Tutti a Tavola…

June 5th, 2007

Lidia's Italy
Lidia’s Italy
140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most
Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali

Knopf (April 10, 2007); 384 pages; $35.00

Tutti a Tavola…a Mangiare! This Italian call to the table is familiar to anyone who’s watched Lidia Bastianich’s PBS television shows or read any of her four previous cookbooks. Now she calls us to the table again with her latest, Lidia’s Italy, written in collaboration with her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, to coincide with her most recent PBS endeavor.

The subtitle of the book, 140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most, presents an idiosyncratic view of Italian cuisines. It’s no surprise to find two recipes for radicchio in the Treviso chapter, but Lidia’s Tiramisù with limoncello is an unexpected delight. In Tuscany, rather than traipsing through Florence or Siena, she takes us to the Maremma for authentic Bistecca Chianina and a sweet sage pudding. No fewer than five artichoke recipes fill the pages of her Roman chapter, but not one is the ubiquitous Carciofi alla Giudea. The Sicilian classics, Pasta alla Norma and Caponata, make their appearances in Sicily only after we’ve seen an unusual and brilliantly simple antipasto of steamed calamare.

Pellegrino Artusi began to document the regional cuisines of Italy in his self-published La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene, Kitchen Science, and the Art of Eating Well, in 1891. Beginning with Il Talismano della Felicità, The Talisman of Happiness, in 1928, Ada Boni began to codify these cuisines in even greater depth. The culmination of her efforts, Italian Regional Cooking, appeared in the 1960’s. Soon after, Marcella Hazan and Franco and Margaret Romagnoli began offering their own celebrations of Italy’s wonderfully diverse cuisines in print and on television.

While the menu at Lidia’s original Manhattan restaurant, Felidia continues to reflect her Istrian heritage, Lidia’s Italy affords an intimate, personal look into the cuisines and culture of ten gastronomically distinct areas of Italy. In each chapter, Lidia introduces us to the towns and countryside as we share meals in local restaurants and home kitchens with her friends and colleagues. Hers is a more focused view than we’ve had from either Artusi or Ada Boni.

Beginning in her childhood home, Istria, Lidia and crew work their way though the Italian peninsula with stops in Trieste, Friuli, Padova & Treviso, Piemonte, Maremma, Rome, Naples and Puglia with a stint in Sicily. In each place, Lidia provides a narrative on geography and climate and their significance to the cuisine. The book is liberally sprinkled with photographs taken by Lidia and her friend and fellow Istrian, Wanda Radetti. Additional, full-page photographs are by Christopher Hersheimer, who also contributed to Lidia’s Italian Table, Lidia’s Family Table, and Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen.

Long observation has led us to the conclusion that most people salivate and do some armchair gallivanting when they get a book like this. We’ve traveled widely in Italy, so the book is a nostalgia trip for us… but we actually do cook and confess our predilection for deeply flavorful yet unpretentious dishes like Papardelle with Long-Cooked Rabbit Sugo and Marinated Winter Squash.

From the Roman chapter, we made Fettuccine with Tomato and Chicken Liver Sauce. Here, Lidia literally teaches us to concentrate. First, we reduce half a cup of white wine, then we add the soaking liquid from dried porcini and reduce that. The liquid from a can of San Marzano tomatoes is drained into the pan and simmered down, too. And if all of this reduction hasn’t been enough, Lidia invites us to “slosh some water around in the tomato can,” add it to the sauce and reduce that!Good, everyday ingredients, the elementary technique of reduction, and attentiveness yielded a superlative dish of richly nuanced flavors.

Lidia reminds her readers accustomed to supermarket displays of Chilean grapes and apricots in March, that recognition of seasonality is crucial to a grasp of Italy’s cuisines: “A trip to this market [Campo dei Fiori in Rome]—for that matter, to any market in Italy—will give you a good indication of the season, of the local flavors, and of what most of the Roman families will be having for dinner that evening.”

Or not having…

As Floridian writers, we feel disadvantaged that half the book is set in northern Italy, with corresponding recipes that call for ingredients woefully out of season here in June. We love the hearty fall and winter dishes of the north, but we just can’t get those autumnal bitter greens and root vegetables right now, because (to quote Cole Porter) “it’s too darn hot.”

Nevertheless, peppers remain in season here, so we roasted several to cook the Piemontese antipasto, Roasted Pepper Rolls Stuffed with Tuna. The stuffing, redolent of anchovies and capers, makes a delightful tuna salad in its own right, but in combination with the roasted peppers, it’s divine.

Although it didn’t seem practical for this review to prepare a dish from each of Lidia’s ten favorite places, we wanted to do at least one from the south, in part for its unconventional preparation. We chose Steamed Calamare, from Lidia’s Sicilian friend, Manfredi Barbera. Rings and tentacles of small calamare are steamed until just tender over an infusion of lemon rind and bay leaves. They are then tossed with lemon juice, grated orange rind, pepperoncino, parsley, and olive oil. The result is superb, a dish in which each component is clearly discernible and harmonious with all the others.

Lidia’s success as a restaurateur and author of four cookbooks was surely a factor in her publishers allowing her the freedom to write so engagingly. Her culinary vocabulary can be endearingly quirky: we are told to “tumble” squid and to “perk” soups… but as cooks, we know what she means.

David Nussbaum seems to have stayed close as a literary collaborator, but Lidia and her daughter, Tanya, never lose their own distinctive voices.

Tanya leads tours in Italy, and the cookbook is graced by her travel notes on some remarkable and little-known historical attractions. Mama Lidia’s words on food are always clear and encouraging. Above all, they are words of passionate conviction—that the preparation and sharing of food are among life’s most rewarding activities.

In the interest of full disclosure, the publisher sent us a copy of this book for review.


Reviewed by Holly Chase and Skip Lombardi

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