Mark Rotella

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June 1, 2017
Mark Rotella in conversation with Helene Stepinski

Mark Rotella chats with Helene Stepinski about her new book Murder in Matera: A true Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy.

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reviews

"Rotella is not writing tourist or voyeur gastronomy: he is writing about food as life. And his Stolen Figs... is about life: Calabrians' and ultimately his own."
— Richard Eder, The New York Times

"Visitors to Italy rarely head for sleepy Calabria, but Rotella's memoir... could change that."
Conde Nast Traveler

"Italian Americans of a new generation are discovering their homeland, and they could not ask for a better guide than Mark Rotella."
— Gay Talese

"Stolen Figs is the anti-Mayle version of travels in Europe, of finding one's true home, whether you like it or not, the source of your personality and appetites."
— Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

"Stolen Figs is a charming, entertaining, graceful, warm-blooded tale, a genuine contribution to what we know about who we once were."
— Bill Tonelli, editor of The Italian American Reader

"Calabria deserves to be discovered and Mark Rotella is an enthusiastic and compassionate guide, traveling from the top to the toe of this least-known region of Italy to uncover the people, the food and the folk traditions that make up his Calabrian heritage."
— Mary Taylor Simeti, author of On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal

"The author's intensity and personal commitment to a country and its inhabitants cast a spell .... Readers, whether Italian or not, will find themselves captivated."
Publishers Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)

"Evocative, beautifully rendered travelogue/memoir by Publishers Weekly editor Rotella, recounting his adventures in Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot and the land of his ancestry..."
Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)

"Mark Rotella writes about Calabria, the arched southern foot of Italy where his family lived before coming to America, the obvious next Italian subject now that there's a slim volume about every small Tuscan town (except one, and I shall not be giving directions). In Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria (North Point, $25, available in July), he teases out a change of mind: how he came to see the difference between being Italian and being Italian-American. Calabria, he says, produced more Americans than any other Italian region except Campania and Sicily.

It's tricky territory, though: poor, famous for violence and kidnappings. Its culture is elusive and unfamiliar, with no Michelangelos to show. Its landscape is composed of mountain and coast, with almost nothing in between. Its people are famously stubborn -- ''hardheaded,'' even ''wooden heads.'' Northern Italians despise Calabria and see only the dirt; foreigners are nervous there. Its own native sons too often become defensive or downright euphemistic when they write about the poverty and the omerta that are inscribed in its history.

There are already bad books on the subject; this one is good, the product of persistent, gentle curiosity and persistently open eyes. Judges travel with armed guards and people are surprised when a stranger comes back intact from remote Greek-speaking villages, but there are also the feasts and joys and faith of a hardscrabble life. By the end, you're no longer so startled that Sybaris, the indulgent city of the Sybarites, once lay in Calabria."
– New York Times

Evocative, beautifully rendered travelogue/memoir by Publishers Weekly editor Rotella, recounting his adventures in Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot and the land of his ancestry. Although it's the area from which most Italian immigrants originate, the south has been largely overlooked in the recent spate of books on Italy. But Rotella fell under Calabria's spell after a quick visit with his reluctant father to his grandparents' town of Gimigliano and for the next decade returned biannually, "like the olive, which bears fruit every two years," according to his guide and friend Giuseppe, a postcard photographer who introduced the writer to Calabria and offered a personal interpretation of topics as varied as immigration, religion, and "the polenta heads from northern Italy." Rotella encountered a world in which things were made, not manufactured: bread was baked in an oven fired by the wood of the olive tree, a butchered pig fed a family for six months, a dish of sautéed chicory began with a long walk to find the greens. He traces Calabria's long history of invasion and occupation. He explores its links with mythology: Odysseus washed up on the shore of Lamezia, the Sybarites cavorted in the sulfur baths of the Grotta delle Ninfe (Cave of the Nymphs), and King Arthur reputedly loved the city of Reggio. As Rotella takes pains to feel a part of this land, he makes us privy to the Calabreses' charming habits: their evening passegiata, their friendliness, their suspicions, their propensity to hang out in groups-"and in Calabria especially, this hanging out is an art form." With the eye of a writer, a son, and a historian, the author searches and finds Calabria's soul. His love of the region'sphysical beauty, its people, food, celebrations, and religious devotions is infectious. "It will never attract the tourists like the rest of Italy," Giuseppe tells him. "How lucky," Rotella admits to thinking selfishly. Better than gelato. Not to be missed.
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

