Select one of the keywords
Cookbooks for Italian Eating
By Mary Ann Smyth

Sauntered through a brand new, huge, chain bookstore and felt drawn by an invisible hand to the cookbook section. Why are you not surprised? I fixated on the glorious Italian cookbooks offered. Italian cookbooks reflect the Italians I know ( including my son-in-law) who gather you in their arms and make you one of the family. I hadn't intended to do another column just now, but couldn't resist taking some down and leafing through them. Since I was lucky enough in 1995 to spend a month in Tuscany (where I enjoyed many new and wonderful dishes) I have a recurring wacky fantasy that I am bathing in a warm vat of Italian tomato sauce. Every so often, someone throws me some cooked pasta and I'm set for days. Sheer heaven. Surely, in these books, I could find the perfect sauce for my very private fantasy. Let's have a look ...

The Restaurant Fresca by Scotto opened in 1993. The Scotto Family's Italian Comfort Food 'combines the delicious flavors and warmth of Italy with the neighborly atmosphere of a quintessential New York restaurant' and we, the cooks of the world, are the lucky recipients of this largesse. Recipes for such dishes as Grilled Pizza Margherita, Hot Pressed Soft-Shell Crab Ciabattini Sandwich, Risotto with Wild Mushrooms, Penne with Fresh Tomato Sauce (this might be my very dream sauce), and Chicken Cacciatore are interspersed with charming family pictures and scenes from Fresca by Scotto. A real treasure.

Mary Ann Esposito is the host of the Public Television series Ciao Italia. This woman knows Italian cuisine. Ciao Italia in Umbria is her seventh Italian cookbook, and a good one it is. Though it is sparse on photographs, there are loads of wonderful recipes and notes from Esposito on various towns in Umbria. The first recipe that caught my eye was Crema Contadina - Farmer-Style Pureed Bean Soup. Frittatina di Verdure, Vegetable Fritatta, is a must, maybe for lunch today. Ragu Umbro, Umbrian Ragu Sauce, may also be a contender. This is a very interesting book. I loved the descriptions of Umbrian towns, and the small vignettes of life in that region of Italy.

Pino Luongo grew up in Tuscany. He opened his first restaurant in New York in 1983. But you needn't travel to the Big Apple to eat his lovely food. His Simply Tuscan cookbook will take you there, and on to Italy. The Grilled Scallops Wrapped in Radicchio and Pancetta had me salivating. I also liked the looks of Grilled Potato and Fennel Salad. I must try his Seafood Bruschetta. And how about Mozzarella in Carrozza? Or for April, there's Easter Torta with Cheese. This is a delightful book, including menus and recipes for the four seasons of the year. There's even a suggestion for that first dinner for the in-laws. And the photographs are mouth-watering.

Guiliano Hazan's Every Night Italian tells us that 'Americans love Italian food because of its genuine flavors and fresh ingredients' and shows us that it can be very simple and quick to prepare. Wonderful drawings demonstrate such techniques as trimming an artichoke and boning a chicken, leading into scrumptious recipes ... Grilled Mushrooms with Balsamic Vinegar, Thin Spaghetti with Eggplant, Fresh Tomatoes and Mozzarella, Pan-Roasted Pompano Fillets with Rosemary and Garlic, Boneless Breast of Chicken with Three Peppers. Artichoke and Potato Casserole sounds divine, as does Summer Salad with Baked Red Onions. Be prepared for this book to become dog-eared and stained. It will be a well-used favorite.

A fascinating Brief History of Sweet Sicily is followed by a list of its feast days. An island that will celebrate a Feast of Pistachios is okay in my book. And each feast day - of which there are many - has its traditional foods. In Sweet Sicily, you will find desserts fit for all the gods, Christian and Pagan. It has a large section of basic recipes from Marzipan to Sweet Pastry Dough. Then on to Cookies and Small Pastries. The luscious photographs made me wish I had a cookie canister at my fingertips, filled with Lemon Drops, Crunchy-Almond Cookies, Clove-Scented Chocolate Cookies, and Sweet Pastry Rings. No wonder I constantly battle extra pounds.

