In Satyricon, Fellini’s 1969 filmic rendition of the decadent Roman novel by Petronius, greed reaches its outrageous climax. In a scene modelled on the red-painted frescoes of Pompeii, he staged a feast so baroque that the food was barely identifiable. The head of a bull (perhaps it was a minotaur?) appears on a plate in silhouette. Eyeballs sizzle in gigantic serving dishes. A roasted pig is suddenly relieved of its innards, to loud applause, and ladies comb their hair with cuttlefish.
But Fellini himself liked altogether simpler fare. “I do not eat anything disgusting,” he said some years before his death, in an interview with Vanity Fair. “No frogs, snails, tails, no sheep or calf heads with teeth and eyeballs in them, no eels or organs, and very little pork and sausage.”
His actors, however, ate all of these things. Though the food in Satyricon was not real, in his semi-autobiographical movie Roma, made three years later, 20 cooks were employed to keep the extras happy. Early on in the film a svelte actor playing the young Fellini arrives in Rome from the provinces. He is wearing a formal white suit, and is much taken with the carnivalesque atmosphere he finds in the streets.
Outside the apartment where he has come to stay, table after table has been laid out, as if the whole city were having dinner at once, hemmed in only by tramlines. Chefs serve up clattering scoopfuls of snails, and waitresses shout out the specials: homemade veal intestine, fettuccine with clams, scampi with anchovies. The young man finds a spare seat, and joins a random assortment of Romans. “You are what you eat,” says the man sitting next to him, as he pulls a snail from its shell.
In this scene, not only was the food all real, the actors were all hungry. As the team of cooks got to work, the crew realised they were under pressure to film fast: the extras were eating between takes. Fellini shot and re-shot – panning around the square capturing mid-air forkfuls of spaghetti – until the food ran out.
The film closest to his real experiences - in terms of eating, as Fellini was big on family meals and often waxed lyrical about his mother’s home cooking - was his next one: Amarcord. Again, there was no such thing as prop food – the family in the kitchen really ate the minestra they were served – but what they consumed is far less memorable than the drama around the table. The pretty maid’s backside takes centre stage; the teenage son leaps out the window into the garden; the mother shouts: “I’m going mad! I’ll murder you all!” before the father grabs the tablecloth and brings the entire meal crashing to the floor.
Fellini was born in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. His father was a travelling Parmesan salesman, and they shared their home with rounds of cheese the size of dining tables. “I grew up with the smell of it in my nostrils,” he later remembered.
Parmesan was not his favourite food, however. That honour went to his grandmother’s zuppa inglese (an Italian relative of trifle). The final touch on this dish was a meringue, which – in the days before plastic piping bags – his grandmother made by squeezing the egg white and sugar mixture through a cone of rolled-up newspaper. “That is an important detail,” he told the Vanity Fair reporter, “because the cake had just the slight flavour of the newsprint. It is therefore impossible to duplicate, because that newspaper is no longer in business. The New York Times is not right at all. Corriere della Sera is closer. But really, you must go to a library and steal a page of Corriere Padano.”
Fellini made a career out of translating his fantasies to the screen, seeking out the dreamlike, extreme or debauched. On set he was not above demonstrating – always in a shirt and tie – exactly how he wanted his burlesque dancers to move, or what Marcello Mastroianni should be doing with a whip. In 1960, the year he made La Dolce Vita, Fellini started to record his dreams in a notebook. He wrote and illustrated them almost up until his death 33 years later. Eventually published as Federico Fellini: The Book of Dreams, they seem more like storyboards than intimate revelations. Possibly because the great Italian filmmaker had a much dirtier secret than any they contained: he hated pasta.
Or, at least, he preferred rice. His favourite risotto, he revealed, was flavoured with saffron and exactly two drops of grappa, added just before it was served. He disliked cream in sauces, and would have an omelette over a carbonara any day. But his favourite dish was sartù, a timbale made with an outer layer of rice and a kind of meat or vegetable stew in the middle.
When he was working, Fellini liked to eat alone. He often found, as he told another interviewer, that he was hungry but too preoccupied to sit for long enough to eat. A meal with the crew never allowed him to concentrate. At home, he left the cooking to his wife, the actress Giuletta Masina, whose starring role in her husband’s early film La Strada had been a breakthrough for them both. “I can wait three days for ten minutes of just the perfect light,” Fellini explained, “But the minute I am in a kitchen, I drop things and burn or cut my fingers.”
In 1966, however, at the behest of Diana Vreeland, he allowed American Vogue to publish his personal recipe for sangria. To the standard ingredients he added peaches, brandy, soda water – and two tablespoons of Strega, the Italian mint and saffron liqueur. For the tireless voluptuary, more was always more.