Forte e Gentile, strong and gentle, is the motto of Abruzzo, the Italian province east of Rome that stretches from the towering Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic Sea. Anna Teresa Callen, in Food and Memories of Abruzzo, is most engaging as she shares stories of her life and presents the varied food of this little-known part of Italy where she grew up and still spends much of her time. Callen composes a symphony of sounds and aromas to surround the recipes in this memoir-cum-cookbook, describing how her grandmother, cutting pasta for pastina "into tiny dots, made a tic-tac sound with her knife," and recounting how the "pungent smell of coffee wafting from the kitchen" woke her from her daily summer siesta. Old photos from family albums add to Callen's vivid memories.
Using Callen's recipes, you can recreate Maccheroni alla Chitarra, the Abruzzese "square spaghetti" some Italian restaurants in the U.S. and elsewhere now serve, and robust Porchetta, sublimely succulent spit-roasted pork served with its crackling, mahogany skin, as well as the colorful fish stew Brodetto di Pesce, which her father used to make, and L'sagne, a flour-and-water pasta unique to Abruzzo. In a balancing act, Callen gives recipes for simple dishes perfect for today's cooks along with more complicated regional specialties and spectacular holiday dishes. Her guidance for making La Cicerchiata, an ancient dessert made for Mardi Gras by assembling honey-soaked "chick peas" of fried dough, whole almonds, and candied fruit into a colorful ring, is as clear as her directions for Mozzarella all'Erbette, a combination of sliced cheese dressed with a puree of fresh herbs and capers that can be put together in minutes.
Callen crams this book with basic culinary advice and a wealth of information about the Italian kitchen, demystifying the differences between salsa, sugo, and ragu, for example, and advising how to make smooth polenta using cold liquid. In all, this is an exceptional volume for cooks, Italophiles, and anyone who likes a good story. --Dana Jacobi
Abruzzo produces some of Italy's most notable and appreciated dishes, specifically, the square-cornered spaghetti alla chitarra, pasta cut on a wired box resembling a guitar. But the region's relative isolation between the Appenine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea has kept its fame from spreading quite so far and wide as that of other regions of the peninsula. Callen sets out to rectify this oversight, and along the way she reflects on the family life that gave her such attachment to her homeland. Simple Abruzzo dishes such as crostini, toasted bread topped much like pizzas, have recently become commonplace in American Italian cooking, and Callen recalls how her grandmother fed cheese-and mushroom-topped crostini to her friends for an afternoon snack. Like most peasant cuisines, that of Abruzzo lets nothing go to waste; chicken giblets turn into a pasta sauce, and the bone from a whole prosciutto makes a base for bean soup. Useful for rounding out Italian regional cooking collections. Mark Knoblauch
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