Cesare Casella, noted chef and major player on New York's classy culinary scene, is now also the author of Diary of a Tuscan Chef: Recipes and Memories of Good Times and Great Food (Doubleday, $35, 0385485476), with Eileen Daspin. Casella combines reminiscence, family lore, and photographs (75 color and black-and-white) with fresh, fabulous recipes from his childhood and his years as a chef here and in Italy. His parents opened a restaurant in Pieve Santo Stefano, a small hill town near Lucca, when he was four which he later transformed into a world-class establishment, so fine Tuscan cooking and the restaurant business are in his blood - he even speculates that he was conceived in a kitchen crowded with local produce, wines, and cheeses.
Casella believes that the most important tool for organizing a menu is the calendar. So, following his own good advice he's arranged his book by season and serves up ten menus, each with four dishes, per season - do the math and you get 160 tantalizing Tuscan recipes for antipasti, soups, salads, pastas, fish, foul, meats, and sweets. Each menu is introduced by a mini-memoir - trout fishing with his father, cooking for Henry Kissinger, the annual olive harvest in the family olive grove, "un ragazzo di campagna" (a country kid) arriving in New York - and each recipe is well organized and easy to follow. Casella emphasizes the inherent simplicity and flexibility of Italian cuisine and marvelous mix of innovation and tradition. "Risotto di Granchi Teneri," Soft-shell Crab Risotto, improvised when Cesare was confronted with the bounty of Chesapeake Bay, takes its place next to "Bistecca alla Fiorentina con Fagioli," a traditional and luscious Florentine take on Beefsteak with Beans. By the time you've read and cooked your way through the Diary, you'll feel as though you've been to Pieve Santo Stefano, eaten well, and made friends with a family that appreciates the best things in life. Mangia bene!
Reviewed by Sybil Pratt.