A Visit With Arthur Schwartz
Author of The Southern Italian Table
I recently visited food writer Arthur Schwartz at his home in Brooklyn. He lives on a tree-lined street in a home filled with books, art, comfortable chairs, and mementos from an experience-filled life. Arthur is an exuberant person, someone who enters a room talking, although you can be sure he will be saying something interesting. He is warm and welcoming, and when you meet him you may think he's been your friend for years. Or at least you wish he were.
He's won many awards for his writing, including Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking, which won last year's IACP American Cookbook of the Year. But his true love is the food of southern Italy, including but not limited to Neapolitan cooking (the food of Naples), a cuisine in which he has a notable expertise: since 2001 he's owned and operated, with the Baronessa Cecilia Bellelli, a cooking school in Seliano, a small town just south of the Amalfi coast. But his knowledge goes further down the boot to include the cuisine of all six regions that make up Southern Italy.
For us who love authentic Italian food and want to make it in our own kitchens, Arthur has written The Southern Italian Table: Authentic Tastes from Traditional Kitchens (Clarkson Potter, $32.50, hardcover with color photographs). The book has just been published and I went to Brooklyn to record a podcast with Arthur about his new book and Southern Italian home cooking.
As I walked into his tiny kitchen, the aroma of rosemary and garlic was perfuming the air. He had minced rosemary leaves and added them to a saucepan already sizzling with garlic and red pepper flakes. Two opened cans of Goya chickpeas were ready to be added to the pan -- not drained nor rinsed, but added with all their liquid. He was making the sauce for Flat Pasta and Chickpeas (Lagane e Ceci). This dish embodies la cucina povera -- the food of the impoverished Italian peasant that defines Southern Italian cooking. These are dishes made with few ingredients used in inventive ways. The traditions of la cucina povera have produced some of the most loved meals of our time: spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, and mozzarella.
When I asked Arthur if Southern Italian cooking has been unfairly dismissed as "red sauce cooking," he smiled and said, "and what's wrong with that?" Handing over a plate of "Aunt Delia's Date-Nut Cake" to my husband, Mark, who was recording our conversation, he began to talk about his Brooklyn childhood and the origins of his love of red sauce cooking. If you have ever been to Italy, or if pizza is your favorite food, or if you have always wondered about the big fuss over San Marzano tomatoes, you will enjoy what Arthur has to say. Please listen.
The Southern Italian Table
This book will make you smile just to look at it. The cover is a bowl of meatballs, covered in tomato sauce. The pages inside combine recipes with photographs of ingredients, landscapes, kitchen interiors, and faces of people Arthur has cooked and eaten with for years.
Arthur begins the book with a history of this great cuisine and reading it will tempt you to get on a plane to Calabria or Basilicata. Then there are 130 recipes organized into 10 chapters:
- Appetizers and Snacks
- Tomato Sauces and Ragu
- Pasta and Risotto
- Cheese and Eggs
- Fish and Shellfish
- Meat and Chicken
- Vegetables and Side Dishes
He gives us definitive versions of classic dishes including Sausage with Broccoli Rabe, Grilled and Marinated Eggplant, Shrimp Baked with Flavored Bread Crumbs, and the sauces -- both tomato and ragus made with meat. But there are also unexpected recipes such as Lemony Egg Pasta Souffle, Shrimp and Pistachio Risotto, and Grilled Pancetta on Spring Onions in which slices of pancetta are wrapped around scallions and broiled.
I also love the book's tips and side-bars that offer an even better understanding of the culture and the ingredients. For instance, there's an explanation of "Olio Santo" -- or holy oil -- hot pepper oil. Sacred to home cooks for its flavor, it's made with dried red pepper flakes and oil -- not olive oil but instead vegetable oil. A small cruet of it sits on every Southern Italian kitchen sideboard, used to season soups, vegetables and pasta.
Most of all, what makes this book so exceptional is that it brings us so much more than authentic recipes. It also inspires us with its love of Italian culture, deep respect for the Italian home cook, and a lifelong passion for these satisfying flavors. As only a guy named Schwartz from Brooklyn could write.