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'Eat Pray Love' and enjoy the nirvana of food

In the film Eat Pray Love, which opens Friday, Julia Roberts gives herself permission to "just say yes."

Waking up to a life obsessing over calories, wheat allergies and her specialty — nonstop guilt about food and every other living thing — Roberts plays author Elizabeth Gilbert, who embarks upon an odyssey of self-discovery, embracing epicurean pleasure as the first step toward shaking up her soul.

Gilbert's first stop, Rome, where people love their food and don't care who knows it. That's the eating part of the movie. She finds spirituality in India and love in Indonesia.

Her maiden meal is simple spaghetti pomodoro, which she haltingly orders in broken Italian, a mischievous smile on her face. As she twirls the red strands around her fork, relishing every bite, her mood is accentuated by Mozart's Magic Flute. This powerful image at a table for one, on the patio of Osteria dell'Antiquario, is this newly single woman's Declaration of Independence.

"This scene is about the joy Elizabeth feels that she can eat a plate of pasta without wagging her finger and worrying if she's going to fit into her jeans," says screenwriter Jennifer Salt, who adapted Gilbert's bestselling book of the same name with director Ryan Murphy. "On a rudimentary level, it's about self-love," she adds. For the first time in a long time, Gilbert has allowed herself to feel pure pleasure — opening her mind to a new letting go.

Of course, gustatory pleasure is seductive and life began imitating art when the cast and crew traveled to Naples' L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele to eat what's billed as the best pizza in the world. Roberts, known for her slender figure and healthful eating habits, willingly ate a whole slice of pizza — eight times — instead of the designated bite. This from a woman who was happiest when food stylist Susan Spungen was giving her asparagus or melon to munch on during the eight takes required to nail one shot.

Roberts stays in character as she convinces her new best friend Sofi (Tuva Novotny) that life is about indulging pleasure, in this case, her craving for the melting pizza pie in front of her. And so, after ruminating over their inevitable muffin tops — the excess pounds that rise to the top and ooze over the waist of your jeans — and after ravishing her last piece in just one bite, Gilbert orders a second margherita pizza for each of them, with double mozzarella. For dessert, they float out of the restaurant and down the street, in search of Italian pastries.

As for the jeans, Gilbert sloughs it off. "I'm going to eat and then buy some big lady pants."

Later in the film, in a busy cafe in the Largo Febo, we watch Roberts' character exuding in Italian a perfectly pronounced litany of Roman dishes. Without a menu, but with total confidence, she orders a mouth-watering dinner for eight. "For the table, carciofi alla giudia, orecchiette con guanciale, linguine con vongole, pappardelle con il ragu di coniglio, trippa alla Romana and bucatini all'Amatriciana . . . and two more liters of the vino sfuso from Genzano. . . ." Her English seeps back in. She doesn't even notice. She's too busy raising her glass and shouting, "Ciao!"

Of course, while Roberts/Gilbert is busy impressing us with her practiced Roman dialect, Spungen, the food stylist, has been choreographing this multitudinous meal for 13 days. When asked how many showed up to help, Spungen laughs and says, "I think it took a village . . ."

While the actors were waiting for their order at the crowded Santa Lucia restaurant, Spungen and her crew, which included an Italian cook with whom she consulted to make all dishes culturally correct, were at a restaurant down the street, assembling and putting the final touches on each plate of food.

Since there were six to eight different dishes in the scene and it was a hot August day, each recipe had to be prepared a dozen times as the director called for take after take and the once vibrant Roma tomatoes, artichokes and Pecorino Romano wilted, changed color and expired under the cameras' hot lights.

Normally, the experienced food stylist, who created the French delicacies for Julie & Julia, works with a large refrigerated food truck parked near the location, where everything is calmly cooked, stored and taken out in sequence. But narrow Roman roads were Spungen's nemesis and during this shoot she sliced and diced in many kitchens, most of which where on the other side of town.

So instead of delivering dishes from a kitchen a few steps away, after Gilbert places her order, completed plates of food had to be whisked down the street by Spungen's "villagers," who were swarmed by fascinated tourists, paparazzi and curious locals.

Since every plate had to be identical in every take, and every actor had ordered something different — something he'd be willing to eat nine times — continuity could have assumed nightmarish proportions. Not only did Spungen have to provide perfect plates for the primary cast, including the melon Roberts settled upon, but there were extras to think about. Spungen persevered, even making sure that an unnamed lady with a red skirt and a little dog sitting behind Julia had a full plate for every take.

