Customer Review

35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very nice recipe reference. Weak on 'essentials'., March 3, 2008
This review is from: Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Italian (Hardcover)
`Essentials of Italian' is Michele Scicolone's second coffee table sized book on Italian cuisine for Williams-Sonoma, the first being the larger, splashier, `Savoring Italy' volume, where her name is much more prominently displayed as author. In this book, she gets third billing behind Chuck Williams, the general editor and Bill Bettencourt, the photographer. Scicolone only gets credit for providing the recipes, with all the supporting text being provided by Steve Siegelman. This is unfortunate. Of the two, this volume is a superior guide to Italian cuisine, less expensive, and a better photographic presentation of the recipe dishes.
This puts me in a quandary, as I recall giving `Savoring Italy' five stars, based on the fact that it was a worthy and non-redundant complement to Scicolone's `1000 Italian Recipes'. But one option is easy. If you are choosing between the two, and it is the recipes which are important to you, pick `Essentials of Italian' and not `Savoring Italy'.
The best part of the book is the fact that it does a decent job of realizing its title of `Essentials'. Before opening the book, I assumed that a book with that title should give good instructions on how to make fresh pasta, how to make gnocchi, how to make bulk sausage, how to make a pizza, how to make a ragu Bolognese, how to make an artisanal bread, how to make mozzarella, how to make a ricotta cheesecake, and how to make a timbale. I was just a bit disappointed when I found only four out of these eight; however I understand why sausage, sourdough breads, and mozzarella were left out. I don't understand why she missed the Neapolitan ricotta lemon cheesecake. So, the book comes through with at least all the common dishes typically made by the amateur home cook. And, with these and all the other recipes in the book, it is very true to its objective of providing `authentic' recipes. For every common named recipe, there are often dozens of variations, many of which are only remotely similar to their roots. But here, the Roman veal saltimbocca recipe is really the way they make it in Rome, with nothing except the veal, the prosciutto, the sage, and the butter. No intruding spinach or braciole presentation to muddy the basic charm of the simple recipe.
The same thing is true of virtually every other recipe in the book. I have seen dozens of ragu Bolognese recipes and even those which have no pretensions to being a `quick' version often skimp on the most basic aspect of the classic recipe, which is combining several (usually three) different kinds of meat into the sauce. While the recipes for the same dishes in both `Savoring Italy' and `Essentials of Italian' are identical (word for word, really), bagna cauda, for example, `Savoring Italy' simply does not cover most of the most basic recipes. Rather, it delivers less familiar or at least different variations. `Savoring...' for example, gives us the more elaborate gratineed ricotta and spinach Gnocchi, while `Essentials...' gives us the more basic `Gnocchi Verde'. Both are classic Tuscan dishes, but `Essentials...' gives us the simpler recipe.
Both books give a sound bite approach to a culinary tour of Italy, superficial compared to the great texts by Elizabeth David, Waverly Root, and even Claudia Roden's aging `The Food of Italy', but with great pictures and very nicely presented sketches of culinary differences between the 20 Italian administrative regions. `Essentials...' is better at this, but it is still a good INTRODUCTION. It leaves many details untouched or poorly handled. The `culinary signature' and `regional specialties' are excellent, but here is where I found my first disappointment. This geographical summary gives us lists of important local dishes; however, so many of the recipes for these dishes are not available in the main chapters. The single page of `Principles of Italian Cooking' is nice, but very superficial. In contrast, Marcella Hazan's `Marcella Says' devotes almost 80 pages to basic techniques. The single pages devoted to wines, cheeses, dried pastas, cheeses, and pantry items are similarly nice, but thin. The page on pasta shapes offers a metaphor for some of the weaknesses of the book overall. On the left is a list of named pasta shapes and descriptions. On the right is an excellent photograph of seven pasta shapes, but there is no connection between the two. How difficult would it have been to give a picture of each of the 30 dried pasta shapes. A similar disjoint is found in the excellent four page display of pasta handling techniques on pages 92 - 95. Unfortunately, the recipe for fresh pasta is on page 274, with no reference made between the two pages. If the treatment of fresh pasta making were better organized, and if the same treatment were given to making gnocchi and flatbreads, this would have been a near-great book for beginners. Instead, it is only a pretty good armchair book and a better than average reference for classic Italian recipes. I was also disappointed that there were no sources for hard to get products such as pig's cheek and Sardinian dried fish eggs.
