'Italian Easy' authors Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers are two English chefs who seem to carry a lot of weight in the community of writers on Italian Cuisine. They are one of the first employers of Jamie Oliver and were, I suspect, a strong influence on his style and choice of cuisine. In spite of Oliver's great celebrity, Gray and Roger owe nothing to this. Their reputation is firmly based on doing good Italian food before Jamie came to the limelight. Mario Batali also offers their books as one of his favorite reads for Italian recipes.
Creating food that is both easy to prepare and sophisticated in taste and presentation always seems to me to be a chimera. An attempt to put together two things which are simply incompatible. I think Rogers and Gray have succeeded as well as anyone who has put their mind to this task. In their favor is the great pantry available to an Italian cook. Sometimes I think that if you put Parmesano Reggiano, fresh Tuscan olive oil, capers from Panteloria, sliced garlic, and basil from Genoa on shoe leather, it would taste good. It you replace shoe leather with artisinal bread, pasta, shellfish, spinach, or chicken and add tomatoes and anchovies, you basically have the recipes in this book. This is certainly an exaggeration, but not much. I am truly impressed by how simple and easy many of the recipes in this book appear on the page. Like a lot of simple recipes in Patricia Wells' new book 'The Provence Cookbook', they make you wonder how something so simple can taste good. I tried recipes in both books and I can attest that even a simple combination of pasta, broccoli, olive oil, garlic, and pancetta which comes together within 20 minutes, can be really impressive, especially as a dish which gives one both a starch and a vegetable.
The same surprisingly short list of ingredients is the norm for most of the recipes. This is not to say there is no variety in the recipes. Just the opposite is true. In the short chapter on ricotta recipes, there are two different Italian specialities based on similar short ingredient lists that are totally unfamiliar to me. The first is 'Gnudi' that may be loosely described as a ricotta gnocchi. There are two recipes, one plain or 'Bianchi' and the other with spinach. The second type of recipe is a ricotta gratin named 'Sformata di ricotta'. The very best aspect of this and many other of these recipes is that it calls for cherry tomatoes which succeed in being reasonably tasty even if they are grown in a hothouse out of season. Another example of a successful mix of novelty and diversity is the chapter of nine potato recipes. Two of the nine are gnocchi, so there is nothing new there, and one is mashed potatoes with nutmeg and parmesan, so there is nothing dramatic there. But the other six recipes make dramatic combinations of potato with fennel, mustard, pumpkin, lemon, and tomato sauce.
Speaking of tomato sauce, the book's pantry 'quick tomato sauce' is really quick with four ingredients and about 20 minutes of cooking time for an experienced cook. Compare this to Mario Batali's basic sauce which I find difficult to prep and cook in less than an hour (but then, I'm not the fastest knife in the kitchen).
Even dishes which may appear to have involved or difficult recipes such as potato gnocchi or risotto appear simple in Rogers and Gray's words. I think this is a symptom that these recipes are not as daunting as they may seem to the newbie, but it is also a symptom of the fact that Rogers and Gray are writing to people who have some experience in the kitchen. The dozens of helpful little hints you typically get on the 'Molto Mario' show about the technique for heating garlic in oil, for example, are simply not there. There are no tips on peeling fava beans or even a hint that fava beans are naturally double wrapped. There is no babble about terroir or commentary on how the recipes were found or invented. Unlike the 8 year old 'Italian Country Cookbook' there is no consistent use of Italian recipe names with English translations taking a second line role. While many recipes such as potato gnocchi are Italian classics, many others are either highly streamlined versions of Italian classics or they are River Café inventions with Italian ingredients and techniques.
I really like the many chapters with only a few recipes in some chapters, making it easier than usual to find the nine recipes based on potatoes or the three risotto recipes or the nine truly simple spaghetti recipes. The Brits must be as fond of spaghetti as we colonists. I really dislike the artsy presentation of the dozen bruschetta food photos on one page opposed to the corresponding dozen recipes on the following pages. What WERE these people thinking? Luckily, this nuttiness plays itself out by the time we get to the third chapter, carpaccio and we return to the sanity of recipe and photo on facing pages.
This is the first River Café cookbook I have reviewed, and I regret my having overlooked them up to now. The authors have truly succeeded in giving straightforward recipes, easy to prepare with readily available (but not necessarily cheap) ingredients.
Very highly recommended, especially if you have any taste for Italian food and need fast recipes. Also highly recommended if you like Jamie Oliver's style of food. This book is no nonsense good, easy cooking, as long as you have good basic kitchen skills.