina, ossia la cuciniera delle Alpi (Gianina, or the cook of the Alps), published in Roma in three volumes in 1817 is, notwithstanding the fanciful romantic introduction, essentially a remake of The Modern Apicius, which was further reworked and reissued in 1826 under the title Il cuciniere perfetto italiano (The perfect Italian cook).

In his Tonkin, ossia il credenziere cinese (Tonkin, or the Chinese pastry chef), published in 1827, he returned again to the text of The Modern Apicius, adding only an interesting introduction about the new tasks of the master of ceremonies and of the server.

Why read it?

Starting in the seventeenth century, Italian cookery books abandoned all claims of universal hegemony and focused on distinctly regional contexts, more in tune with the contemporary political and social situation. Once the “high” level of Court cuisine lost vigour, it was as if a submerged cultural reality, made of local products and traditions and long oppressed by the trappings of opulence and ostentation, could finally find expression.

Leonardi’s text, evoking the idea of the Latin treatise from which it takes its name, attempts the recovery of a “national” dimension of Italian cuisine, albeit segmented into regional areas.

It opens, in the French style, with a historical overview of the evolution of taste – the first attempt of this kind in Italy -, which highlights both the ways in which the country’s cuisine had changed through the centuries, and the importance of local and regional traditions for the revival of an authentic Italian cuisine. The connections between gastronomy and local area foster the variety and richness that still today characterize Italian cuisine around the world.

By gathering local gastronomic customs and giving them equal status with the “national” European traditions he had encountered in the course of fifty years as chef, Leonardi anticipated, in a way, the programme of unification of Italian cuisine that was implemented by Pellegrino Artusi a century later.

What are the typical products and recipes of your region that are a symbol of Italian cuisine?