Maureen Fant

July 06, 2021 11:24 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

What road led you to Rome?

I majored in Classics in college and came to Rome for a semester at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies on the Giancolo. After that, I was hooked. I came here to live when my first husband was offered a job teaching Classics at St. Stephen’s.

What were the main challenges when you first arrived in Rome?

I spoke some Italian, but soon realized that functional walking-around Italian was not sufficient for a social life. You couldn’t have Italian friends without speaking Italian—I’m sure that’s a familiar vicious circle. My breakthrough came when I joined a mostly Italian choir. Although the members were very friendly and tolerant of language deficiencies in people who were just passing through, they were tyrannical if you actually lived here. But at least they’d talk to me.
 
What was your first job?

Between college and graduate school, I was an editorial assistant at House Beautiful magazine. The editor I assisted was a difficult person, but I did learn quite a bit about getting words into print in the pre-PC days. I knew absolutely zip about kitchen equipment, interior decorating, or any of the other practical topics covered by the magazine and wished I could work at Harper’s Bazaar, which was elsewhere in the building.

Who was your biggest inspiration in your life?

I wouldn’t imitate everything about her, but if I could be half as strong, perceptive, funny, and kind as my mother, I’d be doing well. She was widowed at 45, left with two young children and an elderly mother in a tough world she wasn’t ready for. But she made it.

Can you share a bit about your childhood, family life?

My maternal grandfather and one of his brothers died of the flu in 1918 in Philadelphia. The third brother died the same month in France a few days before the armistice. My mother was three years old and never got over it, so I grew up in the shadow of this terrible loss. I only mention it because it has been much on my mind lately, of course.

My mother married a New Yorker, but went back to Bryn Mawr to have me. We lived in Manhattan, always in the same place, first a brownstone, later an apartment building on the same site. I still have a postage-stamp pied-à-terre there, my mother’s home till she died just short of 95. Within a radius of a block and a half we had the Morgan Library, B. Altman’s (sniff!), and the long-gone armory with a tower modeled on Palazzo della Signoria. Grand Central was less than ten minutes’ walk up Park Avenue, and thanks to Jacqueline Onassis it still is. I never really wanted to leave New York. I went to Broadway shows with my school friends, and before that to children’s courses at the Metropolitan Museum and MOMA, which in those days we called the Museum of Modern Art. I also had a weakness for department stores and have never forgiven you-know-who for demolishing Bonwit Teller.

I went to Marymount through fifth grade, then to Nightingale-Bamford, a small private girls’ school, and twice a week to music school, once a week to ballroom dancing school. It was another world! My parents tried to get me to learn various sports, such as figure skating and tennis, but I was never any good at any of them. My best subject was Latin, but I also had a (not unrelated) affinity for the mechanics of English.

Could you share a brief snippet of your career?

It’s a career? Seriously, I’m very proud of my books and also that, at an age when sensible people retire, a friend and I started a business, Elifant Archaeo-Culinary Tours. We had just got it to a good point when the pandemic idled us for two years. But things are now looking better than ever. I’m also proud that I’ve never been at a loss for what to do with myself—if I didn’t have a job for a while, I’d invent a serious project. The AWAR cookbook fits that pattern.  Earlier in my life I was the English editor of an FAO magazine, and when that closed (because the US refused to pay its UN dues!), I started an editorial services company. I was also writing and editing for Italy Italy magazine, published here in Rome, and then somehow became a food writer for the New York Times travel section.

Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, a source book I worked on with Mary Lefkowitz, a distinguished classicist (and great writer and wonderful person) is now in its fourth revised edition. Dictionary of Italian Cuisine, which I compiled with my friend Howard Isaacs, is out of print but still respected by the few who know about it. Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way, written with Oretta Zanini De Vita, was a James Beard finalist and won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. My self-published (in 1992) Eat like the Romans: the Visitor’s Food Guide was plagiarized, which I guess is some sort of distinction.

If you could change one thing about Rome what would it be?

The city doesn’t treat its citizens very well, especially if they’re pedestrians. I’d fix the holes in the sidewalks and repaint all the zebra crossings, to start with.

What was your favorite AWAR memory?

You mean besides working on the cookbook and a year and a half of Zoom meetings? Here’s one. In the 1980s I invented and taught a little writing course through AWAR. The star pupil was Dr. Susan Levenstein. Fast forward a few decades to when she came to present her book, Dottoressa, at an AWAR General Meeting: she mentioned the course and how my teaching had helped her in writing her (excellent) book.

What does AWAR mean to you and how has it impacted your life?

I joined AWAR twice. When I was new in Rome, it was interesting less as an American refuge than as a place to find American women who knew how to make a life in Italy. As a result, I absolutely advise people not to avoid other Americans if they want to get acclimated, but rather to meet people who can show them the way. I dropped out of AWAR when I got a job and rejoined a few years ago and was soon up to my neck in AWAR stuff. Working on the cookbook last year during lockdown was about as rewarding as anything I’ve done in quite a while.

If you could take only one thing or person on a deserted island what would it be?

Franco, of course! And a mask and fins.

What are some of your hobbies, passions?

My hobbies and the various aspects of my work are interchangeable—travel, cooking, books, and the like. I used to be very active in the performance of early music, which never became a job (just a lot of work). Pilates at the gym is more medicine than hobby, but I do like to swim and look forward to the few days each summer I get to snorkel off Ventotene and sometimes also Sardinia.

What’s your favorite restaurant in Rome?

For traditional Roman, Checchino dal 1887, in Testaccio, where the sixth generation of the same family guarantees authenticity, great wines, and a tranquil atmosphere. For a mid-level to go to with friends and acquaintances, Grano, centrally located and attractive without being fancy. The menu is varied enough so you can take people there without worrying that they won’t like anything. For a special occasion, Il Convivio Troiani. The Troiani brothers have worked hard since they were practically kids to perfect their high-end restaurant. I find Angelo Troiani’s creations artistic and incredibly tasty.  

What are you passionate about?

Grammar and language in general. I have political passions, but we don’t want to get into that here. People are always telling me I love food, which is just silly. Of course I like food, but as much for what it represents as for how it tastes.

Characteristic you value most in others?

Enthusiasm.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re by yourself?

I can’t remember. It’s been so long since I was by myself! But my favorite solitary activities include writing letters to my friends, reading of course, and fighting the ongoing battle against chaos in my closets and workspace. I love my Mac and am always exploring and delving to learn new tricks.

Are you a cat or dog person?

I’m allergic to both, but I’d have to say I admire dogs more. I love dog movies and dog fiction. Go figure.

What’s your favorite pizza place in Rome?

It was Giulietta, on via Marmorata, but it closed. I haven’t replaced it.

How would you want your loved ones to remember you?

I would hope to be remembered as kind, enthusiastic, and there for them. If they thought I was funny, that would be good too. Something to live up to …


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