An all-pasta cookbook by Al Forno's Johanne Killeen and George Germon
Editor's Note: This was the first cookbook review published on The City Cook in 2007 and over 15 years later, I still love it and cook from it often. Clearly, so do many others because this splendid book is still in print.
On Top of Spaghetti … Macaroni, Linguine, Penne and Pasta of Every Kind (Morrow/Harper Collins, $24.95), an all-pasta cookbook by Johanne Kileen and George Germon, gives the home cook an inspiring and useful new look at one of our most familiar meals.
Killeen and Germon are the chefs and owners of Al Forno, a legendary Italian restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, where their winning pastas continue to reign. In this, their second cookbook, they teach us the principles and flair of great pasta cooking by sharing pasta wisdom, memories, and practical advice from their years of travel to Italy as well as from their own restaurant and home kitchens.
In 142 recipes, boosted by a centerpiece of 16 seductive color photographs, Killeen and Germon make the case for pasta being more than just a vehicle for tomato sauce (although there's nothing wrong with that!). Most of the recipes are very straightforward and put new flavor combinations together, like "Spaghetti with Spinach and Gorgonzola," or "Penne with Tomato, Lemon and Braised Lamb Shoulder," or a bright pesto made with parsley instead of basil.
This is not the book for the umteenth version of marinara, puttanesca, Alfredo or arrabbiata, which if you don't already have a favorite version you can find one in almost any other pasta book or recipe web site. Instead On Top of Spaghetti pulls from a much broader Italian tradition giving us new ideas while staying within the canon (there's no alta cucina here, no odd ingredients). The authors also give us tips on cooking methods and the components of a pasta pantry (plus 15 pantry recipes you can make in the time it takes for a large pot of water to come to a boil and the pasta to cook -- perfect for city cook weekday meals). Best of all, the appetizing but inventive combination of flavors can give you the courage and imagination to put your own ingredient combos together.
Test Driving the Recipes
Happily, the recipes are mostly for dry pasta, categorized by the other ingredients: vegetables, legumes and herbs; tomato sauces; seafood; poultry, meat and rabbit; and egg and cheese. There are also 9 for lasagna (6 are vegetarian), 5 raviolis, 14 for baked pasta, and 8 for fresh pasta, including George Germon's recipe for making the pasta itself. Each recipe has a brief story about how the authors found the recipe or a memory of when they first made it and all are charming, revealing the authors' love of eating pasta as much as cooking it.
I ventured into the recipe section cheered on by the opening warning: "don't trust people who don't like pasta." Who wouldn't agree with that!?
So far, I've made two recipes. I hesitated when choosing "Spaghetti all Chitarra with Potatoes, Sage and Gorgonzola" thinking that the double carbs (potato with pasta?) plus butter and cheese would be too rich but I was so wrong: it was perfectly balanced and its addition of fresh sage made it a luscious companion to a veal roast because its creamy, musky flavors perfectly compliments the somewhat pale taste of veal.
The other I chose, "Spaghetti Baked with a Gutsy Roasted Tomato Sauce," had big flavor and a wow response. The book is worth having if only for this recipe and cooking method. I love baked pasta but find that most are either too elaborate for weekday cooking or instead they're dominated by cream or béchamel sauces. Instead this one -- which cooks entirely in only 30 minutes -- uses a novel method of making an oven-roasted sauce of tomato, anchovy, garlic and fennel (wild, fronds or seeds), oregano and red pepper flakes, to which nearly-cooked spaghetti is added for 5 minutes of baking at the end. I didn't have any kind of fennel on hand so I doubled the garlic and the red pepper flakes. I also cooked and added a full 16 oz. box of DeCecco spagettini to the sauce, instead of the half-pound that the recipe called for, and the result was perfection.
Instead of cheese, the authors pass toasted bread crumbs at the table, which adds texture without taking away from the intense tomato taste. I served it as a side with lamb chops and a mesclun/red onion/mushroom salad tossed with a simple vinaigrette and the spaghetti got raves. Besides lamb, this pasta would be a perfect companion to a burger, a roasted chicken, pieces of sliced sirloin, or oven-braised pork ribs.
My only squabble with Ms. Kileen and Mr. Germon is with their quantities: I just don't think 1/4 pound serving of pasta per person is enough for a main course, certainly not ones as appealing as these.