Q & A With Faith H. Willinger: Chef, Author + Patron Saint of the Tostapane

Faith H. Willinger
Faith H. Willinger

A few months ago, a friend returned home from Italy with a gift for us. When we first unwrapped it, we were totally befuddled. "What is this,?" we wondered. "Is it a paddle for badminton on Mars? A space shuttle heat shield with a handle? A fan for a robot Geisha?" As it turns out, it was for making toast, Italian-style, and the most treasured kitchen gadget of legendary Florence-based American food and travel writer, chef and tour guide, Faith H. Willinger. So we promptly stuck it on our stove top, cranked the burner up to high and incinerated a piece of bread. Time to get in touch with FHW. To learn more, turn the page.

Squid Ink: What do you call this device? On the box it says "gratella."

Faith H. Willinger: That's the technical name for it. But everyone refers to it as a tostapane. I call it the "cordless toaster."

SI: How did you first discover the tostapane?

FHW: The man who is currently my husband. At the time, we were going out and we were cooking something at his apartment and he got that out to make toast and I thought, "This is the coolest thing I have ever seen in my life."

SI: Then what?

FHW: Then I used it whenever I went over there and cooked. Eventually we started living together and got a place and, of course, I had to get one for myself immediately. This was back in the 70's.

SI: What is your favorite thing about it?

FHW: There's only one moving part -- the handle. It retracts and that's it. It's impossible to break unless you're using it on an electric stove where it can get all mangled up. Mine has lasted years and years and years. It makes the best toast and it is also great for a bagel because you have no constraints about the width and height of the bread, right?

SI: Anything else?

FHW: It's all manual: You have to remember to turn the toast over.

SI: Does the method of toasting on a burner give the toast a different flavor?

FHW: I don't think so. The difference is toasting with something electric and toasting with gas.

SI: A regular toaster uses infrared radiation -- those interior coils that turn red -- to brown your bread.

FHW: When you put bread in a toaster it is essentially toasting with a broiler.

SI: In Italy, they are sold only at a mesticheria, a shop which we can only describe as the lovechild of a hardware store and one that stocks kitchen devices. Where do you buy a tostapane in the United States?

FHW: You can't. That's why when I teach a class, I always give everyone a tostapane.

SI: A fantastic door prize!

FHW: Every once and awhile someone who has taken one of my classes will be desperate for another one. By now we know how much they cost us and how much the postage is, so I send them one. We send them to anybody. What I really, really want is to be the patron saint of the tostapane.

SI: What else do you use the tostapane for?

FHW: I use it to make a baked potato.

SI: Explain.

FHW: You scrub the potato, you dry it, you lightly oil it, you put it on the tostapane and then you put a pot over it that is just a little bit bigger than the potato and then you cook it for twenty minutes to a half hour. Then turn the potato over.

SI: What? How does that even work?

FHW: You're making a stove-top oven.

SI: Why not just use your oven?

FHW: [mild impatience] I don't want to turn on my oven for a POTATO. Here, the oven isn't a traditional part of Italian cooking. People would send stuff out to the [communal] oven once a week. You bake bread once or twice a week. But it's not like it's an everyday kind of thing. The Italians have come up with a lot of stove-top solutions.

SI: Okay, so now we have toast, we have the stove-top baked potato. What else can be tostapane-d?

FHW: If I want to roast a whole eggplant or peppers, I'll put a piece of tinfoil down and then just roast the pepper or the eggplant on top. If you want you can wrap up the pepper or the eggplant in the tinfoil and then turn it around like that. It's sort of like stove-top roasting.

SI: The first time we used ours, we were stunned by how quickly it turned a deep black and that it totally resisted returning to its original silver color.

FHW: Yes, it turns black and it will remain black. But you never have to wash it unless you do something really drastic to it.

SI: Does every Italian household have a tostapane?

FHW: Not in every region, but in many. In fact, I know someone who rents a farmhouse in Panzano. She said to me, "The owner thought [the tostapanes] were so embarrassing that they took them out of all of their [rental properties] and put in regular toasters. And she said [in a despair-filled wail] "No, no, no, no, no!"

SI: You are credited with introducing fennel pollen to the United States. Will the tostapane be another jewel to bedazzle your culinary crown?

