When in Rome – Nicky Pellegrino


I reviewed this title this morning with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand National.

Pellegrino’s 6th novel, another set in Italy, was launched just last week and the author is presently on a South Island promotional tour. She was in both Wanaka and Dunedin yesterday talking to groups, and today she is in the North Island with visits to Masterton and Palmerston North. 

On Sunday last I chaired a panel at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival on which she was featured along with Joanne Harris the Chocolat author visiting from the UK, and Christchurch novelist Felicity Price. These three authors have all written books that speak of “the magic and joy that can be hidden in the mundane stuff of everyday life”.

When in Rome opens with an old lady “bent by age and nearly finished with life” in a Rest Home looking at the photo on her bedroom door. The setting is contemporary but the photo was taken many years before and the story immediately goes back to the 1950’s when the old lady, Serafina is her name, was a teenager living in Rome. The eldest of three sisters Serafina is a young woman growing up in a tiny apartment in Trastevere. She spends her days busking for coins in the street with her sisters; spending the money on tickets for movies featuring her idol the Italian American tenor Mario Lanza.
And then the famous singer comes to Rome to make a movie and a new world opens up when she becomes the assistant to Lanza's wife, Betty. While Betty is a completely fictional character Pellegrino told her audience in Christchurch that she stuck pretty faithfully to the timeline of what actually happened with Mario Lanza in Italy at that time. She said that she had to be careful about where to draw the line between fiction and fantasy, essentially "which bits you're going to colour in". In her research she read all the books that had been written about Mario Lanza, (we have to remember of course that he was a huge star at the time, bigger than Frank Sinatra), including three biographies, one by Derek Mannering who put her in touch with Mario Lanza’s only surviving child Ellisa who provided the author with many memories of her father.
So while the book is the story of Serafina’s life told in her own words, from a nineteen year old through to  her old age in a Rest Home, where on the door of her room is that photograph of her with Mario Lanza, it concentrates of the two years that she lived with the Lanza family in Rome. And there is a great deal about Mario Lanza, the making of the movies,touring in the UK and Europe, the battle he had with his weight and with alcohol, and of course with his subsequent death aged just 38 years.

Being a Pellegrino novel there is of course a lot about food in the book and the Lanza’s chef Pepe, (another completely fictional character out of the author’s imagination), is one of the major characters in the book.

Here is a piece which speaks of Pepe and the meals he created:

Pepe fed us sturdy food to fuel the long hours of work ahead: risotto so creamy it rippled into the bowls, spaghetti alla carbonara smoky with pancetta, fat tubes of macaroni in a thick broth of braised osso buco.
He had some secret to bringing out the flavours of everyday ingredients, I’ve no idea how he managed it. A plain sauce of tomatoes, a few flakes of parmesan, a little spaghetti cooked el dente, a tangle of rocket leaves – the taste sang in our mouths and we soaked up every last smear of sauce with the crusty bread he pulled from the oven.
And elsewhere:
"...in winter there was always soup to warm us, heavy with beans and pasta, usually flavoured with a hock of ham. In the cellar my papa cured prosciutto and in the summer we ate it with the sweet juicy melons he grew in the garden. I remember the cake my nonna made for my twelfth birthday, honeyed and dense with almonds. And the feasts she cooked on Sundays. She would blister red peppers over charcoal and serve them with a scallopine of veal."

There is more but that gives you a taste!


By the way Nicky (left) told the Christchurch audience her next book will be set in Sicily, again with strong food scenes because "they make the most beautiful desserts like cannoli filled with ricotta cheese and amazing ice-cream".

I found this an enjoyable, easy read, a bit of escapism. When I was a boy growing up in Gisborne in the 1950’s Mario Lanza was a huge star, he was always on the Sunday request shows on the local radio station and an LP of his was pretty much the only classical music to be found in our house. I think my later love of and passion for opera may well have stemmed from that early exposure to Mario Lanza and his glorious tenor voice. So I thank Nicky Pellegrino for providing me with a burst of nostalgia.
Nostalgia with a Roman background.

When in Rome - 
Orion Books  - $36.99


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