But out of the chaos came pleasure. Maybe what everyone gleaned from making this movie was how to "just say yes" to life and all its possibilities.

Beverly Levitt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


Bucatini all'Amatriciana

Although this dish is considered one of the classics of Roman cuisine, it originated in the ancient town of Amatrice. The centuries-old recipe called for guanciale, a cured, but not smoked, type of bacon, although today many people prefer cured, unsmoked pancetta. Go light on the salt; bacon has enough on its own. A more healthful alternative would be uncured applewood bacon.

¼ pound guanciale or pancetta, cut into ¼-inch-thick, 1-inch-long strips

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 can (28 ounces) whole San Marzano tomatoes or 3 cups Roma tomatoes peeled, seeded and chopped

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more to taste

1 pound bucatini or another hollow pasta such as penne

¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano, plus more for serving

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cook guanciale or pancetta in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until bacon is crisp on the outside and much of the fat has rendered out, for 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat and discard.

Over medium heat add the onions to the pan; cook for 10 minutes until translucent. With a large fork, break up the tomatoes; add them, with their juices to the pan, along with the bacon and the red pepper flakes. Cook for 15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened, using the back of the fork to further break up the tomatoes.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil; add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain the pasta, but don't rinse.

Add the pasta to the sauce, along with the Pecorino Romano and the red pepper flakes. Toss well to coat. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Serve in warmed bowls with more Pecorino Romano and red pepper flakes on the side.

Serves 4, with leftovers.

Source: Adapted from Eat Pray Love food stylist Susan Spungen


Pistachio Gelato

4 cups heavy cream or milk, divided use

3 egg yolks, beaten

cup sugar

2 cups shelled unsalted pistachios, finely ground in spice mill

In a medium saucepan, bring

3 cups cream or milk to a simmer; remove from heat. Combine remaining 1 cup cream or milk, egg yolks and sugar, then stir into saucepan, whisking to keep the sauce smooth until mixture thickens slightly, 8 to 10 minutes.

Put pistachios into a large bowl and pour in the hot cream mixture, stirring as you do so. Place gelato in a metal container, cover with foil and freeze for 1 hour. Remove from freezer, then stir briskly with a whisk to break up and smooth out any ice crystals. Return to freezer and freeze for another 3 to 4 hours. Take out of freezer a few minutes before serving.

Serves 6.

Source: Adapted from Rome, at Home: The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen by Suzanne Dunaway (Broadway, 2004)


Still Life Salad for One

1 dozen baby asparagus, ends snapped off and ends peeled

A few slices of smoked salmon, preferably wild

4 ounces fresh goat cheese

1 dozen green and black oil-cured olives

1 or 2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced in rounds

Herb focaccia for serving

Put a lovely Italian dinner plate in the refrigerator to cool. Blanch asparagus in boiling water for 1 minute and then plunge into ice water to cool.

Artfully place the smoked salmon, asparagus, goat cheese, olives and hard-boiled eggs on the plate. Take your time. The art is in the arrangement. Serve with focaccia.

Serves 1.

Source: Beverly Levitt, inspired by

Eat Pray Love


Carciofi alla Giudia

(Sephardic Fried Artichokes)

Juice of 1 lemon

6 small artichokes

Ground black pepper to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

Add lemon juice to a bowl of cold water. Cut off about 1 inch from the top of each artichoke. Remove the loose, tough outer leaves around the bottom. Scoop out the choke, leaving leaves and heart intact. Trim the dark green exterior from bottom and stem, leaving the stem intact. Place artichoke in the lemon water to prevent discoloration.

Holding each artichoke by the stem, place top side down on a flat surface, and press to loosen leaves without breaking. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat at least 1½ inches of oil in a saucepan over medium heat. In batches, add artichokes and fry, turning occasionally until browned on all sides, about 15 to 20 minutes. During frying, occasionally sprinkle tops of the artichoke with cold water, producing steam that helps to cook the interior.

Drain artichokes on paper towels. Place top side down

on a plate and let stand at least 1 hour.

Reheat the oil. Holding each artichoke by the stem, dip into the oil, pressing leaves against the bottom of the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6.

Source: The World of Jewish Cooking by Gil Marks (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

'Eat Pray Love' and enjoy the nirvana of food 08/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 7:08am]
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