Book Club Tuesday: Bella Figura

Just before embarking on a recent family trip to the U.S. I received Kamin Mohammadi’s Bella Figura: How to Live, Love, and Eat the Italian Way in the mail from the publisher. It was absolutely perfect timing because I immediately packed Bella Figura in my bag with the intention of making it my vacation read (part how-to, part memoir, part cookbook this book looked like the perfect way to enjoy some downtime). As I started to read it during the plane ride something really great happened — I could see that the woman across the aisle kept glancing over towards our row and almost at the end of the journey she catches my eye, gestures to the phone at the end of her outstretched arm and quietly asks “Please?” Thinking she wanted a selfie I obliged but as I point the phone camera her way she tells me “no”, she would like a photo of the cover of the book that I’m reading! I took the photo and handed her the book so that she could have a quick look.

So what is it about the cover of Bella Figura that would engender such a response? Could it be the beautifully illustrated Mohammadi, herself,  with her relaxed pose, bold red dress, movie star shades, holding a market basket full of wine and produce? The ultimate, the epitome of what the ideal Bella Figura woman would embody.   The Italian phrase Bella Figura, literally translated, means “fine figure” however as I learned from Mohammadi’s book this phrase means so much more. As she explains it means “making every aspect of your life as beautiful as it can be” in both spirit and in practice. Kamin Mohammadi is an exiled-Iranian writer and journalist who now lives between Florence and London. This book looks back over a decade ago to when Mohammadi makes her move to Italy and how that first year spent living in Florence ends up being life-changing. The book flows over that year with each chapter depicting one month at a time until the end when the concept of Bella Figura has brought positive, meaningful change to her life. Each chapter has a few simple recipes that accompany that month’s mood/theme. She works to show how the Italian idea of Bella Figura applies to life, love, as well as food and how she learns the concept of Bella Figura from her new friends and neighbors.

Pinzimonio w/ celery , p.36

Part of what this concept of Bella Figura means is to seek out enjoyment in life and through food this means not depriving oneself. The book is sprinkled with simple Italian recipes that focus on using fresh, seasonal ingredients. It’s not about shying away from pasta because it has “too many carbs,” it’s about being in the moment and savoring food. The beginning of the book makes good use of a Sophia Loren quote: “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.” because it illustrates the idea that Loren (as an ideal of sexuality and beauty) enjoyed life without depriving herself and it showed — literally! She wasn’t avoiding food so what is the secret? Bella Figura of course!

What’s really interesting is that as Mohammadi slows down and begins to enjoy the simple act of eating, feeling more present, feeling more mindful of how she nourishes her body, she begins to really build confidence. She begins to feel vital and fuller of energy than she’s had in years — without any expensive detoxes, diets, or fads. “For the first time in years, I was reveling in food. And much as I awaited my punishment, all of this joyous indulgence was having the opposite effect. It was all the walking.” (49)

Pasta con aglio, olio, e peperoncino, p. 221

Of all the recipes in the book I was most eager to try some of the pasta recipes — I think one of my favourite parts in the book is when the plumber and his assistant come to fix her broken radiator and end up cooking her dinner. Guido “the plumber” upon discovering she can’t cook, makes it his mission to show her how to properly cook a meal for herself. The ensuing Pasta con Pomodoro sets her on a new culinary journey — one without pre-packaged food or any additives. When I made this for my family one Saturday it was an instant hit! I heeded Guido’s advice and used a large pot to boil my noodles (“they need to move around” afterall!) and when I was finished making the sauce the resulting dish was one that my four-year-old adored. It took no more time to prepare than her standby boxed macaroni and cheese favourite but it was made from scratch. No pouch of cheese powder either and it’s times like this I am reminded that a good meal isn’t one that is full of ingredients or takes loads of time to make. It can be as humble as Pasta con Pomodoro — it’s all about taking the time to nourish yourself through the careful and mindful preparation of the meal.

We arrived home from our vacation to a broken-down-dead oven so in the interim between waiting for the new range to arrive, I kept enjoying my newly-discovered favourite snack: Pinzimonio with celery. Just a seasoned mixture of good-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar I could happily dunk and crunch celery to my heart’s content (and really, when was the last time you heard anyone who enjoyed celery that much??). But Mohammadi’s Pinzimonio is magic; and yet another example of a simple, humble recipe.

Part of my enjoyment of Bella Figura is the fact that I took a trip to Italy when I was just shy of 17 with my high school group.  One of my favourite places we visited was Florence (it was really magical — our room overlooked The Duomo) and I relished all of her descriptions of the city and what it was like to really live there. It’s all of the people she meets that really illuminate the Italian lifestyle. She discovers food through Antonio at the market, “studies” fashion through her stylish friend Antonella, learns to decode romance and men through Luigo. It’s not only these few I mention but so many other interesting people that by the end of the book I felt like I knew. It’s with this book that one can really live vicariously and learn about the concept of Bella Figura from Mohammadi’s first year spent living in Italy.

Part travelog, part cookbook, part how-to, this book is a really wonderful memoir full of ways on how to incorporate more Bella Figura into one’s own lifestyle. Highlighting ways to be more mindful what I learned is that by bringing richness to daily life means to take tasks more slowly. Having the grace to change the changeable and accept what cannot be changed. I think there is something to be said for making the most of each day and Mohammadi does an excellent job reminding us of that. (In case you’re looking for your next book club selection I would highly recommend this one — the recipes could also be made to accompany your book club gathering when you come together to discuss the book).

Pasta con Pomodoro, p.70

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Appetite by Random House / Penguin Random House for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

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