Savoring La Cucina Italiana
Mary Ann Esposito's warm, welcoming style and her easy approach to Italian cooking have given her a solid standing among TV chefs. Her PBS cooking series, Ciao Italia, has delighted a growing national audience for more than 10 seasons - no easy feat in that crowded, competitive field. When Mary Ann began her TV career, part of her mission was to dispel the notion that Italian cooking was defined by pizza, lasagna and spaghetti with meatballs. At first, she stayed close to home, cooking the Southern Italian family favorites she had grown up with. Then she took her audience on the road, expanding her own repertoire, knowledge and sophistication - and theirs. She's on the gastronomic go once again in Ciao Italia: Bringing Italy Home, her sixth tribute to keeping tradition alive, keeping food prep simple and keeping the ingredients fresh. Mary Ann concentrates on five regions, highlighting the characteristic differences in northern, central and southern Italian cooking. We start in the Veneto with its stunning scenery and romantic cities, then go to Emiglia-Romagna and Tuscany, and finally head south to Campania and the sun-drenched hills of Sicily. And along the way we eat: Pumpkin-Stuffed Pasta with Meat Sauce; Tuscan Crostini and orange-scented Florentine Flat Cake; crispy, golden-crusted Pollo Scarparello, a chicken speciality from Naples; a sumptuous Sicilian spaghetti with swordfish, tomato sauce and olives. You'll eat well and learn a lot with Mary Ann.
Real Southern cooking
Southern Italian, that is. Mary Ann leaves us in Sicily with a sampling of the regional fare, while Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene, an award-winning mother-daughter team of cookbook-writing restaurateurs, take us into the heart and soul of La Cucina Siciliana in a new book aptly titled Sicilian Home Cooking: Family Recipes from Gangivecchio, written with Michele Evans. The Tornabene family has lived in a 14th-century Benedictine abbey high in the mountains of north-central Sicily for more than 150 years. Signora Wanda opened her restaurant there in 1978 during a "financial crisis." She not only saved Gangivecchio, she created a fine, much-in-demand dining destination. But the focus of the Tornebenes' new book is the robust home cooking of this rugged island, the traditional food that you're more likely to find on the family table than in an elegant dining room. The emphasis here is not on meat and fish, though there are some intriguing recipes for both, but on pasta, "the pride of our country and our table." You'll also find ample helpings of hearty soups for any season, vegetables, simple egg dishes, salads and sweets. And there are chapters devoted to antipasti - tantalizing classics and innovations, pizza, focaccia and a few homemade liqueurs. These two women are passionate about food and life, and their personal stories about living and cooking in the abbey are as inviting and genuine as the recipes themselves.
Biba Caggiano grew up in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, eating the splendid food her mother cooked and sampling dishes from all over that rich, fertile, food-loving region of northern Italy - the region that's home to Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, Prosciutto di Parma and fine Mortadella. Though she has cooked professionally in the U.S. as a teacher, TV chef, restaurateur and well-known cookbook writer for more than 25 years, her passion and inspiration still come from Emilia-Romagna's fabulous fare. Her new book, Biba's Taste of Italy: Recipes from the Homes, Trattorie, and Restaurants of Emilia-Romagna celebrates the great traditional food kept alive by dedicated cooks who relish their regional heritage. Biba shows us how to make the rich, slow-simmered ragu sauces and silky pasta Emilia is famous for; she takes us to the Adriatic coast for simple but sensational Grilled Skewers of Calamari and Shrimp and Brodetto Romagnolo, a thick fish and seafood soup that varies with the catch of the day. You'll find unusual salads and interesting veggies, velvety risottos, hearty gnocchi and polenta, savory breads and desserts, both elaborate and simple. Biba flavors everything with her deep appreciation and lasting love for this classic cuisine and the people who preserve and perpetuate it.
Sybil Pratt has been cooking up this column for more than five years.