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Little Italy Cookbook Paperback – Illustrated, Sept. 1 1996

4.6 out of 5 stars 4 ratings

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Product details

  • Paperback : 220 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1895629721
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1895629729
  • Product Dimensions : 19.61 x 2.24 x 22.86 cm
  • Publisher : Warwick Pub (Sept. 1 1996)
  • Item Weight : 540 g
  • Language: : English
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.6 out of 5 stars 4 ratings

Product description

Review

My wife and I eat out a lot, in restaurants good and grim. Living in Toronto, we have dinnered in scores of Italian rooms and have bellied up to the same menu and meal (or nearly), on evenings beyond count.

So where lies the thrill any more? It's in encountering a meal so familiar yet cooked with such love for the raw materials, such attention to technical detail, such hospitality and general bravura, that all boredom flees away. (Which doesn't happen often.)

Some of the Italian culinary repertoire is over-familiar. It is no longer news that the Italian repertoire is classic, say, to the French baroque; that its strengths lie in restraint, not in the excitement of elaboration. Because what we see in Italian restaurants in this country and in cookbooks sold here are usually heightened versions of home cooking, many of the same dishes appear everywhere in public, the gussyings delimiting several levels of cost and sophistication

The same emotions arise at the sight of yet another Italian cookbook. There are too many. In most instances, the same recipes appear. Set The Little Italy Cookbook alongside the best work currently available in English, that of Hazan, Bugialli, del Conte perhaps, or, looking back a little, even Boni or Artusi, and it's distinctly limited.

The dishes mentioned do come from all up and down the Boot, sure enough, but not all that many are mentioned. Italian cuisine does have a public (trattoria, bistretto, ristorante) face and an aristocratic side to it, but we don't see much of those here. (This is not a fault; we must grant the writers their subject.) And the bias of the text is toward the south, most convincingly. The reasons for this are obvious. Although recipes have been credited to cooks living in New York and other American cities and even in the old country, The Little Italy Cookbook has primarily a homey, Hogtown feel to it. Praise be. Postwar immigrants from southern Italy have until recently defined this city's experience of their native cooking. Maria Pace narrates the book and she received Toronto Italian cuisine as a birthright.

Fact: you can find recipes as clearly written, more succinctly phrased, with proportions and foodways just as sanely considered in more than a few other Italian cookbooks these days (the Little Italy pesto recipe is almost identical to Marcella Hazan's)—but the words under review here spring from our soil.

The anecdotes and annotations, then, are the most important part of the book.

When Pace was growing up in what's still called, a mite picturesquely, Little Italy in Toronto (downtown, west side), a mark of working-class Italian—and later Portuguese—sensibility was the excavation and extension, wherever possible, of the basement of the old, set-back, semi-detached house to form a wine cellar or cantina beneath the new cement porch. (When I moved here-late '60s-most of this retro-fitting was complete; you rarely see it south of Bloor Street these days.) Another signifier was the annual tomato seethe and preservation in a backyard vat set over a propane-fired ring. (Where have all the pomodori conservati gone? Gone to Woodbridge, or other 'burbs, every one.) Pace writes lovingly about this stuff, writes about the heady fall smell of empty, fly-blown grape crates stacked for curbside pickup.

Her recipe leads are often small essays, unfortunately not always giving a sense of place to the dish described or to its creator: does Mrs. Salute Azzano live in Toronto or in the States or in Italy? Her Braised Veal and Pork Skewers—what's their provenance? We're not told. No matter, they sound wonderful; and Pace does provide a sidebar telling how to cut veal scaloppine (sharp knife, cut across grain, cover meat with plastic wrap, pound to desired thinness).

So far, so similar, as concerns the technical details, to those presented by other splendid writers about Italian food, but those local intimacies, set in burgundy type, are winning hands, laid down every few pages. Pace gives, for example, the flavour and history of the quintessential Toronto Italian street food-meatball sandwiches (competent recipes follow the genealogy of the dish). Or, along with the nostalgia for the blank, purple-stained boxes on the sidewalk, we're given a wine-making recipe from her brother. This is not for the chicken-hearted: he suggests fermenting with no more sophisticated a contamination barrier over the top of the carboy than plastic wrap with a pinhole stuck in it.

I avoided reading this book when it first came out, which was an error. It isn't just another Italian cookbook; every Italian chef and restaurateur and their pupdogs publish those. Pace and Scaini have given us in one sense, as much a good bathtub read as a working cookbook. The amateur anthropology anecdotes whet the experienced cook's appetite for the recipes (which are usually sound, though—duffers beware—in need, at times, of copy-editing; the instructions for tiramisu contradict themselves as to whether the ladyfingers should be sogged with rum and coffee or not, early in the construction of this sadly ubiquitous pud).

The annotations and little tricks should be treasured as guides to the perplexed. They sound as if they come straight from Nonna, many of them. "Adriana Dametto, who learned this from a Pugliese friend, always adds a pinch of flour to the boiling liquid [for Mushrooms in Oil] to keep the mushrooms from discolouring."

At their best, Pace and Scaini have, for Italian Canadians, frozen time. Forget Proust and his bland little bicky. Consider what a wealth of sensations could be summoned forth at the first bite of Wild Fennel with Ditali Pasta, Polenta with Mascarpone and Stewed Veal, or (the pinnacle, on a cool, sunny autumn afternoon) Grilled Sausage and Onion on Crusty Bun.

Ted Whittaker (Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada