Rocco DiSpirito Talks About His New Italian Cookbook And Olive Garden

During some time off from teaching kids at local New York City schools how to eat healthy, Rocco DiSpirito was charming mamas in Italy while prepping for his latest cookbook, Now Eat This! Italian.  

Coming Sept. 25, Now Eat This! Italian combines DiSpirito's cooking methods with Italian-American dishes that are less than 350 calories. But that's not the only thing on DiSpirito's plate — he's thinking of expanding his Now Eat This! Truck to Los Angeles in the next six months, he's also planning on starting delivery with his New York truck, and is launching a new healthy-eating show this September.

We chatted with DiSpirito at Nestlé's launch of new Coffee-Mate Natural Bliss about his time in Sorrento, Italy, and Italian-American cuisine's downfall.

So tell us about your trip! What did you learn over in Italy?
It felt like cooking school because I was once again reminded that chefs do too much to food. That's why I specifically worked with moms there and not with professional chefs. Moms are where it's at, especially in Italy. Moms run the world over there.

How did you have to think about cooking over there?
They really respect what each ingredient contributes to a dish, and do nothing to get in the way of that ingredient living to its fullest potential. They constantly say, "No, don't put that in there! It doesn't need black pepper, no pepperoncino, no parsley, no more herbs." We in America we're always looking for big flavor but we don't have ingredients they have, so we're adding seasoning to constantly make the flavor happen. Whereas for them a tomato is a hand grenade, they just have to light the fuse. Here, we have to build the bomb.

Well, we have such a great Italian-American scene here.
A lot of people think of New York as the 21st region of Italy because of its Italian food, but it really isn't. Italian-Americans, when they came here, had to adopt new ingredients that didn't have as much flavor. They weren't necessarily grown locally. So they compensated by adding more sugar and more fat to the food.

So that's how we end up with Olive Garden, where everything is three-cheese and four-cheese and something that should be 400 calories is 1,200 calories.

Have you heard about Marilyn Hagerty? She went viral after writing a positive review of Olive Garden.
I wasn't aware, but I'm glad she had a positive experience.

Well, so why Italian for your first single-ethnicity book?
I wanted to take Now Eat This! into a direction that separated ethnic foods and focused only on those ethnicities one at a time. I started with what I thought was the most popular ethnic food in the country, and I'm hoping to do Asian next and Latin after that, and continue to travel to these countries to learn how these dishes are actually made the original way. I base my makeover on that, versus what we think is our best guess of how they're made.