Primi Piatti Pleasures

November 11, 2010

By Barbara Goldman

© Francesco Tonelli

Primi Piatti crepes first served and after. 

Born in the Marche region of Italy and raised in Milan, Francesco Tonelli  is not only a food photographer but also a “Maestro di Cucina” and a food stylist. He has cooked in kitchens throughout Italy, Switzerland and France holding a variety of positions from R& D, chef and food stylist for La Cucina Italiana – Milano to Associate Professor at The Culinary Institute of America.  In 2004, Tonelli stepped behind the camera in order to take full charge of the design, styling and photography of food, using his professional experience as a platform to interface with food experts and creative professionals at a new level.  In 2010, he was named one of “General Mills Top Ten Food Photographers.”


A few years ago, two other Italian chefs, Giovanni Scappin and Alberto Vanoli, who still currently teach at The Culinary Institute of America, approached Tonelli to see if he would be interested in shooting the imagery for a cookbook they were authoring for the school. That book became Italian Cooking at Home and will be published by John Wiley & Sons in early 2011. “Our strategy was to execute the project over the course of a year to capture the very best ingredients of each season,” says Tonelli.


Tonelli and his colleagues enjoyed that initial experience so much that they  consulted with the book-publishing department of the Culinary Institute  to take on another book, this time all three co-authoring it and making it more specific. The book is about “primi piatti” (first courses), which include dishes based on both fresh and dried pastas, as well as risottos, crepes, gnocchi and polenta.


On this latest  collaboration, Mary Donovan is the Editorial Project Manager for the Institute and Alda Trabucchi, from Wiley, is the Senior Production Editor. “Francesco Tonelli has a unique sensibility when it comes to food styling and photography. His photographs are both modern and captivating. His use of light and texture is compelling, and his passion for food becomes tangible in the pictures he has created for a new book devoted to pasta and primi piatti,” says Donovan.


The concept for Primi Piatti was to show and describe authentic preparations from the regional cuisines of Italy. Tonelli and his co-authors wanted to share traditional dishes, but also cast them in a modern light. “We wanted to convey the fragrance of the food through imagery with no distractions,” he adds. Propping was minimal even for most plate details. They wanted the viewer to have a food experience in two images.


One of his primary objectives on the project was to capture the food at maximum freshness and fragrance, in order to convey flavor through imagery. “I believe this was achieved as much or more by the image of the food after it had been eaten, than the pristine plate itself,” explains Tonelli. Real sensory perception of texture, succulence and richness arise from the relationship between the freshly seasoned but untouched plate, and its counterpart depicting the food experience afterward.  


With any food photography, the biggest challenge is to show the freshness in preparation and then within seconds of plating. This is true in particular with pasta dishes, where Tonelli’s primary objective was to capture each one immediately after seasoning when they are moist, juicy, coated, emulsified and oh-so ready to eat.


His greatest reward on Primi Piatti was the result of meeting these challenges. Once the pristine plate shot was captured, within seconds Tonelli removed portions to create the after effect. “It gave us a chance to taste every single dish. An incredible privilege, even for an Italian chef.”


The images will be part of the Primi Paitti printed book. Tonelli will also use them in his portfolio to showcase what he considers to be the essence of his shooting style, which is a passionate loyalty to focus on the beauty of unencumbered food.


See more of Francesco Tonelli’s loving food work and Primi Piatti Cookbook  at Pronto!