Gina DePalma's Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen collects a treasure trove of desserts and savories from Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant (The Babbo Cookbook) in NYC. There are several forewords, including one by Mario Batali himself and Colum Sheehan, wine director of Babbo. Gina's thorough introduction includes her own earliest memories of her Nonni's kitchen and growing up in a Italian-American family that still revolved around the Italian style of shopping and cooking. She includes a section called Learning Italian that covers various regions, DOP and IGP origins, a recommended reading list, ten Italian ingredients you should know (some will surprise you!), and a brief, effective section on equipment.
The first section is devoted to Italian cookies and includes several almond-based cookies (almond fingers, chocolate kisses, mostaccioli), semolina cookies (lemony semolina cookies), polenta cookies, chestnut brownies, and several biscottis (almond, orange and anise, mosaic, polenta and sesame). Many are light and refreshing rather than the heavy, dense, cloyingly sweet desserts that Americans prefer, and the presence of polenta gives baked goods a rather toothsome crunch that will be unfamiliar to American palates.
Cakes include several gems, including grappa-soaked mini sponge cakes, citrus-glazed polenta cake, chestnut spice cake with mascarpone cream, almond and raisin cake, chocolate and walnut torte from Capri, zucchini-olive oil cake with lemon crunch glaze, yogurt cheesecake with pine nut brittle, obsessive ricotta cheesecake filled with candied orange and lemon rind, and Venetian apple cake rich with honey, spices, and polenta. The Venetian apple cake had just the right touch of sweetness from the shredded apple and honey, and the almond cake from Abruzzo was a delightful blend of toasted almonds, semolina flour, chocolate, and Amaretto.
Spoon Desserts consist of bonets, custards, bavarians, panna cotta, and zabaione, many of them savory additions such as pumpkin, fresh bay leaf custards, yogurt with caramel, aged balsamic, and pine nut brittle, and a lovely cool rhubarb soup with orange and mint fior di latte that is a refreshing start to a spring or summer dinner.
My favorite section was the Tarts, a personal favorite of mine. Unusual choices included a fresh cranberry tart perfect for fall, a sour cherry custard tart very similar to a French clafoutis, a blueberry and coconut tart, the divine honey and pine nut tart (you can't convince me that this isn't what angels eat!), chocolate and polenta tart (obscenely good with a scoop of gelato), and fruit tarts (fig, lemon, apple crumb, hazelnut and grape).
The next section sounded good, but lacking an ice cream maker, I was unable to try out any of the ice creams or sorbets. However, if/when I do purchase one, the fig and ricotta gelato, ginger honey gelato, and espresso cinnamon gelato are tops on my list.
I don't eat fried foods, so I haven't had the chance to sample any of these firsthand. Fried treats include fritters (pumpkin, herbed goat cheese, lemon ricotta, apple), Florentine doughnuts with vanilla custard, Neapolitan doughnuts with warm chocolate sauce, and cream puffs.
Ways with Fruit includes traditional fruit-and-alcohol combinations such as strawberries in Chianti, Balaton cherries with grappa and mascarpone, white peach and prosecco gelatina, honey-baked figs stuffed with walnuts, sweet apple omelet, and marmelades (Meyer lemon and spiced blood orange).
Celebrations includes holiday dishes such as St. Joseph's Day cream puffs (served on the feast day of St. Joseph, March 19), Easter egg bread, sweet grape focaccia (served at the annual grape harvest), chocolate "salami" (relax, vegetarians, it's made out of chocolate and nuts and rolled in powdered sugar to look like casing!), panforte (a traditional fruit-and-nut-stuffed bread from Siena) and pandoro (sweet Christmas breads).
The final chapter, Savory Bites, includes breadsticks, taralli (similar to pretzels), semolina and sesame crackers, calcioni, and cheese puffs (Gina includes notes on her favorite Italian cheeses).
Dolce Italiano is an absolutely gorgeous cookbook that is unparalleled in terms of culinary technique, the quality of Gina's experiences in and out of various kitchens, and the delicious end results, whether sweet or savory. The only potential downside is difficulty in locating specific Italian ingredients such as millifiori honey, decent grappa, Piedmontese hazelnuts, fresh chestnuts and chestnut flour, fresh (not commercial) ricotta and mascarpone cheeses, "OO" flour, aged balsamic (although I've had luck at Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, [...]) and Sicilian pistachios, although Gina includes a "Sources" section at the back of the book (that is, if you don't mind the expense of having your cheese overnighted from NYC!!).
If you're a fan of Italian / Mediterranean cuisine, you owe it to yourself to add this to your collection, presto. This is a beautiful cookbook that will bring you hours of enjoyment as you discover traditional Italian desserts that combine sometimes unlikely pairings that result in taste bud-tickling creations that taste like something your Italian grandmother would have baked.