Eggplant and Chocolate Pastries intrigue me. Eggplant and Chocolate? But I'm willing to try. 'Virgin s Breasts are eaten with reverence at the Feast of Saint Agatha.' And I must have the Chewy Pistachio Cookies. Don't they sound wonderful? I can almost smell them. Sweet Sicily continues with photographs and recipes for Fried Pastries, Cakes, Frozen Desserts, Spoon Sweets, Confections, Preserves, and Liqueurs and Beverages. Worried about fat and calories? The Sicilians have a saying - 'That which gives pleasure does not do harm.'

The concept of Joyce Goldstein's Cucina Ebraica intrigued me so much I had to review it. The book is dedicated to a 'Jewish Mother with an Italian Soul'. An introduction about the Jews in Italy leads into Antipasti, Soups, Pasta, Rice, Vegetables, Fish and on to Desserts. Tuna Loaf caught my eye. Polenta and Anchovy Fritters sound delicious. I could eat a bowl of the Pasta e Fagioli right now. Pumpkin-Filled Ravioli - why not? We eat Pumpkin Soup.

Sabbath Rice would have raisins added for Hanukkuh. Spinach Pudding - Wow. It looks so good. I found an entrant for my search for the Perfect Tomato Sauce in Salsa di Pomodoro. But the False Sauce could work too; it's thickened with vegetables. To top off a meal, try Squash Fritters, or Warm Ricotta Souffli Pudding! This is a unique book, with interesting background on different dishes and how they were incorporated into two styles of cooking.

Be warned. There are no glossy photographs in Biba's Northern Italian Cooking by Biba Caggiano, but there are serious recipes that will bring the flavor of the region to your table. Then you can take your own pictures. Grilled Marinated Vegetables sound delicious. Or Fried Polenta with Gorganzola Cheese - my absolutely favorite bleu cheese, so rich and creamy but with a smooth bite. Tagliolini with Sole and Lemon Zest and Pappardelle Baked with Smoked Mozzarella and Fresh Tomatoes are my picks for pasta dishes.

Both Risotto with Zucchini and Juniper Berries and a Shellfish Risotto sound good. Risotto, along with Polenta, figure heavily in northern Italian cooking. Roasted Potato Balls and Potato Cakes can rest on my plate any day of the week - but not for long. Salad Dressing is simply salt, olive oil and wine vinegar, not the herb-choked bottled dressings that are sold here as Italian Dressing. I don't think the Plain Tomato Sauce is what I'm looking for, but it would dress many dishes well, even eggs. A lovely book, whose author is host of her own internationally syndicated cooking show, Biba's Italian Cooking.

Chef Batali's premise is that 'Perfectly pristine ingredients, combined sensibly and cooked properly are the unmistakable hallmarks of the best Italian food'.. And the over 250 recipes in Simple Italian Food - Recipes from My Two Villages prove his point. His two villages? They are Borgo Capanne is a tiny hillside village in northern Italy where Batali lived and cooked, and Greenwich Village, where he now buys his ingredients. He combines the best of both worlds, much to our enjoyment of good Italian food. Simple Italian Food recipes range from Antipasti to Pasta and Risotto to Fish, then Meat, Vegetables and Side Dishes, and on to, thankfully, Cheese and Sweets.

Salmon Tartare on Green Olive Crostini would start a meal off with panache, as would Shrimp Bruschetta or maybe Stuffed Calimari on the Grill. I like the looks of Cavatelli with Garlic, Crab, Chile and Trebianno and Tortelini with Goat Cheese and Scallions. I found many appetizing recipes. The photographs are beautiful. And the Desserts? Divine. I must try Torta della Nonna - pastry filled with Ricotta, Pine Nuts, Sugar, Lemon and Eggs. It is suggested that it be served with a glass of Vin Santo, Dessert Wine. Filled with helpful tips and an interesting introduction, Chef Batali's book could hold its own on any cookbook shelf. Keep it to hand. You'll use it a lot.

