The Sicilian Gentleman's Cookbook
by Don Baratta
Published by Firefly Books
273 pages, 2002
Verdure: Simple Recipes in the Italian Style
by Gioietta Vitale
Published by Clarkson Potter
144 pages, 2001
Sicilian Home Cooking
by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene
Published by Knopf
250 pages, 2001
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
Because Italian food remains the most popular non-North American food in North America, publishers go out of their way to supply book buyers with a steady stream of cookbooks that feed this passion. In any bookstore worthy of the name, you don't have to look very far to find an Italian cookbook to suit any mood and every desire. They come in all shapes and sizes, cooking styles and -- unfortunately -- levels of quality. And it's not entirely possible to tell the good books from the not-so-good books simply by looking at the cover or even taking a quick peek through the pages. Glossy photos and cutting edge art direction alone do not a great cookbook make. In fact, they're not even necessary. Not really. It's about the food, isn't it? Everything else is just -- forgive me -- pecorino.
The three books included here illustrate what I'm talking about very well. All three are, quite simply, lovely little books. And if you found any one of them surrounded by their glossier packaged brethren you might be tempted to pass them over. But look again: there's more here than might at first meet the eye.
"In my father's house," writes Don Baratta, "as true of most Sicilians, a decent respect for food was not expected -- it was required." He was also annoyed that "most Italian cookbooks were written by northern Italians. This, he said, would give a lopsided and inaccurate impression of Italian cuisine."
To combat this grave potential for international misunderstanding, Peter Baron Baratta compiled a list of the recipes he'd been making all his life. Then he seasoned these recipes with comments on the food at hand, one or more obscure ingredients or... well... anything really. Don Baratta writes that his father was "gentle, caring and filled with infinite charm. He was also obstinate, argumentative and opinionated. Some of these opinions do not bear thinking about." But all, we find as we read The Sicilian Gentleman's Cookbook, are worth reading.
It is unclear, at times, if it is Baratta senior who is writing, or Baratta junior in loving tribute to "the Old Man." Either way, The Sicilian Gentleman's Cookbook is filled with sarcastic and irascible Old World charm, not to mention the abundant and inimitable flavors of Sicily.
I have observed a thing that is neither new nor remarkable, but I shall remark upon it anyway because it is worthy of respect. It is this: the "staff of life" is not bread or pasta -- it is soup!
There are about 150 recipes in The Sicilian Gentleman's Cookbook, ranging from antipasti and simple salads (Starving People's Potato Salad is one of my favorites, for the name alone) through vegetables, soups and stews, pastas and sauces, seafood, poultry, various meats and finishing with pastries. It is a complete look at Sicilian food from the perspective of an accomplished -- and crotchety -- home chef. The Sicilian Gentleman's Cookbook is a loving tribute and a superb cookbook addition for those with an interest or passion for Sicilian food.
Gioietta Vitale's Verdure takes an equally charming though entirely different approach to Italian food, this time in the style of Northern Italy. A companion to her first book, 1996's popular Riso, Verdure examines vegetables intimately and in an entirely readable style. Each chapter deals with a single vegetable and falls alphabetically so that we begin with Artichokes (Cariofi) and end with Zucchini (Zucchine). "The chapters are organized by vegetable for a very good reason," writes Vitale. "I couldn't possibly count the number of evenings I rushed home to make dinner, opened the refrigerator, and discovered that carrots were my only vegetable. And there were days at the market when I couldn't resist the beautiful produce. ... Unfortunately, once home I was often unable to find a recipe to inspire me." In Verdure Vitale rectifies this with inspiration.
Vitale gives us lots of vegetable-based information with her recipes. Her thoughts prove to be educational and informative. We learn, for example, that artichokes "are the immature flower buds of a thistle plant," that carrots are "second only to beets in terms of sugar content" in the vegetable family, and that the potato is a "relative of tobacco and the tomato." Each vegetable -- 22 in all -- is gifted with these types of facts, as well as three to five appropriate recipes.
The recipes included are, like the very best of Italian cooking, simple both to make and to eat. And though it completely lacks illustrations of any sort, Verdure manages to be both beautiful and elegant. Truly a lovely little book.
Back in Sicily, you get the feeling that Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene are just the sort of women that old man Baratta would have approved of. Gangivecchio is a 13th century abbey in Sicily's Madonie Mountains. It is also the Tornabene family home and, when she opened a restaurant in the abbey in 1978, Wanda Tornabene was determined to save Gangivecchio for her children, Giovanna and Paolo. In her introduction to Sicilian Home Cooking, Giovanna writes that Wanda's early move saved their home. However by the time their first cookbook, 1997's La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio was published, things had become financially difficult again. The success of book one -- it was a big seller and won the 1997 James Beard Award in the category of Italian cookbooks -- has meant a constant stream of new visitors to the abbey, which has since been expanded to allow for overnight guests. Giovanna writes: "When Mamma opened the restaurant in 1978, she saved our home the first time; nearly twenty years later, our cookbook and the award were saving Gangivecchio again."
Sicilian Home Cooking is more comfortable and personal than La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio, as befits the title. Along with recipes for every course imaginable -- and a few you probably didn't know exist -- the Tornabenes weave stories about their lives (mostly the stories relate to food, but not always) their own histories as well as the rich history of the region.
Though all three of these books are linked by strong personalities, excellent writing and real charm, don't be misled. At their heart all three are very much cookbooks and food takes center stage: Italian style. | April 2002
Adrian Marks is an author, journalist and enthusiastic amateur chef.