Italian food has had an interesting American journey. It began with immigrants who carried their village foodways with them. Every Italian-American I know has a garden or a corner to grow fresh herbs and possibly tomatoes. And their forebears adapted the dishes they remembered to the abundance of America. Angelo Pellegrini, author of the Unprejudiced Palate writes that discovery of American abundance as “maddening with joy, so awful and bewildering.” He recalls an American breakfast of ham, eggs, and coffee in contrast to Italy, where eggs and meat were rare and precious, and coffee was served as medicine, in doses not mugs.
And so you have the abundant Little Italys in American cities, where Lidia has traveled to find super thin St. Louis pizza, Braised Artichokes from Pezzini Farms in Castroville, California, and Gloucester Baked Halibut cooked by Michael Linquata at his Massachusetts restaurant, The Gloucester House.
You’ll rip through this book like I did, to find your favorites—Venda in Providence Rhode Island, the Modern pastry shop in Boston and Lombardi’s Pizza in New York. But then you’ll go through it again and find recipes that will drive you to the kitchen. We set aside some time (though not that much) to make Ricotta and Sausage-Filled Ravioli. The flavors were clear, fresh and deep, like all the recipes. These are generous and straightforward preparations that bring out the best in good ingredients, whether it’s an afternoon’s work with ravioli or a quick stir of Broccoli with Garlic and Anchovies.
These are the Italian-American dishes before they have been ruined by freezer-case pizza and all you can eat breadsticks. And that’s another part of the journey—the food has been to hell and now it’s coming back.
And with a vengeance in a book like Nancy Silverton’s Mozza cookbook. She started as a baker, the kitchen’s most meticulous measurer, and that approach continues here. “One of the reasons our food is so memorable is that each dish contains many layers of flavor, but that layering takes time.” There is no Nonna here with a pinch of that and a handful of this.
Mozza is Silverton’s Los Angeles restaurant that specializes in pizza and more casual meals, but even her pizza dough is a bit of a production, calling for compressed yeast, 26 ounces of flour, barley malt, and a tablespoon (just one) of rye flour. We made it, it was good, but not worth driving to the co-op for just one tablespoon of rye flour.
Likewise her jam tart calls for Italian leavening, not just baking powder and you don’t just put tomato sauce on your pizza, you use passata di pomodoro on your Margherita. When the food relies on the quality of ingredients, it should be done right. I respect and admire this approach, but I don’t want to cook this way. It feels like my compromises will be wrong.
On the other hand, without Nonna around how else are you going to learn to make a proper pasta (it involves more than just boiling water). The two and half pages of Matt’s Scuola di Pasta will give you Nonna’s secrets, liking salting the water “to taste like the ocean,” and cooking the pasta with the sauce, macchiare, “to stain” it, which allows the sauce to permeate the pasta.
My heart is with Lidia, these are the flavors of my life that I never want to give up. My head is with Nancy who goes into her kitchen with rigor and pride to authenticity.