In a country where just about every other chef talks about how they owe everything to their beloved nonna who taught them how to cook, the latest 33 stars added to the current Italian Michelin Guide included only one woman chef, then 26-year-old Solaika Marrocco of Primo Restaurant in Lecce, Puglia. The kick is that Italy actually has the highest percentage of Michelin-starred women chefs in the world: a whole 38 out of 378. In this year’s edition of Taste, one of Italy’s biggest food fairs, set in Florence, out of about 40 listed speakers during three days of panels, only nine were women, and out of hundreds of food and drink supplier stands, the majority were for companies managed by men. Many of whom raised an eyebrow any time myself, or one of the female entrepreneurs I was with, would approach their stand with business inquiries or would answer one’s questions by twisting their necks to reply to her husband instead–who actually hadn’t spoken a single word.
None of the above should be too surprising: it’s pretty much history. Firenze Tavola: guida Bolaffi per mangiarbene nei ristoranti giusti di Firenze e della Toscana (1975) was one of the first Florentine restaurant guidebooks and, of course, features an overwhelming majority of restaurants run by men. The book’s cover depicts seven people, only one of which is a woman, who also happens to be young and conventionally attractive, making you wonder if she was chosen for merit or because she was pleasing to the male gaze. Each restaurant is described through a series of categories, concluding with “l’uomo” (“the man”) to discuss the person in charge. The word uomo is used even for the few locations run by women.
As a former butcher and one of the top 20 Women in Food of 2021 according to Cook, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera’s monthly culinary insert, I’m on a constant search for stories of women in the food and beverage sectors in an effort to improve representation and to inspire others. I recently met up for a chat with Camilla Bellini, Beatrice Trambusti, Xinge Liu and Matilde Pettini, four women and entrepreneurs in Florence, to try to learn how they’re being innovative and challenging this male-dominated “tradition”. We met one afternoon to drink red wine out of plastic cups, sitting on the steps across from the Ospedale degli Innocenti, which has provided assistance to orphans and mothers in difficulty since 1445. It’s located in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, a square in Florence’s historical center which, also thanks to the effort of feminist association NonUnaDiMeno, is becoming a symbolic location for the fight for women’s rights.
All four women shared stories about how they’ve been mistreated in the industry, especially by men (often age 50 and up)—infuriating stories about which a whole other article could be written, but for now we’re focusing on the positive and on their many successes. In a time when women’s rights are constantly being questioned and stripped away everywhere in the world, including Italy, it remains of vital importance to highlight their stories and to amplify their voices through physical and written megaphones.
MATILDE PETTINI (DALLA LOLA)
Florentine Matilde Pettini is in her mid-twenties. In September of 2019 she took over restaurant Dalla Lola in Via della Chiesa 16/r from a failing management, after graduating from the Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Florence and after working with her mother, Maria Chiara Masiero, at their family’s restaurant Trattoria Cammillo–one of Florence’s most beloved restaurants for decades, also featured in the abovementioned 20th century guidebook back when l’uomo was Pettini’s grandfather Bruno Masiero. “He was a great entrepreneur,” says Pettini, “but we can thank my grandmother Diva for the foods and flavors. I’m very protective of the culinary culture I inherited from my mother and grandparents, and I hold and respect tradition more than it may seem: this allows me to change it as I wish, and to create always new and stimulating dishes. Traveling, trying new things, and letting go of biases towards food are fundamental for expanding one’s gastronomic and cultural background.” At Dalla Lola you can enjoy traditional Tuscan food with a punk spirit, like francesina di lingua, stewed chopped beef tongue with thinly sliced caramelized onions, or fried frog legs with optional Sriracha sauce–blasphemy for most Italians.
On the culinary scene of Florence, Pettini notes: “Women have had to ‘elbow’ their way through a very male-dominated environment to create a spot for themselves–which, regardless, is never considered sufficiently elevated.” She adds about femininity in the industry, “I think we should learn to have an attitude towards gender differences that is summed up perfectly in what my mother always told me: ‘do as oil does’, which means to let things slip over us, without ever mixing ourselves with such old-fashioned concepts.” Though there are certain situations in which Pettini, a promoter of conviviality and sharing, loves mixing: “One of its aspects that gives me the greatest joy is table number 5, where I seat solo diners together, and seeing how they make friends during their meal. Eating isn’t just the need to satisfy a primary need, it’s also culture, knowledge, enjoyment and, above all, sociality.”
