October 2002

Jonathan Van Matre


Trattoria Cooking by Biba Caggiano

Gentle Readers,

The inhuman demands of my work situation in recent months have left me with very little free time to conduct the dinner-party tests I so lavishly promised to apply to every cookbook I review for you. In fact, I've found myself living out of hotel rooms on business trips for much of the summer.

When in town, I have been giving our lovely chief editor looks of increasing penitence and beleaguered dismay at every mention of the word "Bookslut".

However, I am happy to report that I have in the past enjoyed ample free time to make a mess of the kitchen and foist delicious goodies on my friends and family. Thus, until I can enjoy that pleasure once again, I will provide you with reviews of some of the established favorites on my cookbook shelf, books whose well-tested virtues have earned them a permanent place in the kitchen itself.

This month,

Trattoria Cooking, by Biba Caggiano

Everyone needs at least one good Italian cookbook.

When one is entertaining friends on a budget, Italian food's economy, ease of preparation, and near universal appeal are a virtual guarantee of success. Dinner party miracles have been wrought with nothing more than a recipe gleaned from the spaghetti box, but for the variety and panache that will be necessary to entertain the same friends repeatedly, you are going to need a topnotch cookbook at your side. For me, that cookbook is Biba Caggiano's Trattoria Cooking.

Much as Eskimos have multiple words for "snow", the Italians have multiple words for "restaurant". Among these, "trattoria" indicates best what I was looking for when I had the good fortune to find this book: no-nonsense, family-style cooking with a personal flair. Trattorias are generally small, family-owned establishments. Most offer no menu - you eat whatever has been prepared for the day - and some may serve as few as eight people in a night of business. They offer great food with no frills, prepared from only the best ingredients, for small groups of people - this makes trattoria recipes perfectly suited to small dinner parties and family dinners.

The book begins with an excellent introductory section covering a variety of topics concerning Italian cuisines, restaurant styles, and dining customs. Caggiano sets a conversationally authoritative tone from the start, engaging the reader and aspiring master of trattoria cuisine with no-frills prose and a familiar, friendly manner. The writing itself embodies the trattoria spirit: amply portioned, confident but unpretentious, and suffused with a mild merriment that embodies the joy of good food.

In the following section, Caggiano applies her expertise - gleaned from extensive travels in Italy, and the proprietorship of her own American trattoria - to the subject of ingredients. She emphasizes the importance of quality in one's ingredients, pointing out many important regional ingredients which may be unfamiliar to the American reader. Wherever possible, she indicates acceptable substitutions, but she also clearly emphasizes those ingredients for which there is no satisfactory substitute, and resources for obtaining the more difficult ingredients are helpfully identified in the book.

After this pleasingly-balanced guide to ingredients, the book delivers a wealth of delicious Italian recipes in the succeeding sections, devoting some 300 of its 346 pages to well-grouped recipes for Antipasti (Appetizers); Soups; Pasta; Gnocchi, Risotto, and Polenta; Meat, Game, and Poultry; Fish and Seafood; Vegetables and Salads; Pizzas, Calzones, and Other Good Things; and Desserts.

Each recipe includes an introductory note by the author, usually a brief story of where and how she acquired the recipe from some small Italian trattoria. These help to give the book a flavor of authenticity and family tradition; you have the real sense of receiving these recipes from people who actually use them to eke out a daily living. She also offers suggestions to aid in selecting a wine that will complement each dish.

The graphic design of the pages is also a godsend in a busy kitchen. The pages are large, and the type is large and easily-read. The hardbound binding lays flat with ease, and the paper is a sturdy stock that will survive the occasional spill of wine or dusting with flour. Ingredient lists are laid out clearly in the center of the page, and they show a refreshing attention to detail in including all of the ingredients, right down to pinches of salt. Where appropriate, preparation tips and tidbits of trivia are placed unobtrusively in the wide margins.

The only limitation is a complete absence of photos or illustrations of the dishes; however, this is a forgivable offense given the familiarity of Italian cuisine to American readers and the no-nonsense style of trattoria preparation, which emphasizes taste over fancy presentation. Overall, the layout of every page shows a thoughtful attention to actual usefulness in the kitchen. Consequently, this is not merely a reference work, but a trusty stove-side companion.

Ah, but what about the field testing? How is the food?

In a word, delightful. The recipes have proven themselves at many a dinner party or potluck. I have found the recipes for gnocchi particularly appetizing. The antipasti are also a big hit, especially the Crostini alle Cipolle in Agrodolce, a delicious rendition of the traditional toasted-bread appetizer with a topping of sweet-and-sour onions and gently-roasted pine nuts.

The pasta preparations are nearly effortless, satisfying in taste and aroma, and portioned appropriately to the sort of small gatherings I am most accustomed to hosting or attending. The desserts do not disappoint, and while other dishes such as the risotto require a skillful hand in their preparation, they are aided by clear and easily comprehended instructions, and they reward the extra effort required in their creation admirably.

This is not the book to consult for groundbreaking "new cuisine" fusion-style recipes -pizzas of Thai curried chicken and goat cheese are not on the menu - but as a reference to basic Italian cuisines, it has become my faithful friend. The recipes are quietly brilliant, the design of the book itself is a delight, and Biba Caggiano's familiar writing is a charming accent to her selection of personally-collected recipes. Moreover, the inclusion of stories detailing each recipe's provenance provides extra fuel to fire the culinary imagination.

A cookbook so lovingly created is destined to become indispensable to anyone who owns it.