chatting with susan fillion about pizza in pienza

Buon Giorno!

You’re just in time to enjoy a soul-warming slice of Susan Fillion’s homemade pizza. There’s nothing like a perfect chewy-crisp crust topped with a little crushed tomato, melty mozzarella, black olives and fresh basil, just begging you to take a bite. Delizioso!

Also delicious is Susan’s charming new bilingual picture book, Pizza in Pienza (David R. Godine, 2013), which is about two of her favorite things — pizza, of course, and Pienza, a small town in Tuscany where Pope Pius II was born (he rebuilt Pienza to be an “ideal Renaissance town”).

Susan’s story features a young Italian girl, a resident of Pienza, who is crazy about pizza — so much so, that she decides to find out everything she can about it. She asks her grandmother to teach her how to make it, she scopes out Giovanni, the local pizzaiolo, and she also reads all about the history of pizza at the library. Did you know pizza (as we know it today) most likely originated in Naples, Italy?

An artist and museum educator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Susan has filled this book with beautiful rustic, folkloric paintings rendered in warm Tuscan browns, crimsons, golds, olives, and blues. I love how her humorous touches (Mona Lisa holding a slice of pizza) gives us a fresh taste of antiquity, blending past and present on a timeless canvas of Italian village life.

Hungry readers will appreciate the added layer of flavor afforded by the Italian translations on every page — two savory bites for the price of one! End matter includes an Author’s Note, Pronunciation Guide, and Susan’s recipe for Pizza Margherita. And did I mention the cool pizza sauce endpapers? Squisito!

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Do you remember the first time you ever ate pizza? Did you grow up in a family where it was usually homemade?

No, I don’t actually remember the first time I ate pizza — it must not have been especially memorable.

But I DO remember eating it for the first time in Italy — a completely different experience! SO smokey and crusty, with far fewer (but more delicious) toppings than we use in the U.S. SO much fun to watch the local Italian pizzaiolo put the raw pizza on the end of a long pizza peel (a large wooden spatula-like tool with a very long handle) and place it in the oven. The brick ovens, fueled with wood, are the most wonderful and make a very crispy crust.

Please tell us a little about your time in Pienza and why it still holds a special place in your heart.

I went to Italy to learn Italian and study art history after I finished college. My sister came, too.

The whole year was one long adventure! In those days, it was easy and very inexpensive to travel and eat in Italy, and we did a lot of both. Pienza really captivated me. It seems almost like a stage set — the scale is much smaller than most towns. Even the main cathedral in the town square seems miniature! And from its perch on a hill, Pienza looks out to a very beautiful Tuscan landscape.

When did you start making your own pizza? What are your favorite toppings?

It has been decades since I first began making my own pizzas. I don’t really consider myself a great cook by any means, but making pizza is great fun and, once you get the knack of it, not too hard.

It can be a communal enterprise and we often had our kids’ (and our) friends over to help and eat together. My favorite toppings … well, I do like the classic Margherita … also, simple anchovy, onion and bell peppers  … potato and rosemary (an Italian favorite) …

In your Author’s Note, you mention that it’s a longstanding tradition in your home to make pizza for family and friends on Friday night. Describe an especially memorable Friday when the pizzas surpassed all expectation.

Oh gee! I can’t really remember one that stands out, although some of the more fun and most delicious results were produced outdoors on the charcoal grill. I wish we had a brick oven.

What kind of research did you do for this story?

I read tons of stuff on the internet and every book I could find on the subject.

How did you create the illustrations?

The illustrations are painted in acrylic. Many are from photographs that I took or found. The second page — the little girl sitting on the steps — is from a photo I took of my daughter in Pienza long ago.

She’s 24 now!

What was the best part of working on this project? Approximately how many pizzas did you consume from initial spark of idea to finished product? 🙂

I always love doing the painting and watching each illustration take shape. I’m sure we ate many pizzas over the course of the evolution of this book!

Who are some of your favorite artists? Who do you think has influenced your art the most?

I have always been a big Matisse fan (see my first book, MISS ETTA & DR. CLARIBEL: BRINGING MATISSE TO AMERICA (Godine 2011)). I also love Piero della Francesca and the cartoonists Saul Steinberg and Jules Feiffer, to name a very few. I’d say my influences are eclectic.

What are you working on now?

Hmm … I am always a bit superstitious when people ask me this.

Are there any upcoming bookstore appearances or events you’d like to tell us about?

Sept. 19 at The Children’s Bookstore in Baltimore, 4:30 p.m.

Sept. 29 at the Baltimore Book Festival, 2 p.m. — I’ll be on a picture book panel.

Oct. 23 at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C., 10:30 a.m.

Nov. 23 at The Roland Park Pratt Library in Baltimore, 11 a.m.

Pending … The Northshire in Manchester, Vt. … Chester, Vt., and possibly a few others!


You are so welcome. Many thanks to you for all of your nice comments and for the opportunity to be on your blog.

Mangia! Mangia!

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written and illustrated by Susan Fillion
published by David R. Godine, September 2013
Picture Book for ages 6+, 32 pp.
Cool themes: art, food, Italy, pizza, cooking
*Includes Author/Illustrator’s Note, Pronunciation Guide, Short History of Pizza, Recipe for Pizza Margherita
**Glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus


*Spreads posted by permission, text and illustrations copyright © 2013 Susan Fillion, published by David R. Godine. All rights reserved.

**Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


13 thoughts on “chatting with susan fillion about pizza in pienza

  1. I love the story in this post! It makes a connection for me and I will buy PIZZA IN PIENZA as a gift for my sister. Her husband built a wood fired pizza oven for their patio this year. She has posted several great pics of pizzas for me to drool over.


    1. I was drooling every minute while I was formatting this post. I need pizza, I want pizza, I love pizza . . . :9! Thanks for stopping by to dream and drool, Linda.


      1. Yes, she does make her own pizza for her two young children. She has a pizza stone and peel so she is all prepared, and making delicious food from scratch is her specialty!


  2. I love Italian Pizza! 🙂 I love when we have “make your own pizza night” at home. We get to pick what yummy toppings to put on. I like black olives and fried onions and bacon! 🙂


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