Like many people I was first made aware of Fabio Viviani on Top Chef Season 5. It was clear from his no-nonsense style of cooking that he wasn't going to win the title. He didn't exactly stretch himself creatively in the kitchen, making what he knew and liked, usually always Italian, and never apologized for it. He grew up cooking with his grandmother, in an effort to control his high-octane energy and keep him out of trouble, but eventually he learned to love it and that's apparent in all of the food he cooks.
He moved to the United States in 2005 at the age of 27 with a lot of experience under his belt. He first started working in a professional kitchen at the age of 14 and currently has two restaurants in Los Angeles. Thankfully one of them, Firenze Osteria, is close by, so I've had the pleasure of eating his food many times. I even took a risotto cooking class from him one Saturday afternoon to try to help my homemade versions get better. They have, and yours will too, thanks to his new cookbook Fabio's Italian Kitchen, which contains six different versions, as well as another 100 traditional recipes he grew up cooking for his family.
He grew up poor, so the book features mostly traditional Italian dishes that don't require a lot of fancy ingredients to be good. Many of them have ingredients that can be found in almost everyone's pantry and while they may be simple, it's the techniques and years of experience at the stove that elevate them to the next culinary level. There are no shortcuts to making great food. Time being the biggest luxury item required from Fabio. Uncomplicated does not necessarily equal quick.
Having lived and traveled in France repeatedly over the years I know pretty well the regional differences when it comes to food. Like what the specialty of a region is, or where a specific dish hails from. Italy is another matter completely. I have a general sense of the regional differences, north versus south, Tuscan, Roman and Sicilian. Those differences also vary widely from village to village and province to province. The longest stretch of continuous time I’ve spent in Italia was two and half months. I spent that time in the region of Umbria — smack, dab in the middle of the country. Food there was unfamiliar, and I could easily have used the wonderful book “Italy Dish by Dish” to guide me and answer unending questions I had about the region’s food.
“Italy Dish by Dish” is here to answer travelers’ (both armchair and mobile) questions about what is what when it comes to food, eating, cooking and dining in Italy. The book describes more than 3,000 dishes found throughout every region of Italy. Broken down by region each chapter is organized alphabetically by course then by ingredient and ends with an iconic recipe that represents that area; for example the chapter on Umbria ends with a recipe for Pizza di Pasqua al formaggio – a dish I remember fondly. There are also listings for the region’s cheeses and wines as well as food and wine pairing suggestions. A detailed glossary describes the bounty of the land and sea that makes up la cucina italiana while an index easily puts menu items close at hand.
In the beginning of the new cookbook, Seafood Alla Siciliana: Recipes and Stories from a Living Tradition, author Toni Lydecker quotes Goethe:"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything". And you'll certainly feel this way after reading this beautiful book. When the publisher contacted me and sent me a copy, I couldn't wait to read it after all, this is where my mother was from. This is not just a collection of recipes but an in depth look at Sicily itself its history, its food, its wine, its culture.
Lydecker is a noted food writer, specializing in Italian cooking. When she finally goes to Sicily to learn the regional seafood cooking there, she immerses herself, learning dishes from home cooks to restaurant chefs. She visited winemakers and toured food processing plants. She toured the Agostino Recca anchovy plant, the makers of my beloved anchovies. Her stories and notes about these visits are well worth reading and really add to this book.
Venezia: Food & Dreams is a love letter to Venice. Reading it and cooking from it is a bit like looking at a Caravaggio painting. The dreamlike colors of the photos, the lovely setting of Venice, the simple yet forthright recipes. This book is written, photographed and designed in a dreamlike fashion; one that is so often associated with Venice. Tessa Kiros knows her subject well.
In addition to the wonderful recipes, Kiros sprinkles in her thoughts, and comments; her experiences in the city in the form of poetic moments. Many of the photos are of the city itself and its citizens, or of the colorful buildings, or of Carnival; not only of food and recipes. This book is one of the most beautiful cookbooks I have come across in a long time. And the food and recipes, as I came to find out, are as delicious as the book is beautiful.
Kiros divides the book into sections that mirror an Italian menu: Antipasti, Zuppa/Pasta/Gnocchi, Risotto, Secondi, Contorni, and Dolci — with additional sections on Essential Recipes and Cicchetti, small bites unique to Venice.
Conventional wisdom says a good cookbook is one that allows you to reproduce a given recipe with consistently successful results. Another opinion is that the recipes should be really special, not run-of-the-mill or the best versions of classics. I may be in the minority, but I most appreciate a cookbook that inspires me, gives me good ideas, and points the way. This is such a cookbook.
I've cooked Spaghetti with Walnuts and Anchovies twice and tweaked it just a bit. The combination of ingredients is most important, after that, as with all recipes, find the balance that works for you. Just a few other recipes from the book that I find intriguing include Campari Cocktails with Salami and Figs, Pasta and Bean Salad with Celery Pesto, Leek and Sausage Orzotto, Risotto with Almonds and Broccoli and Baked Cherry Tomatoes.
As recommended by Amy Sherman
Can you imagine a cookbook with ingredients but no measurements? My cookbook that I got from the school I attended in Florence many years ago is like that. So is the cookbook "A Tuscan in the Kitchen". Tuscans are funny that way. Because they grew up cooking without measurements, they can't imagine why anyone else should need them.
Thank goodness for Divina Cucina's Recipes, because my ability to write down recipes back in the day was not what it is today, and I actually appreciate measurements with my recipes. Judy Witts Francini is an American who has been living in Florence for over 25 years. She's a fantastic cook and cooking instructor and also has a lovely blog that really gives you a feel for shopping, cooking and eating in Italy. When I heard she was publishing a cookbook of recipes, I couldn't wait to check it out.
One of the nice things about this book is that every thing in it takes 45 minutes or less to prepare. And the other nice thing is, most of the recipes are actually easy to make on a budget – Spaghetti with tomatoes and anchovies (let’s face it, you either like anchovies or you don’t and some of us do!); Red Snapper with Fresh Tomatoes and Black Olives; Chicken Braised with Tomatoes and Black Olives; Veal Stew with Green and Yellow Peppers; Savory Three Meat Loaf with Simple Tomato Sauce; Red Cabbage Slaw; Marinated Green Beans – you get my point. And everything we’ve tried, anyway, is perfect!
As recommended by Amy Ephron
How could I not get this book? The title is me. What makes this better than most wine pairing books is that it really delves into the recipes and specialties that make each region unique, explaining wine types, laws and labeling terms along the way. The recipes aren’t always quick or easy, but they are authentic and quite flavorful.
How can you go wrong cooking Spaghettini with Shrimp and Ginger, Macaroni and Cheese with Truffle Oil (better the second day), Osso Buco Emilia-Romagna Style or Slow-Baked Lamb with Potatoes? Plus, they choose the wine for you. A book that makes learning and eating a pleasure.
As recommended by Lisa Dinsmore
In our house, we think Jamie Oliver walks on water. Every recipe from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy rocks. And all you have to do is follow the directions. The variation on spaghetti carbonara with chicken instead of ham is genius. The Prawn and Parsley frittata is totally great (and I don’t even like frittatas and neither does Jamie Oliver).
And it’s just so simple to use! And it’s kind of like having a friend in the kitchen. The grilled swordfish with salsa di giovanna is an exercise in simple bliss. And the whole fish baked in salt is something you didn’t think you could try at home....