Tuesday, November 10, 2015


I suppose every good writer of Italian cookbooks wants to leave behind that one big book that will be a summation of all they have done in the field. I'm not sure the late, great and cranky, Marcella Hazan had that in mind when she wrote the first volume of her The Classic Italian Cookbook, but I'm pretty sure she did when she delivered her second volume. Michele Scicolone did something a bit similar with her 1000 Italian Recipes, a huge, encyclopedic survey on the subject. This outstanding Italo-American cookbook writer has published a number of excellent cookbooks mostly focusing on Italian cuisine. If you're looking to begin to wade into the depths of this, one of the world's most popular cuisines, you would do well to start with either Hazan or Scicolone. Now Lidia Bastianich (with the able help of her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali) has produced LIDIA'S MASTERING THE ART OF ITALIAN CUISINE: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook (Knopf; $37.50). It covers a wide scope of Italian cooking in its more than 400 recipes.

Let's begin with all the good things. The chapter on ingredients is comprehensive and easy to understand. There are lots of illustrations. Here is where Lidia's knowledge shines. You can tell she loves talking ingredients. For instance, Asiago, Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Pecorino are thoroughly defined, including the regions where they are from and what they are used for. When she gets to Extra Virgin Olive Oil, she is one of the few writers who insist that it is used as a finishing oil or for salads, rather than for frying, where it will smoke at high temperatures more easily than a vegetable oil. She states her preference for red wine vinegar over Balsamic, which she describes as a regional specialty vinegar in Italy. Though wildly popular here in the U.S. many restaurants in Italy serving mostly tourists, have it on their tables, and you have to ask for red wine vinegar if that is your preference. The meat section is wonderful and displays the Italian respect for eating the entire animal and not just the fillets. She speaks plainly and unsquemishly about offal, the internal organs of a butchered animal. These are delicious parts of the animal and our insistence on manicured meats sold off the bone without much beyond liver from supermarkets, shows what fussy eaters we've become.

Lidia next takes the reader through techniques used in Italian cooking. I always knew that olive oil had to be added to a hot pan, but it was interesting to find out that butter should always be added to a cold pan to prevent it from burning. A mortar and pestle as well as a potato rice entered my kitchen relatively late, but are now regular helpers as I cook. Lidia explains why. There are secrets revealed to a great gratin, adding zip to cured olives, or tasty (and less oily) versions of Eggplant Parmigiana.

When you reach the recipe section, you'll find something missing, which is unlike any other cookbook from Lidia--a real lack of head notes. In fact, there are none. This became really curious when I got to a recipe for Caesar Salad. It is not Italian at all. So why is it in an Italian cookbook that doesn't cover Italo-American recipes, let alone a salad credited by an Italian-American chef and owner of restaurants in California and Mexico, doing so here? For me the launch of any recipe by Lidia always begins in the entertaining and informative head notes of her many cookbooks. Another problem in this day and age, is the lack of photographs. As a publisher and a former promoter of cookbooks, the first complaint you hear about a cookbook without pictures, is this. It doesn't bother me and I've long thought it absurd to complain about this. But today's popular cookbooks are drenched in color photos because the audience for them demands it.

And what of the recipes? This is as fine a collection of recipes as you'll find in any of Lidia's books. Prosciutto and Fig Bruschetta, Swiss Chard and Potato Crostada, Scallion and Asparagus Salad, Farro Salad, with Grilled Eggplant and Peppers, Cauliflower and Tomato Soup, Lettuce Soup with Fontina Gratin, Borlotti Bean Pizzaiola, Whole Braised Cauliflower, Horseradish Mashed Potatoes, Snails with Polenta, Risotto with Barolo on a Bed of Carrot Puree, Crespelle "Lasagna" Filled with Spinach and Herbs. Pappardelle with Duck Guazzetto, Fresh Pear and Pecorino Ravioli with Cacio e Pepe Sauce, Fresh Ricotta Cavatelli with Mussels and Beans. Spaghetti with Crab Sauce, Calamari and Skate with White Wine Sauce. Clams with Leeks and Couscous, Skillet Gratinate of Mushrooms and Chicken, Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives, Quail Under a Brick, Pork Tenderloin with Balsamic Onions, Meatloaf with Ricotta, Veal Kidneys in Mustard Sauce, Bread and Peach Cake, Polenta Sponge Cake, Cannoli Napoleon, Roasted Pears and Grapes and Pomegranate Sorbet, are just a quick sampling of some of the arresting and tasty dishes Lidia has assembled for this volume.

The book ends with a useful section of Italian Culture and Language. You'll find all sorts of interesting cultural observations such as Boar Hunting: Favorite Italian Pastime, Enotecas (Italian wine bars), as well as a breakdown of the differences between the Trattoria, Ristorante, Osteria and Bar, which define Italian dining outside the home, or how to toast in Italian. The mostly food glossary in Italian will be helpful to anyone traveling in Italy without knowledge of the language.

LIDIA'S MASTERING THE ART OF ITALIAN CUISINE is unlike any cookbook she has produced before. If you demand lots of color photos, this book is not for you. I miss the head notes, which always make the time you spend with Lidia pleasurable. Maybe I'll warm up to it as I watch her new companion series on PBS (whenever that airs in Portland--shame on you OPB for the ridiculous times you air your food programs). Still any time a new collection of recipes from this wonderful TV chef and teacher appears, is time for rejoicing.

The book is available in many fine bookstores as well as on-line.

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