Cookbook Review:

Faith Heller Willinger's Personal and Winning Tour of Regional Italian Cooking

Cookbook Review:

Faith Heller Willinger's Personal and Winning Tour of Regional Italian Cooking

In 2001 I took Faith Willinger's "From Market to Table" cooking class that she gives in in Florence.  I doubt she would remember me.  But as a home cook who loves everything that has to do with the Italian culinary tradition, I remember every bit of that class as if I were there last week.

It's been a few years since Ms. Willinger wrote Eating in Italy, last updated in 1998, and almost as long (1999) since her vegetable cookbook, Red, White & Greens.  So when I heard that she was finally -- finally -- doing another book, this was very good news.  And it is a very good book.

In Adventures of an Italian Food Lover (Clarkson Potter, hardcover, $32.50), Ms. Willinger shares the wisdom, skill, palate and recipes gained from more than 30 years of living in Italy.  Married to an Italian, and knowing more about the country's food and cooking than most Italians, she lives in Florence where in addition to teaching cooking, she writes books and magazine articles while spending time cooking, learning and eating with many of the people who keep Italy's great culinary traditions.  She is a unique proxy for American cooks who want to know and cook authentic Italian food because she knows the limits of our kitchens and grocery merchants yet she dumbs-down absolutely nothing.

The book's subtitle is "With Recipes from 254 of My Very Best Friends."  Lucky her to have such inspiring and generous friends because she gives us more than 110 recipes, plus alluring and appetizing stories of traveling from restaurant to kitchen to vineyard to garden, starting at the Italian Alps and ending at Sicily.  Adding to the book's welcome are charming watercolor illustrations done by Faith's sister, Suzanne Heller.

Simultaneously a cookbook, memoir and travelogue, the book takes its form through stories Ms. Willinger tells about the people she has met over her three decades in Italy.  Many of them run restaurants but others are wine makers, cheese producers, farmers, or artisanal pasta manufacturers.  She writes about Italian food in a way that puts us at the table, in the kitchen, or at the market, or in the field of grapevines. 

A Personal Culinary Tour from the Alps to Sicily

The book is not organized in a traditional way, meaning by type of recipe.  Instead it is by geography which is fitting for a cuisine that is defined by its regional identity. 

The book is in three key sections, each of which is filled with stories, profiles, travel information and recipes: 

You will appreciate this approach when you use the book as a travel guide -- and please don't go to Italy without a copy -- since the restaurant and sightseeing information will be logically accessible.  It also helps the book as a narrative, moving through the country's culinary landscape from north to south.

That said, this organization is less useful as a cookbook if your default is to expect starters and salads at the front of the book and sweets at the end.  Instead recipes for different types of dishes are mixed throughout, with a recipe for a pasta adjacent to a dessert or followed by an antipasto.  Still, given the book's mission, it had to be organized either by locale or type of recipe, and she made the right choice.  Plus it's really not so terribly inconvenient since there are two recipe indices, one alphabetical and the other by region.

The book's details on restaurants, right down to hours of operation and whether or not they take credit cards, may replace your red Michelin guide.  She also includes some very useful travel tips for those unfamiliar with the proclivities of Italy; for example, it's not a typo if phone numbers have anywhere from 4 to 8 digits, plus the prefix.  Most helpfully, she puts faces on the restaurants and the markets -- the real people who labor with love and meticulousness to bring us this great food, sharing the recipes with Faith, who then shares them with us.

Learning From an Italian Master

Even if you're practiced in making Italian food, there's still much to learn from Ms. Willinger.  She includes an advance course on the most important ingredients, explaining such things as why certain dry pastas are superior to others, what goes into making Italy's best cheeses, how to select the best olive oils, and what distinguishes an artisanal ricotta from another more ordinary one.  Although New York has exceptional Italian markets, you will envy her easy access to unique and local ingredients, especially the ones that never travel out of a region of Italy, let alone to New York.

Still she offers her readers web resources for buying ingredients.  This is not as much an issue for New Yorkers because we have all our great Italian markets, but it's typical of her effort to help us get what we need to be successful when making this food, regardless where we live.