The primary consideration for buying this book is how many other books on Italian cuisine you already own or anticipate buying, and why you buy books like this. If you genuinely buy these books for living room decorations and browsing during lulls in social visits, `Savoring Italy' is just a bit better. If you are looking for that one book on Italian cuisine, `Essentials of Italian' is quite good for the casual interest. If your library is already filled with books by Scicolone, Hazan, David, Root, Batali, Bastianich, Joyce Goldstein, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, and Lynne Rossetto Kaspar, you have no need for this book.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 3, 2009 4:16:52 PM PST
pc says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 4, 2009 5:22:42 PM PST
B. Marold says:
My primary objective is to provide as much useful information as possible about a book (within the space Amazon provides), in a manner which will assure the casual reader that I've compared this book to many others they may consider, especially on this particular subject. I also try to consider the reader who already has 30 books on Italian cooking, and wonders if there is any reason whatsoever for adding this one to their shelves. I offer the fact that while my approach may not be your cup of espresso, many others have found it useful in determining whether they wish to consider the book further. And, you always have the option of reading the many shorter reviews!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 19, 2009 9:46:19 PM PDT
kalyson says:
Yep, I found it helpful. I was thinking exactly that -- should I buy this book when I have a variety of others in my collection. Not sure why pc has such a snotty attitude, but I appreciate the time you spent.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 4:37:10 PM PDT
pc: bruce writes long, detailed, informative reviews, and they are always helpful. he provides a wealth of information, and many of us who have a ton of cookbooks rely on his detailed info when considering another. not sure why you had to be so nasty.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 4:38:34 PM PDT
bruce, i am so sorry that you had to endure pc's rant. your reviews are so helpful, please carry on providing your very valuable service to the rest of us!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 5:38:45 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 2, 2011 5:44:08 PM PDT
B. Marold says:
Dear Sustainable...
Many thanks for your kind words. I have directed my efforts from the culinary to the theological (althought I do come back to visit now and again) where ideas rest less (although not that less) on taste than on logic and a common standard of disputation. One almost wishes that Amazon had review categories, distinguishing the "test kitchen" style from the expository. Loud shout of praise for your concern with sustainable resources. I'm unsure if your taste runs to this type of book, but you may wish to try Sallie McFague's "A New Climate for Theology: God, the World and Global Warming." Don't buy it unless you can get it cheap, in case it's style is not to your taste. She is an example of what is called "ecofeminism".

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 6:23:57 PM PDT
Hi, Bruce!
Thanks for your loud shout! :D

I was interested regarding your test kitchen comment. I used to love reading test kitchen books and magazines but now I am pretty leery of them.

I like expository cookbooks, but went too far in collecting Tamasin Day-Lewis sight unseen based on reviews.

BTW, I share you interest in Panini. Which book does Panini the best in your opinion? I just got Simple Italian Snacks-More Recipes from America's Favorite Panini Bar.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 7:04:50 PM PDT
B. Marold says:
Dear Sustainable...

Off the top of my head, the best overall sandwich book I know is "Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book" followed by "Simple Italian Sandwiches", but both are 5 years old or more, so there may be some great new books.

Kindest regards,

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 3, 2011 1:39:27 AM PDT
Dear Bruce:
Thanks for your thoughts! Simple Italian Sandwiches is the predecessor book to my Simple Italian Snacks book! I took a long look at the Nancy Silverton book, and may have to look at it again. The reason that I got the Simple Italian Snacks book was that, while I LOVE La Brea bread, it is way too salty for my health, and there was a comment about the unhealthy aspects of the recipes. Do you have the book? I will give it another look. Thank you very much for your input!
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4.9 out of 5 stars (13 customer reviews)
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