If I could have my way, almost all of my meals - including breakfast - would include pasta. And Eric Treuille's Pasta - Every Way for Every Day is the book for the pasta lover, full of gorgeous photographs that entice you to rush to the kitchen to get out your pot. Pasta starts with Notes and The Ten Commandants for cooking pasta; a great touch. Suggested equipment precedes ideas for how to serve pasta - actually, everything you need to know about choosing shape and thickness of pasta, and how to properly cook, drain, and toss it.

Then the glorious recipes. Be still my heart. I just fell in love - with a book, for Pietro's sake. What recipes - and photographs. The Fresh Tomato Sauce might just be the one to go in my vat. But there are so many others - Tomato and Mozzarella Al Forno, Roasted Tomato, Simmered Tomato ... Pasta with Butter and Cheese ranks high with me. There are all sorts of pastas with Mushrooms, Seafood, Meat, Olive Oil, Greens and Herbs, Beans, Lentils, and with GARLIC! Wow. This cookbook concludes with more really good tips. Treat yourself to a lovely book. Spectacular!

The subtitle to David Downie's Cooking the Roman Way is 'Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome'. This new cookbook has lovely photographs of Rome along with prose relating to the foods of the city, and of Rome and its people. I would love to go back to experience more of Rome. I saw the must-sees - Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon. Next time, I want to wander down side streets and find the little trattorias and eat their wonderful foods 'til I burst. I would die happy, with a smile on my lips and a smear of tomato sauce on my chin.

This cookbook is chock full of wonderful recipes, making it hard to pick just a few as examples. The usual chapter headings - Antipasti, Soup, Pasta and Risotto, Meat, Poultry - oh, you know them all by now. The difference is not in the dishes offered, but in the ingredients and how the Romans use them. The text should be read first to get a feel for the Romans. Then look at the photographs and place yourself in them. Now you can head for the kitchen to cook one of the divine dishes. Next to going to Rome, treat yourself to Cooking the Roman Way.

This is the season for soups - winter has arrived. Can colds and snow be far behind? There's nothing so warming as a great bowl of soup. Ann Bianchi's Zuppa : Soups From the Italian Countryside begins with basic broths and moves right on to Potato Soup in the Style of the Monks of Soraggio, Mathilda's Butternut Squash Soup, Everyday Bread Soup, Polenta, and Savoy Cabbage and Red Bean Soup - a veritable plethora of appetizing and warming soups. This book is full of everyday soups with different - almost exotic - ingredients. Interesting stories of Italy and its people are interspersed with the recipes. This is not a magnificent book to the eye with fabulous pictures. Zuppa is a down-to-earth cookbook you will keep close by your stove because you will be drawn to it time and time again.

And last but not at all least, here is a cookbook with recipes from the Sopranos - that popular TV show. My chef daughter is a devotee of the Sopranos and The Soprano's Family Cookbook was one of her Christmas presents. Sound like carrying coals to Newcastle? Never! There are always new culinary mountains to climb. The photographs are very good and the recipes enticing. There is a 'cornucopia of precious Soprano artifacts which include photos from the old country' among other extraneous but delightful tidbits. In the introduction to this remarkable cookbook, Artie Bucco says, 'Hello, and welcome to my kitchen ... this book of meals comes from real life, la vita reale.'

The first recipe just happens to be a lush Marinara Sauce. Maybe just what I'm looking for. Now to find a vat big enough. There is Linguine alle Vongole ( Linguine with White Clam Sauce); Pasta Fagioli ( Pasta and Beans); Panzerotti-Neapolitan Potato Croquettes; a Standing Rib Roast that looks cooked to perfection; Shcarole with Garlic ( Sauteed Escarole); Quail Sinatra-Style that must be tried for the name alone; or Veal Piccata with Capers. You get the idea. Good food in a really well-done book. Chef daughter loved it. She did as she always does with a new cookbook, opened it reverently and stroked the pages the way she used to stroke her babies' cheeks. In other words, it was a hit as a present. She liked it. She liked it.

From my vat of warm tomato sauce, I wish you ecstatic Italian eating. Buon Appetitto!
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.