Pizza: From Italian Origins to the Modern Table

by Rosario Buonassisi

Published by Firefly Books

167 pages, 2000

Toscana Mia: The Heart and Soul of Tuscan Cooking

by Umberto Menghi

Published by Douglas & McIntyre

168 pages, 2000

Tuscany and its Wines

by Hugh Johnson

photography by Andy Katz

Published by Raincoast Books

144 pages, 2000


Now, That's Italian

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


The Western world has had a long-standing love affair with Italian food. There are still North American cities where it's impossible to find a proper spring roll and just forget about sushi or good Tandoori chicken, but almost every place imaginable has at least some version of spaghetti, lasagna or that old American favorite: pizza. As Rosario Buonassisi says early on in Pizza: From Italian Origins to the Modern Table:

... "pizza" has directly entered into virtually every language on earth, but even the Italian colloquial expression -- "andiamo a farci una pizza," or "let's go get ourselves a pizza" (the literal translation) -- has become part of spoken language everywhere, with the same meaning: let's go have an informal, friendly meal.

Pizza is much more than a cookbook. In fact, the cooking portion of the book is relatively small. It is, however, a celebration and history of the famous food and no one is better equipped than Buonassisi to tell this tale. A chemist by training, Buonassisi has lived on four continents. He returned to Italy in 1980 to begin a new career as writer: something he's done with great success. He's written about food and wine as well as popular culture, sailing and computers. He is the vice president of the Associazione Lombarda Archeologia and is currently teaching the history of food at the Universita della Terza Eta in Milan. Clearly, here is someone whose life has prepared him to write this book.

Buonassisi tackles pizza with aplomb. Defining it, categorizing it, following its history from "somewhere in the southeast Mediterranean region, sometime between the twelfth and the third millennia BC," until the present day. In fact, Buonassisi takes things into the future in a chapter entitled "Beyond the Year 2000," which deals largely with the possible effects that continued international acceptance and mass production might have on "the integrity of true pizza". As near the edge as Buonassisi's passion seems at times, Pizza is a delightfully entertaining and informative book. The photos, art and layout are stunning -- and appetizing if you happen to be a lover of either or both pizza and cheese -- and the book itself is part cookbook, but also a large part cultural commentary through a pizza lens. Fascinating.

Umberto Menghi approaches Italian cooking from an entirely different direction, though with no less passion. Toscana Mia: The Heart and Soul of Tuscan Cooking is Menghi's fifth book and is not the first of to deal with the food of Tuscany. Menghi has been one of the most colorful restaurateurs in Vancouver, Canada for the past several decades and numbers among the most successful and recognizable. He's also a son of Tuscany and, perhaps unable to resist the call of his native soil, Menghi started Villa Delia, a hotel and cooking school in the village of Ripoli in Tuscany in 1995.

Not many Tuscans leave home. I did, but as we say, la terra sotto le scarpe, the earth sticks to my shoes. Toscana mia, my Tuscany, keeps calling me back.... This is my home, my heritage. Is it possible to capture the essence of all that in a cookbook?

While the book is broken into logical sections -- Antipasti, Soups, Salads and so on -- Menghi's approach is novel. Many nonfood photos illustrate the book and these provide a personal view of Menghi's Tuscany. Seaside vistas, market stalls and even Menghi himself: smiling maniacally while riding a bright red scooter, overseeing the cleaning of a fish at the fishmonger's and -- most notably -- a stout, purple-clad cherub in a sea of yellow sunflowers.

The food has been given Menghi's special touch, as well. Each recipe is prefaced with a heartfelt paragraph. For instance, before the recipe for polenta, Menghi describes how the polenta was tended in the winters of his Tuscan youth, saying that, "whoever was closest stirred the polenta until they got too hot and had to back away. Now I see people paying a lot of money to buy Tuscan farmhouses, trying to revive that kind of experience, which for us was simple survival."

If Menghi's Tuscan poetry doesn't sway you, it's likely the recipes will. He makes short and to-the-point work of such complicated-looking dishes as Fresh Tomato and Bread Soup, Tuscan Osso Boco, Trattoria Stew and Tiramisu. It's a culinary voyage to an oft-praised land.

Moving from the bread board to the wine cupboard, an expert from a different field takes his own approach to the same place. Hugh Johnson is one of the world's most authoritative voices on the topic of wines. All types of wines. If you've done any reading on the subject, it's likely you've encountered Johnson and his work. He is the author of the now classic World Atlas of Wine as well as the Pocket Wine Book that he has been updating every year since 1977. It's less well-known that Johnson also has a huge passion for gardening and making things grow and, in fact, how things are grown. Take these two passions and a loose topic -- in this case the wines of Tuscany -- and you have the makings for a great book.

Johnson's Tuscany and its Wines must have been a delight for this author. At least, that's what is apparent in the lovingly knowledgeable approach he takes to his subject. Johnson is always a writer who approaches his topic -- whatever it happens to be at that time -- in a logical fashion. In Tuscany and its Wines he makes no exception. Johnson begins at the beginning, with a fairly fascinating history of Tuscany with relation to its wines.

The story of modern Tuscan wine, from the first attempts to define Chianti to the Supertuscan championship of the 21st century, is the story of deciding which vines to plant and how to cultivate them.

From there we cover the regions of Tuscany individually: the Arno Valley, Florence, Siena and so on. Here Johnson covers local history, important contemporary winemakers, leading varieties as well as a broad take on regionally developed local techniques. It wouldn't be a book by Johnson without a few concluding chapters on "Choosing Wine in Tuscany," "A Selection of Wines from Each Tuscan Region" and "A Selection of Grape Varieties." All three of these are brief and concise: demonstrating the style that has made his Pocket Wine Book such an enduring companion for many wine enthusiasts. Beautifully complemented by photographs by Andy Katz (Vineyard and The Heart of Burgundy), Tuscany and its Wines delivers the oenophile's answer to the Tuscan tours of Frances Mayes. | December 2000

Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.