The jacket copy defines PW Forecasts editor Rotella's narrative as a "model travelogue," but it's much more. Even without a conventional conflict and plot, the author's intensity and personal commitment to a country and its inhabitants cast a spell. Anecdotes range from comedic-a long unseen relative scolds Rotella's father, "Thirty years and you don't write!"-to curiously romantic, as when the author's wedding ring slips off his finger while swimming and a "crazy aunt" exclaims, "That's good luck. Now you will have to return!" Descriptions of delicacies such as soppressata, capicola, fettucine and rag simmered with pepperoni incite a desire to be there just for the luscious, succulent meals, supporting Rotella's belief that you simply can't get a bad meal in Italy. Calabria is a particularly vivid character; readers learn how much the region has been through: spoiled by drought, destroyed by earthquakes and plundered by barons and kings. Rotella points out the effects of Mafia control in Bianca, a small, decrepit city, and the economic destruction it causes, without belaboring or stereotyping the Italian-Mafia connection. Playful moments are equally memorable, detailing petty fig heists from trees belonging to unknown farmers. Such likable protagonists as Rotella's loving father, his wife, and guide Giuseppe are woven unobtrusively through the tale of a culture that counts among its children Tony Bennett, Phil Rizzuto and Stanley Tucci. The book is a love letter, and Rotella reinforces that feeling when he writes, "I am a romantic. With each trip back to Calabria, I've felt myself becoming not only more Calabrese but more Italian." Readers, whether Italian or not, will find themselves captivated by so much meticulously drawn history and enchanting terrain.
Publishers Weekly, starred review

There is no recipe for a successful memoir. A life well lived holds storytelling promise, but if told poorly, the work can fail in the first 50 pages. As Proust proved, the unexpected--even the banal--can be suprisingly gripping reading, if examined with originality. In these books, five authors explore different approaches to telling their stories. With varying degrees of success, they aim to make sense and purpose of human existence by sharing their experiences.

Italian-American Mark Rotella does not seem like a guy given to cheesy sentimentality, which makes him an ideal narrator of a travelogue through the home of his paternal grandparents. When he and his father travel to Calabria, the region that forms the "toe" of Italy, they find it a beautiful, rough-hewn place, difficult but charming, with a name like that of "a hard-lived whore, a prostitute in a Fellini film who has given everything she has except her protective, tough shell." Rotella also finds it alluring, the kind of place, he observes, that E.M. Forster's old Florence must have been. Led by Giuseppe, a postcard photographer and de facto regional expert, Rotella discovers enough in a short visit to his grandparents' hometown to make him return to learn more about the rest of the region.

With the concept of "Stolen Figs" brewing and Giuseppe as guide, Rotella travels across Calabria patiently, thoughtfully--much like an Italian man might during his evening stroll, hands clasped behind the back, ambling without tremendous structure or demand. Rotella's family members welcome him, and help him to imagine what it must have been like for his grandparents to live there, while a growing cluster of new companions show him Calabria in contrast to America, demonstrating what it must have meant for them to leave. He learns to make soppresata ("ground pork that's been infused with red pepper and stuffed inside intestine lining"), indulges in the pilfered fruits of the book's title, and ambles through the rugged hillsides, uncovering Calabria's indomitable, mystical character. Rotella, who is an editor at Publishers Weekly, writes without posturing and presents a travelogue as likable and unpretentious as the land it represents.
Chicago Tribune