Cookbook Review: Ciao Italia Family Classics

Everyday Italian Home Cooking From Mary Ann Esposito

Cover photography by John Hession.

Cookbook Review: Ciao Italia Family Classics

Everyday Italian Home Cooking From Mary Ann Esposito

Cover photography by John Hession.

With more than 200 accessible and authentic recipes, Ciao Italia Family Classics (452 pages, hardcover with color photographs, $40, St. Martin's Press) by Mary Ann Esposito is a fresh look at the Italian home cook using traditional ingredients in a modern kitchen.  

In the 23 years she's been cooking for us on PBS, Mary Ann Esposito has earned more than a few notches on her apron belt, staying true to what she knows as food trends have come and gone.  In this new cookbook she offers us flavors that bridge authentic Italian regional cuisine and dishes that have come to be known as Italian-American.

The book has 13 chapters that journey from Italian Pantry Basics to Desserts.  The Italian Pantry Basics begins with the staples we need for everyday cooking, including a primer on Italian cheeses, and helpful guidance on three essential ingredients:  Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil, and salt.

Here are some of the recipes in each chapter:


Although the recipes are indeed terrific, this is a book to be read as much as cooked from.  Ms. Esposito begins with an essay about how she learned to cook, telling us with authenticity and compelling sentiment about the kitchen legacy she received from her grandmothers and mother.  In a message for today's cooks -- both practiced and new -- she makes a convincing case for how cooking continues to be the means to getting families (back) to the dinner table and what we stand to gain if we do.

The recipes are interspersed with sidebars and short essays about ingredients, which when taken together can help the home cook more fully appreciate why Italian cuisine is so special.  There is information about balsamic vinegar (the real stuff, not the caramel-sweetened imitations so often sold in our markets), how meatballs became Italian, eating fish on Fridays and on Christmas Eve, Italian rice, and a personal and food-connected account of her first visit to Naples.  Taken together, these essays serve as windows into Italy's enviable food culture and Ms. Esposito's own kitchen.

Making no pretense to the artifice that is often associated with being a "chef," Ms. Esposito stays firmly as a home cook.  There is integrity in the ingredients she wants us to use (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Arborio rice, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil).  But she is also practical, with a nod to using conveniences like frozen spinach or canned beans, and using ingredients that can be easily purchased at most supermarkets

For those of us who have been lucky enough to spend long periods of time in Italy, we can appreciate that this book shows how Italian families actually cook and eat every day.  This is the kind of book that Italian-American families (or those that want to be) should have in their kitchens as both an inspiration and a guide for how to introduce not only authentic dishes and flavors but also culinary traditions to children and new cooks.

Sample Recipes

We've been given permission to publish two recipes from the book.  I've chosen Fava Bean and Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Cylinders for its sophisticated flavor and presentation.  This is an antipasto in which melted Parmesan is used to form a little tube that is filled with a salad of fava beans, celery, shallot and white balsamic vinegar.  They are beautiful little packages and the combination of cheese and fava beans is perfect.  If fresh fava beans are not in season where you live, you can buy them frozen, often in health food or Asian markets and sometimes at Whole Foods.

The other recipe is Lemon-Flavored Chicken Cutlets with Orzo and Spinach.  I made this recipe twice:  once as written (although I substituted fresh spinach for her option to use frozen).  But then a second time, using veal cutlets instead of chicken.  It's easy enough for a weeknight but special enough for company.  It's also pantry friendly because you can have almost all the ingredients on hand, needing only to purchase fresh chicken, veal, or pork cutlets.

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