Wednesday, April 6, 2011

After a brief hiatus while I enthused about Rainbow Tree, I'm returning to Tuscany and Umbria, specifically, to the cuisine of these regions. Before I post my list of some of my favorite places to eat outside of Florence (you can find that in a previous post), I must alert you to a wonderful and helpful book that is essenziale for anyone who is interested in Italian gastronomy in general and for anyone who will be traveling in Italy: Italy Dish by Dish: A Comprehensive Guide to Eating in Italy by Monica Sartoni Cesari and translated by Susan Simon (The Little Bookroom).

Just published, this chunky-but-not-heavy paperback is a handy culinary tour of Italy that highlights the culinary specialties of each region of the country and features more than 3,000 menu items plus really thorough descriptions of dishes and how they're prepared, which as anyone who travels knows is what you really want to know when you're deciding what to order. As if this weren't enough, author Cesari has also included a recipe that best represents each region (and I have to commend her for including an authentic recipe for trenette pasta with pesto, which hails from Genoa in Liguria and which includes potatoes and green beans), as well as an excellent overview of each region that is part history and part culinary.
Of Toscana, Cesari notes the food is "sober, elegant and well balanced -- it perfectly reflects the landscape of the region." She also says Tuscan food is an "original and sometimes mysterious mixture of flavors and habits" that, fascinatingly, was praised in a poem by Lorenzo the Magnificent, 'I Beoni,' which is a list of Florentine trattorie. Lorenzo wrote about people who gathered together to eat fresh fava beans with pecorino cheese (one of the world's most delicious combinations, and still on menus for a short time every spring in Tuscany), sausages, fried frogs, herring, fried crabs, and beans, with Tuscan wine, of course. Cesari concludes her overview of Tuscan cuisine by noting that "Every city, every village, every piece of the countryside and hills has its own personality, which together make up the great Tuscan kitchen."

Of Umbria, Cesari observes that "you can't really talk about the food of Umbria without first talking about how the borders of the region changed continually during the era when the Sabine tribe inhabited the area." Therefore, Umbrian dishes have influences from neighboring Tuscany, the Marches, Lazio, and Abruzzo, and Umbria is one of the smallest and most secluded regions of Italy. Key specialties of the region have long included Castelluccio lentils, truffles, the pork products of Norcia, all kinds of fowl, olive oil, beef,and farro, an ancient grain that dates back to the time of the Etruscans. Essential Umbrian culinary tools, relates Cesari, are the fireplace, the spit, and the pignatta, a glazed, terracotta cooking pot (sounds like something I have to have!).

A small quibble is no mention of cicchetti (pronounced che-KET-ee), which are everywhere in Venice and visitors will encounter them on and off the beaten path. Cicchetti are somewhat similar to tapas, in that they are little dishes -- sometimes just a plate of olives or nuts -- that are displayed on bar and counter tops in little restaurants and bars beginning in the late morning and through the afternoon (unless an establishment closes after lunch, though it will open again in the late afternoon). It is an enormous pleasure, and a wonderful tradition, of stopping into a bar for a break and having a glass of Prosecco (unique to the Veneto) and some cicchetti, until you're ready to continue on. Cesari does mention the andar a ombra, similar to the Italian (and Mediterranean) before-dinner passeggiata (stroll) except that in the Veneto strollers walk from osteria to osteria for glasses of white wine. I have known the custom as giro d'ombra, 'giro' meaning stroll and 'ombra' being slang for glass of wine, but I believe they must be synonymous.

Author Cesari is an Italian culinary authority in Italy and is the author of several books (in Italian). Translator Susan Simon is also the author of several cookbooks, including The Nantucket Table, Contorni, Insalate, and the Pasta Sfoglia Cookbook with Ron and Colleen Suhanosky (Wiley), which was awarded with a James Beard Award in the Single Subject Category in 2010. Any cooks and travelers who, like me, remember the very good book by Maureen B. Fant and Howard Isaacs entitled The Dictionary of Italian Cuisine (Ecco, 1998), will love this new volume because while it may not include every culinary word in the Fant-Isaacs book it surpasses it with its region-by-region focus and is a true traveler's companion.