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A Taste of Southern Italy: Delicious Recipes and a Dash of Culture Hardcover – April 25, 2006
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“Cooks whose culinary adventures have heretofore stopped at Tuscany will discover a whole new world of Italian food.”
“Southern Italian food has a range of style and savor that sweeps from the piquant to the delicate, embracing restraint and sensitivity as often as it demonstrates aggressiveness. It is created by cooks with the courage to let a food be, to let it taste like its own good self. Southerners revere the purity of flavors and textures of a food. They are content to tear a few leaves of a wild mint over a roasted fish, to grill fat prawns in lemon leaves, to roast suckling lamb in a terracotta pot with a great heft of sweet butter. It is a cuisine that aspires to dignity even in the midst of insufficiency.”
–from the Introduction
About the Author
Marlena de Blasi is a chef, a food and wine consultant, a restaurant critic, and the author of A Thousand Days In Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, and Regional Foods of Northern Italy, which was nominated for the James Beard Award. She lives with her Venetian husband, Fernando, in the restored wing of a seventeenth-century palazzo in the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. Between endless jaunts into every region of the country, they and their son, Erich, host culture and cuisine courses for travelers.
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The book covers Italy from Lazio (Rome) and points south, including Abruzzo, Campania (Naples), Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicilia, and Sardegna (Sardinia). Now there are already excellent books on the cuisines of Lazio (`Cooking the Roman Way' by David Downie) and Campania (`Naples at Table' by Arthur Schwartz) plus dozens of books covering Abruzzo, Puglia, Sicilia, and Sardinia. The only single region for which there are few if any titles may be Basilicata. There are even some other excellent books on all of Italy's southern cuisine, such as `The Flavors of Southern Italy' by Erica De Mane.
The important thing to keep in mind about De Blasi's book is that it is different from all of these. Unlike Downie, it is not a fairly comprehensive coverage of the region's full range of dishes. Unlike Schwartz, it includes no study of the history of the region(s) and how this history influenced the cuisine. Unlike De Mane, this is not an analytical treatment of the region's ingredients and methods. All of this means that even if you own all these other books, De Blasi still has something to say to you.
I always appreciate it when an author stays true to the promise of their title, and you have to take the `Taste' of the title seriously, as the author makes no attempt at completeness. She is clear in stating that her selection of dishes are those which appeal to her the most as she was writing this book. That takes care of the `Delicious Recipes' of the subtitle. What De Blasi gives us whom no other author can touch is a great literary evocation of the spirit of southern Italian cooking. Senora Marlena really knows how to write and to use that skill in bringing her subject to light. The one dissonance in that message is her claim that no recipe executed in America can ever faithfully reproduce the taste of the same recipe done in Southern Italy. This is the big issue of `terroir' over which the French get so excited.
Ms. De Blasi's primary contention is that the cuisine of southern Italy is more varied than that of the north. And, since Ms. DB has done a companion volume on the `Regional Foods of Northern Italy' and has lived in Tuscany and Venice for several years, she should know from which she speaks. Unfortunately, aside from giving us a really excellent selection of recipes, she really doesn't address this contention much in her text. I certainly do like the fact that Ms. De Blasi gives us recipes composed entirely of genuinely southern ingredients. There is no Parmisano Reggiano here. All cheesy sharpness is imparted using the southern Romano cheese.
While Ms. DB makes a point of saying that her selection of recipes is very personal, she also happens to pick a very satisfying selection of recipes in at least two different ways. First, there are many recipes for local breads and pastas. When a book covers a cuisine where bread is a primary ingredient, and it doesn't give us any bread recipes, I really wonder about the seriousness of the author's commitment to their subject. When we are dealing with Italy, the same goes for pasta. Second, the selection of recipes is interesting even when compared to specialist books on an Italian region. While Mr. Downie faithfully gives us recipes for the Roman specialty, `saltimbocca', Ms. DB gives us a local variation on the saltimbocca ingredients, `Uno Stufatino di Vitello' (A little braise of veal) which has all the same tastes, but none of the fiery fast saute of saltimbocca. Still comparing Downie to De Blasi, I find her recipe for Roman style artichokes to be really superior to that in Downie's book. Not only does De Blasi include pancetta, she also gives a better narrative of how to do the dish.
This is a cookbook meant to be read from cover to cover, enjoying the description of the dishes and their lore here is almost as much fun as actually making and eating the dishes. I heartily recommend this volume to any amateur foodie who simply happens to like everything about Italian cuisines.