They eat the dainty food of famous chefs with the same pleasure with which they devour gross peasant dishes, mostly composed of garlic and tomatoes, or fisherman’s octopus and shrimps, fried in heavily scented olive oil on a little deserted beach.
What they got is more than 500 pages and 1,000 recipes for dishes that are iconic, little known, and even some that might otherwise have been lost. Region by region, sometimes village by village, they gathered regional foods–Baked Barley and Cheese from the Val d’Aosta, Radicchio Tart from Venice, and Rice Balls with Fish from Sicily. When they couldn’t find an iconic dish at a restaurant, they found a home cook to make it for them. This is a cookbook, but also a cultural record.
And these are osteria recipes. Nancy Danforth, the book’s sensitive and sensible translator, describes osterias as “the home-away-from-home place” that serves “simple, soulful, regional cooking,” and described by me as the kind of place you wish you had around the corner.
Restaurant recipes doesn’t mean they are complicated–the hallmarks of Italian cooking, simplicity and generosity, make these recipes easy to cook. And they have an appealing frugality–not being miserly, but appreciating what every ingredient can bring to a dish, as in Crostata di Cipolle Biondi–a savory onion bread pudding, which sounds like it was first made from culled pantry scrapings and turned into an classic Piedmontese dish.
The recipes are organized the way they are served at the Italian table–antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorni, and dolci. You can follow that traditional path when choosing what to cook, but there’s nothing to stop you from making a meal of just antipasti. The way my family used to say, “next time, lets just have antipasti,” before my grandmother brought out the pasta, then the chicken, then the cake, which we all ate.
Or you could cook by ingredient, depending on the season; for overwhelmed gardeners that are more than 40 recipes for zucchini and squash, from simply grilled to Sweet Couscous with Chocolate, Pistachios, Almonds and Candied Squash. Other ingredients are unattainable. Ligurian Quarantina potatoes are striped yellow and white, and grow in the Apennine hills. You will not find them, but Danford suggest substituting the non-starchy potato of your local hills.
Or you could cook dinner by region, composing a muscular Tuscan feast of Toasted Bread with Black Kale, an Onion Frittata, Polenta with Beef and Dried Porcini, and Almond Cookies. Or perhaps a more obscure Puglian meal of Boar and Onion Calzone, Baked Pasta with Artichokes, Pork Ribs with Mint, and Sweet Noodles in Wine Syrup.
What you can really do is spend a lifetime cooking from this book.