Test Driving the Recipes

The recipes include some classic Italian dishes that will be familiar, but most are as authentic and original as the people Ms. Willinger profiles.  There is a recipe for the fabled peach and prosecco "Bellini Cocktail" from the Hotel Cipriani's Harry's Bar in Venice.  I was glad to see a favorite of mine -- "Bucatini alla Gricia" from Rome's Checchino dal 1887.  This pasta combines pieces of pork that have been rendered of their flavorful fat, with grated pecorono romano and generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper.  I've had the joy of eating this dish twice in this great Roman restaurant and after several tries in my own kitchen, I got close to what my palate remembered.  Now I can make it 100% right.

But first I made three unfamiliar recipes.  The first was "Sweet and Sour Chicken Bites" from Da Caino, located in Montemerano in southern Tuscany.  This recipe uses boneless chicken thighs.  Resist the temptation to substitute chicken breasts because the final dish will have far less flavor.  It's my philosophy that if you can't make a recipe with the best choice of ingredients, either don't make it or eat less.  I know, I'm harsh. 

This recipe is simple.  Pieces of boneless thigh meat, easy to find at most meat markets and butchers, are marinated with garlic and herbs.  After about 2 hours, the pieces are sautéed with a little olive oil in a skillet, enough to brown lightly.  White wine is added to the browned chicken pieces and reduced, followed by a simple combination of white wine vinegar and honey which creates a sweet and sour glaze on the chicken pieces.  It was simple to make and the flavor was a tasty combination of the musky dark chicken meat with the sweet honey and sour vinegar.  Ms. Willinger suggests the chicken pieces as an antipasto (putting a toothpick in each piece) but I served pieces on salad greens along with sliced tomato for a light dinner.  Lovely. 

Next I made "Chickpea Purée with Shrimp" from Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo on the Tuscan coast.  Or at least I sort of did.  This recipe is for a thick soup made with puréed chickpeas, garlic, rosemary, olive oil and steamed shrimp.  It calls for soaking dried chickpeas (for 12 hours) and then cooking them (for 1 hour).  I did as she instructed but because the chickpeas are puréed when tender, I think using canned chickpeas would work just about as well, turning this satisfying dish into a quick weekday meal.  The challenge would be to add the garlic and rosemary seasonings to the chick peas, but this could be accomplished with a short simmer of the drained and rinsed canned chickpeas.

After cooking the chickpeas I mistakenly drained off all the water, leaving me no cooking water to make the soup.  Perhaps I could have added some boxed chicken stock or even just water but instead I puréed the chickpeas into a hummus-like paste and served the shrimp alongside.  I found that the purée needed more flavor so I added a squeeze of lemon juice, salt and some olive oil.  I guess I did turn it into hummus after all.  But the flavors were satisfying and the combination with the steamed shrimp (I used fresh jumbo ones, meaning about 5 shrimp per serving) was delicious.   I'll try the soup version another time.

The last recipe I made was for "Tuscan Brownies."  When I took Ms. Willinger's Florentine cooking class, she told us how her husband, Massimo, was repulsed by butter.  Out of respect for his palate and that of her chocolate-loving Italian-American son, Max, she invented a brownie recipe using olive oil and no butter.  I remembered that story, wishing I could have tasted such a brownie (after all, Ina Garten's brownies have up to a pound of butter in them!) so I was delighted to see the recipe included in this book.

The recipe is simple to make, using only 4 ounces of 70% dark chocolate.  It's not cholesterol-free because two eggs are included, but she substitutes extra virgin olive oil for the usual melted butter and the recipe works brilliantly.  It makes a modest quantity (in an 8-inch pan), about 1-inch deep, with a very fudgy texture and rich, pure chocolate taste.  Bravo Massimo and Max for the inspiration.

The combination of Faith Willinger's appetizing writing and Suzanne Heller's evocative paintings will give any reader a yearning to eat like an Italian and be in Italy.  Thanks to this exceptional book, you almost are.

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