After watching so many episodes of PBS's "Biba's Italian Kitchen," I suppose it's only natural that when I read Chef Biba Caggiano's cookbook "Biba's Italy" I hear it in her lilting Italian accent.
"It's a little bit travelogue and little bit recipes you can try at home," I hear her say. Actually, it's part travelogue, part memoir and a lot of recipes.
The book has more than 100 of Biba's favorite recipes from the great food cities of Rome, Florence, Bologna, Milan and Venice, along with a section of basic recipes. Besides a travelogue-type description and regional recipes, each city's chapter features a typical restaurant menu, plus sections on wines, restaurants, wine bars, trattorie, caffes, pastry shops, gelaterie, food markets, specialty-food stores, bakeries and even cooking schools.
Biba's Italy, her eighth cookbook, was six years in the making. She traveled to Italy several times, searching for the best of the best and getting recipes from the finest Italian chefs, no matter where they cooked. In the recipe's introduction, Biba gives the broad strokes of how it was prepared and presented, and sometimes, the variation she serves in her own nationally-renowned, award-winning BIBA Restaurant, open for more than 20 years.
Recipes span the distance from traditional favorites to dishes usually relegated to upscale restaurants. Not a course is missing, though not all courses are represented for every city. Ingredients are generally accessible, especially with today's enhanced grocery store shelves and gourmet food shops. Substitutions are provided if an ingredient is off the beaten path.
The ingredient lists and preparation instructions are peppered with Biba's hints and tips, as if she were shopping or cooking with you. For example, in the Braised Rabbit with Prosciutto and Tomatoes ingredient list, it says, "1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, with their juices, put through a food mill to remove the seeds." Directions for batters made by hand and in a food processor are included in the Ricotta-Mascarpone Fritters recipe. Suggestions for plating and sides, as well as seasonal indications, abound.
Little touches like that make the cookbook personal, but just reading the recipe introductions is enough to make your stomach growl. For Pork Shoulder Braised in Milk, for instance, she says: "One of the most traditional dishes of Bologna is a loin of pork braised gently in milk on top of the stove, until the meat is tender and the milk has thickened and browned into glazed clusters of sauce." Is it any wonder I went straight to the grocery store then came home and made this for dinner, using the plethora of braising tips so thoughtfully provided by Biba? And the smells â€¦ heaven!
Recipes for rich, basic broths (including capon broth), pasta dough, potato gnocchi (with tips for testing your dough), polenta and pie dough are found in the Basic Recipes section. "Do not confuse the Italian brodo with the French stock, for they are two completely different preparations," Biba says.
With the travelogue and memoir pieces sprinkled throughout, "Biba's Italy" can be read as a regular book & but better do it on a full stomach or you'll find yourself ordering at the local Italian restaurant with the appetite of three Italians.
Cookbook, travelogue or memoir, "Biba's Italy" is a winner when you want authentic Italian.