FHW: I wish I could find someone who would want to bring them over. It's so cool: One less thing to plug in, one less clunky thing on your counter. To me, it's a great tool.


Q & A With Faith H. Willinger: Chef, Author + Patron Saint of the Tostapane

SI: Let's talk about Eating in Italy: A Traveler's Guide to the Hidden Gastronomic Pleasures of Northern Italy your must-have guide book that has gained first name status -- as in, "Can you go get 'Faith' from the bookshelf?" "Did you leave 'Faith' in the car?" "I can't find 'Faith.' Did you loan it to someone?"

FHW: [laughs] There are so many people who I've traveled with all over Italy without ever having met them. To have turned on all these people to all these places? To me, that's such a trip.

[The book] was meant to just be a starter. It's not supposed to be the end of the world. Once you know the menu in each region, you can order smarter -- even if you go to someplace that's not in the book.

SI: You updated it in 1998, nine years after it was first published. Do you have plans to do that again?

FHW: No. I think the time for a travel guide is over. Instead I want to do an app, and I want to start off with eating in Sicily. I'm in the process of doing something new with my website, too. I want it to have an interactive map. You'll be able to say, "Okay, here's Sicily, and this is where I think I'm going to be. What's there?"

SI: When it comes to food, what's the latest rage in Italy?

FHW: Everything old is new again, right? One of the new things is burnt wheat pasta. After the harvest of the wheat, and after the fields were burnt, the poorest of the poor people would glean the remaining wheat and use it to stretch the wheat they'd purchased. In the beginning always the poorest people ate burnt wheat pasta, then it became an acquired taste. Now it's trendy. It seems to be really coming back in Puglia.

SI: Back to tostapanes. Is it true that you buy them by the case?

FHW: Yes.

SI: Low, medium or high? How should you adjust the burner when using your tostapane?

FWH: If you're in a hurry, crank it up. If you're not in a hurry, keep it low. It will take almost any heat.

SI: Is there any other kitchen device you can't live without?

FHW: I have a mandoline that I adore. I am always buying them and giving them to my friends who are chefs. Everybody is used to the big, fancy metal ones that are a pain in the butt. Mine is Japanese and has a little ceramic blade and it works better than any mandoline I've ever had. It's tiny, but if you're doing small stuff it's great. It's made by Kyocera.

SI: We hope you use the special plastic guard that keeps hands and fingers safe and cleans up easily in the dishwasher.

FHW: No.

SI: No?

FHW: I tell people to buy Kevlar gloves. It's better than using the little guard that comes with the mandoline. You have more control - and you can't cut yourself.

SI: Anyone who has spent time in Italy and watched TV knows that Italians have mastered the super-crazy, over-the-top infomercial.

FHW: I would love to do an informercial for the tostapane.

SI: Well, Patron Saint of the Tostapane. Let's hear your pitch.

FHW: [In a deep, mellifluous voice] Toast. It's my signature dish. Fettunta. You toast a slice of really great bread. It can be stale bread. It can be yesterday's bread. It doesn't have to be fresh. You toast it on your tostapane on one side. Turn it over. Rub it with garlic and then pour the olive oil over it - needless to say when it on the plate not when it's on the gratella.

Do you remember what garlic bread used to be like in the oil days? You took the garlic press -- something I have always felt was one of the stupidest tools ever invented because it takes longer to clean than it does to use it ...You'd put the garlic in the press and put it in melted butter, brush the melted butter on the bread and then bake it in the oven.

If you think about making it on the tostapane, you're toasting the bread, rubbing it with garlic and then pouring olive oil on it. It's so much easier, it's so much better. The better the oil you use, the better the bread you use, the better the end result.

It makes the best toast. Whenever chefs come here, I always make fettunta. I've made it for Alice [Waters], I've made it for Mario [Batali], I've made it for Nancy [Silverton]. Nancy Oakes, Bruce Aidells. I've made it for Kathy Whims from Nostrana in Portland. I've made it for three star Italian chefs like Massimo Bottura.

SI: We are speaking of Massimo Bottura from Modena, Italy?

FHW: Yes. The wild and crazy chef from the [Osteria] Francescana. He loves my fettunta.They all love it. Everybody loves it.

More fantastic interviews:

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You can now follow Margy Rochlin on Twitter at @MargyRochlin. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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