New cookbooks have Italy covered

Posted: January 03, 2008

Everybody loves Italian food, and this year it seemed as though most cookbook authors felt they owned a piece of it. Three of 2007's finest works on cucina Italiana bore near-identical titles: "[Given name]'s Italy."

'Nuff said, clearly, especially since each of these works successfully captures the peninsula and its people as aptly as the zabaglione and zuppa di pesce.

Lidia Bastianich, the engaging if slightly imperious TV host (check out her daughter Tanya's "not again, Mom" takes on their PBS shows; classic stuff), visited 10 regions for "Lidia's Italy" (Alfred A. Knopf, 364 pages, $35).

The legwork bore great fruit, even if she did cheat a little: Her home region of Istria is actually in Croatia, just across the Adriatic Sea from Venice.

Bastianich's recipes are first-rate, and Tanya's capsule descriptions of off-the-beaten-track destinations are sweet, soulful and enlightening.

Biba Caggiano is even more focused in "Biba's Italy" (Artisan, 320 pages, $29.95), homing in on five cities: Rome, Florence, Bologna, Milan and Venice. It's a great format for showing that the distinctive ingredients and techniques of these locales could hardly be more different. Added flavor comes from a raft of travel tips (restaurants, markets, cooking schools and more).

The latest role for seasoned TV chef Jamie Oliver: mama's boy. He cajoled culinary secrets from every Italian's favorite chef, the family matriarch, for "Jamie's Italy" (Hyperion, 320 pages, $34.95). Along with sumptuous shots of the dishes, there are some dandy photos of the people he encountered (and more than a few of the photogenic author himself).

Oliver seems especially fond of two emerging aspects of the Italian food landscape: the robust food of Puglia and the many and varied agritourismo lodgings, which are basically farmhouse B&Bs where the hosts prepare meals showcasing the fruits of their land and labors.

Best of the rest

Normally I wouldn't be drawn to a cookbook that has more blurbs from celebrities than food "experts," but when one of them is Jamie Lee Curtis, all bets are off. Turns out that Christina Ceccatelli Cook, author of "Christina's Tuscan Table" (Gibbs Smith, 224 pages, $29.95), actually is an American working out of Sun Valley, Idaho (!). But her Italian roots shine through, with a deftly understated touch when the recipe is all about the ingredients, and a nice twist or two to enliven everything from shrimp to sorbet.

The time is ripe for an up-close look at the rustic cuisine of Sardinia. Efisio Farris' "Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey: The Mediterranean Flavors of Sardinia" (Rizzoli, 272 pages, $39.95) is just such a work. Those who find little allure in braided goat intestines will still find plenty to like from both the rugged hills and the Mediterranean Sea. A few dozen pages provide evocative backstories on some of the seminal, and often unusual, components of this singular gastronomical landscape.*

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