Monday, September 3, 2007

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover
Author: Faith Willinger (
Publisher: Clarkson Potter (2007) (

A smiling red-clad chef with a large bowl of pasta greets you at the cover of this engaging story – turned travel guide, wine list and cookbook. Like all the illustrations, he is in the fashion of a watercolour painting, and with the hand-scrawled title on the dust jacket, the reader gains the sensation that this is a book not just about cooking, but a personal story about the true adoration of food and everything it encases and involves.

Paging through the book is like wandering through the picturesque country sides of Piemonte, Veneto, and all the way through the country to Sicily and the islands at the very southern tip of Italy. An entire third of the book is devoted to the wine and food of Tuscany, where Willinger stresses the true importance of the grapes, olives, and their respective products to Tuscan, and in truth Italian, cuisine. Aside from the Tuscan region, Willinger devotes equal time and space to both Northern and Central Italy and Southern Italy, including Sicily and the smaller assorted islands. Without lifting a finger or turning on a flame, the reader can sense the smells, sounds and sights of the kitchens of these 254 friendly and eager-to-teach contributors to the book. Included in the list of recipe authors is none other than her son (with to-die-for sounding Tuscan Brownies [p. 143]) her aunt Enza (Tiramisu [p. 151]) and even the head of the Italian chocolate creator Amedei [p.152].

As if the charming and honest style of Willinger’s writing, and the equally colourful paintings done by her sister Suzanne, weren’t enough to win me over to Italian Food Lover, her detailed descriptions of the featured vineyards, hotels and restaurants would satisfy even the most clueless of travellers to the country. One could easily use this book as a gastronomic travel guide, as it contains detailed information on each contributor’s locale including addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers and e-mails and websites if applicable. It is a welcome addition and a distinctive feature that sets this book apart from the other Italian cookbooks on the shelf.

Perhaps the greatest joy in reading each story preceding a recipe is being able to see the pride and care that each artisan, restaurateur and winemaker puts into their product. No ingredient is deemed unworthy of precious and proper handling, either in their cooking or description. Nothing is spared, even in her introduction to the book Willinger states that she cooks with “pasta made from heirloom wheat, salt-packed capers, canned tuna in oil, dried and frozen chili peppers, artisan-made salumi and cured meats”[p.8]. Later in the book readers are treated to visuals of “swordfish with swords, crates of silvery-blue anchovies, shrimp with tiny turquoise eggs, gleaming whole fish curved with rigor mortis [and] tubs of gelatinous gray larval fish called ‘sea foam’”[p.203] from Cantania’s Pescheria fish market.

Recipes flow like the pure extra virgin Per Mio Figlio onto the reader’s tongues, forming images of foods like Ricotta-Stuffed Zucchini Flowers, Pacceri Di Gragano with Fish Ragu and Ginger-Apricot Biscotti. Those who are intimidated by the thought of cooking the usual complicated and multi-stepped Italian food they may have encountered in restaurants will be pleasantly surprised by the clear, thorough writing style of the ingredient lists and preparation instructions. Though this book does tend to cater more to the middle-range home cook with additions like Roasted Veal Shank [p. 56] and Pasta with Mussels and Zucchini Flowers [p. 175], it is equally hospitable to all people who frequent their kitchens enough to value good, home-made food. From a simple, hearty bowl of lentil soup made with fine olive oil (written by winemaker Maurizo Castelli [p.101]) to Spaghetti with Spicy Onion-Tomato Sauce by Hotel Cipriani’s director Natale Rusconi [p.50], budding chefs can begin to experience the best of Italian cuisine at home. Those expert chefs among us (or those looking for an impressive dish for their own feast) will appreciate Cesare Giaccone’s more difficult Zabaione [p. 76], made by “whisking the eggs in a copper pot with a rounded bottom and moving it on and off the heat in a graceful ballet of preparation” and Risotto with Almonds and Broccoli [p. 202], prepared by the oldest sister of the Tasca d’Almerita family. If they apply, available substitutions for ingredients are provided in the text preceding each recipe, and in some cases these are necessary changes those who don’t live in the featured town, Italy or in some cases even Europe have to make for sheer availability’s sake. A full list of the recipes, helpfully divided by region as well as listed in a thorough index, is also at the disposal of the readers, though I do strongly recommend reading this book not purely for the recipes but for the joy of the stories attached alongside.

This book is a culinary memoir, In fact, this chef’s tale is probably more at home on your bedside table (like my copy is) than on your cookbook shelf. Just don’t forget to occasionally let your tastebuds in on the feast that awaits you within the pages of Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. It will quickly recruit you as one of its own, and take you along on it’s Mediterranean journey.