Tell us about you and what you do.
I am half Australian, half Japanese. I grew up in China and traveling all over Asia and went to art school in the US before discovering Florence, falling in love and then calling it home. That was over 18 years ago now! I have a food blog and am a columnist for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, so I am regularly writing and photographing recipes and sharing them. I have written six cookbooks (the latest will be out in October!) with not only recipes, but with stories that give the recipes a sense of place, history and a bit of nostalgia. I also run food and wine workshops with my husband Marco, and we are about to open our own wine bar/cooking school with a space dedicated to culinary experiences near our home in Tuscany.
How did you make the decision to move to Florence?
It was 2001, I was in my last year of my Fine Art undergrad degree, in Providence, Rhode Island and really wanted a chance (the traveler that I am!) to go somewhere else before graduating — quite randomly, Florence came up. I attended a small printmaking school, Il Bisonte, which is still there and still exactly the same. I’d walk across Piazza Santa Croce and over the Arno river to the San Niccolo neighbourhood every day for my classes and spent the evenings with my roommates from all over the world cooking, talking and planning weekend train trips. It was everything I could have dreamed of and more. So I made a decision to come back to live in Florence for another year in 2005 — and I just never left (especially after I met my husband)!
Tell us more about Enoteca Marilu and how can someone be a part of it.
Marco and I have had this dream since about 2007 to open a picturesque, characteristic place where we could do wine tastings — the kind of place we would like to be and hang out in. In 2017 or so that dream evolved into a cooking studio for pop up dinners and cooking classes too. Finally, in 2021 we realised the older we get the more we wanted to make this dream a reality! We found the perfect space for it, here in San Miniato where we now live (about 40 minutes from Florence), down a little laneway right in the centre of our cute hilltop town. It combines our two passions, food and wine — Marco’s side is a natural wine bar and wine shop and mine is a cooking studio! People can come to buy wine or for aperitivo, they can take a cooking class with me or join one of our longer workshops, where we go hunting for truffles and visit local food artisans as well as cooking and tasting wine and eating together.
Your husband has been the sommelier of some fantastic places – Il Pellicano, Florence’s Four Season’s Il Palagio, and now the Cibreo group. We also love that he loves natural wines. What wine are you drinking tonight?
I obviously let Marco do all the wine choosing but he also knows very well what I like to drink too (I gravitate towards white and macerated wines). At home we usually have something quite casual, nothing fancy, but sometimes we are also tasting wines for the enoteca. Tonight we’re drinking something leftover from a cooking class where I usually like to show people something local — a delicious Chianti Rufina from Fattoria Selvapiana.
How did the two of you meet?
I happened to be meeting a good friend at a bar one freezing winter afternoon after just arriving off the plane from Australia. My friend Audrey happened to be sitting right at the bar in and Marco happened to be the bartender. I froze when he asked me what I’d like to drink and just ordered the first thing at the top of the menu: martini rosso. He was like, “you mean, on its own?” He must have thought I was crazy. In Italian they say it’s like a “lightning strike”, which I think is better than “love at first sight”. We swapped phone numbers and the rest is history!
What do you wish people knew before visiting Florence?
That it is unpleasantly crowded from May until October and that it is unbearably hot — and this is coming from an Australian — in the summer. To truly enjoy Florence, you must come outside of those months, I promise you it will be an entirely different, beautiful experience when you see the city in the low or shoulder seasons! It is so much more pleasant to walk around, eating Tuscan food and wine and soaking up the sights in Florence in the cooler months and with fewer people around. Summertime is a real problem in Florence, I think, it’s like a pizza oven, the medieval stones heat up all day so even in the middle of the night it’s still hot. Try sitting on a stone bench at midnight — it will be hot! Instead, the countryside is the place to be in the summer, even more than the seaside which can be overcrowded with Italians, especially if you have access to a pool, but even somewhere up on a hill where you can catch a breeze as the sun goes down.
What do you think is one of the most underrated areas on the Tuscan Coast? They also have amazing seafood there, right?
Monte Argentario, where we lived in 2015. I loved it so much I even based a cookbook on the area, which I wrote while we were living in Porto Ercole, one of the two towns in Monte Argentario. It’s like a mountain top in the sea but it’s so close to the mainland that over time sandbanks built up, creating the lagoon of Orbetello and attaching the tip of Monte Argentario to the mainland like two outstretched arms. It has a stunning, rocky coastline and still has the feel of an island. You really do need a car (or a boat!) here to explore all the beaches and make the most of the position — within an hour’s drive or ferry you can visit the fascinating town of Pitigliano, the hot springs of Saturnia or Giglio island. The seafood is incredible — so fresh and plentiful. I love an aperitivo at Il Pellicano and then a beautiful meal right on the beach at I Due Pini.
You’ve written several fantastic cookbooks already. How did your most recent Cinnamon and Salt come about?
Cinnamon and Salt is about the cicchetti culture in Venice and its history — these are the little morsels of food you can find all over the city, usually in wine bars and always accompanied by a spritz or a small glass of wine. It came about because a historian friend of mine suggested we look into doing a series of videos or a podcast or a book about the old cicchetti bars — we met up one weekend shortly after Italy’s huge lockdown in 2020 and walked around an empty Venice eating cicchetti everywhere we went. By the time I came home, my publisher, who had seen my adventures on Instagram suggested we turn it into a cookbook — funnily enough, she didn’t know I had already collected all the material to pitch the book to her!
What’s one of the first recipes you think someone should try and why?
For me, baccalà mantecato is the ultimate Venetian cicchetto — it’s also the first recipe for this reason. When I go to Venice it’s always the first thing I eat when I arrive! It’s not always the easiest thing to find outside of Venice — in fact the true Venetian baccalà is made with stockfish not salt cod, as many people mistakenly think. Stockfish needs to be rehydrated first (some delis or fishmongers sell it already rehydrated, which makes this very easy), then all you need to do is poach it with some garlic, then whip or puree the warm stockfish with the garlic and some olive oil. That’s it!
What’s one of your favorite restaurants or food-centric experiences in Venice?
I barely eat at restaurants in Venice, I’m too busy eating cicchetti! My favourite cicchetti are near the Rialto fish market, down a little back alley in a bacaro (wine bar) called Arco. It’s a tiny, standing only place where you can choose from traditional cicchetti and more inventive creations based on the freshest ingredients from the market. Next door is another interesting place, Do Mori, one of the oldest running bacari in Venice — it’s been there since the 1400s.
What has been one of your most memorable meals in Italy?
There are so many it’s almost unfair I can only put one! But I will say I’ve never had anything like freshly made tomato paste on crostini like the ones I had at Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily. We had just spent days making tomato paste from scratch, visiting the tomato producer, making the passata (puree) and then drying the tomato puree out on wooden boards left in the hot Sicilian sun for days. It was like a pure, concentrated tomato punch in the face — just exploding with flavour.
What’s the best way to get in touch?
By email! firstname.lastname@example.org or vino@enotecamarilu and Instagram!