XINGE LIU (IL GUSTO DIM SUM)
Xinge Liu moved to Florence from the province of Hebei, in North-Eastern China, to study at Polimoda Fashion School. In October of 2020, a few years after graduating, she changed her career (and life) path and opened Il Gusto Dim Sum at Viale Fratelli Rosselli 39/r, a six-seat restaurant and take-away joint that immediately grabbed the attention of both the public and food critics: Identità Golose loves her sheng jian bao selection; Gambero Rosso her nailhead-shaped meng ding stuffed with chianina beef and Tropea onion; and The Florentine writes about her “dainty and oh-so-Instagramable” purple Petit Voyage bamboo and mushroom morsels. Now, at age 29, she runs two food stands in Florence’s biggest food courts (Mercato Centrale in the San Lorenzo market and Ai Banchi in I Gigli mall), she’s in the process of building a larger restaurant around the corner from her first, and she’s also about to open in Paris.
One of the reasons why her take on Chinese food is so unique is her background in high fashion, which manifests itself in the “models” of her dishes that she paints on her iPad before transforming them into real food. But the practice is also a cathartic thought process: her reservation-only, elaborately spiced and truffle-studded whole “shibari chicken”, served cold, is designed to be trapped within 3.20m of thick, red rope, unwrapped with our gloved hands to liberate it from its metaphysical constraints. Liu explains, “With my food, I want to share my feelings, what I’ve loved, what I’ve lived, what I’ve suffered, and what I’ve dreamed. My dishes are dramatic and theatrical because I’m a woman, and women are more sensitive. We’re able to bare ourselves through dishes that are more personal and original.” In the near future, Liu would like to use virtual reality technology to make her dining experiences even more unique.
BEATRICE TRAMBUSTI (LUPEN E MARGO)
Beatrice Trambusti is a Tuscan firecracker in her late fifties and the most notable female lampredottaia in town (if not the only one). Lampredotto, a Florentine specialty, is the cow’s fourth stomach–cleaned, boiled, chopped and served in a crunchy, hollowed-out rosetta bun with optional salsa verde and spicy sauce. In 1986, at age 22, in an effort to turn the family’s life around, Trambusti opened her stand Lupen e Margo in the middle of the San Lorenzo leather market (Via dell’Ariento, banco n°75) with her mother, who passed away just three years later, leaving the young Trambusti to carry on her mother’s vision through tough times. That of the lampredottaia is a tough job: Trambusti wakes up at 3:30am to walk her dogs, drive to the kitchen, prep and cook delicious lampredotto and trippa, ready by 9am when clients start lining up for the most Florentine breakfast there is. Her first job was in a leather factory under an incredibly strict employer, whose unfortunate example she followed with her former employees, and today she wonders if she was too tough on them: “I realize now that they were incredible workers, especially one who was like a son to me as he’s almost the same age as the son that I lost. I was also very young, and in mourning, but I was too strict with them and I regret it. The past is like war for me. We can’t forget what came before us, in Italy and in the world.”
Trambusti runs the only food stand in the large, outdoor San Lorenzo leather market and, throughout the years, thanks to her well-known strong character, she’s had no problem overcoming the many challenges of this male-dominated microindustry. Though some might not see past her loud and no-nonsense exterior, those who dig deeper will find a very caring person and will hear her say more than a few thank-yous and you’re-welcomes in Chinese, Swedish or one of the many other languages she’s learned to welcome visitors from all over the world. This lone stand in the middle of the leather market is also a meeting point for all the women who’ve become like family for Trambusti and who visit regularly for a panino and a chat.
CAMILLA BELLINI (ENOTECA BELLINI)
Italian-American, Florentine-born Camilla Bellini, in her early thirties, opened her wine bar Enoteca Bellini on Via della Spada in 2015 thanks to her far-sighted father who wanted a spot to drink wine and listen to good music. She had been working in the restaurant industry since high school, underpaid and undervalued, and when she first started the Enoteca, she didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do with it, other than the noble proposition of “creating something that felt good.” Seven years later, this is the place to go for a relaxing glass of thoughtfully-selected wine accompanied by creative crostoni–thick slices of toasted Tuscan bread topped with quality ingredients sourced from all over the country. There were a couple of instances during which she clashed heads with her father, whose dream didn’t involve such mundane details as ice machines or dishwashers, but she prevailed thanks to her precise practical sense. When asked about her approach to business, Bellini explained that some of the most important aspects are “good relationships with your neighbors and creating a positive environment for your employees,” which, as she learned through her previous work experiences, isn’t always guaranteed.
She’s also come to realize that “women have always worked in the industry, but like Sharon Oddson of La Cucina del Garga, they had to do so behind the scenes, without their due recognition, in favor of a male figure, and while somewhat renouncing their more feminine side. But now the times are changing, and more women are shining as the face and brains of food and beverage businesses, because we can be ourselves and be respected even if we choose to present ourselves in a more feminine way.”
Bellini, Trambusti, Liu and Pettini have all had the good fortune of having strong, hard-working female figures in their life–colleagues, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers. Which is one of the reasons why sharing stories of successes like theirs and others is important: other women and girls everywhere may be inspired to push against the boundaries that a so far male-dominated industry and world would like to limit them to and to dare to dream bigger and bigger and bigger.