Cookbooks continue to cover more niche topics, especially when it comes to regional cuisines. The growing appetite for regionally focused cookbooks makes a lot of sense for Italy when you consider that although its cities and cultures have existed for many centuries, Italy as a nation is a fairly new country, younger than the United States. Many Italians often focus on the qualities that distinguish their city or region's cuisine from another's rather than similarities. Two cookbooks out this year, Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence and Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City, offer food tours through two of Italy's most famous cities.
Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence
By Emiko Davies
Hardie Grant Books, 256 pages, $39.95
Emiko Davies, who is Japanese-Australian and grew up in Beijing, was a young art student when she first headed to Florence. Eventually, she met her husband in the country and has lived in Tuscany for several years with their daughter. Reading her cookbook on the cuisine of Florence, it's clear she is someone with an eye for detail who enjoys absorbing the story of a city. The capital of Tuscany is a place ripe for exploring food steeped in history.
She describes Florentine food as earthy, rustic and rooted in tradition and the changing seasons. Grape focaccia in bakeries signals the end of summer. A yeasted cake adorned with the city's fleur-de-lis appears in February to celebrate Carnival season.
The thick cookbook with bright coral edges is divided into six chapters based on where one living in Florence might venture for food: the pastry shop, the bakery, the market, the trattoria, the butcher and the street.
Davies is generous in her headnotes and has plenty of knowledge to share about daily Florentine life. Bits of history, references to other books and anecdotes from her trips to Florence's markets give the recipes context and give them a sense of place. Davies writes about the secret bakeries that dish out freshly baked pastries between midnight and 4 a.m., and explains how Florentines were some of the first Europeans to embrace unusual foods from the New World like tomatoes and beans, which became staples of the cuisine.
For anyone planning a trip to Florence, this cookbook will give you a great sense of what you'll find to eat. In the back of the book, the author lists some of her favorite bakeries and trattorias.
Though Florentine kicks off with a simple apricot jam crostata that will save many a dinner party (it's as impressive as it is easy to make), I suggest starting with the ribollita. Davies goes into detail about Tuscan bread, known for its lack of salt and a springy crumb that grows stale after a day. But Florentines are resourceful, and they give that loaf many other lives as the days go on. Tuscan bread becomes bread crumbs, can be soaked back to life for a panzanella or can be stirred into a soup like ribollita to thicken it up.
Many classic Florentine recipes taste better the next day, and ribollita, which translates to "reboiled," is the poster child. The dish, a mainstay of Florentine trattorias, seems to embody the ethos of Florentine cooking: Waste nothing.
Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City
By Katie Parla and Kristina Gill
Clarkson Potter, 256 pages, $30
Like Davies, Katie Parla and Kristina Gill are expats. Parla has lived in Rome for more than a decade and writes about Roman food and beverage culture for several publications, including the New York Times, blogs and travel guides. Gill, a food and drinks editor for a lifestyle website, is a food and travel photographer who has lived in Rome since 1999.
In Tasting Rome, they say Roman cooking was strongly influenced by Italians from other regions who migrated to the city as it transformed "from a malarial backwater into a thriving city." This is an ongoing transformation, Parla and Gill write, as is reflected in their cookbook's inclusion of both traditional Roman dishes and more contemporary takes on the city's food. Their shared depth of knowledge of Roman food and culture is evident throughout.
In the foreword for the book, Mario Batali writes, "Traditional recipes don't just change from region to region; they also vary from cook to cook." Why all the variations? He says this book answers that question.
The pair worked with local chefs to develop the recipes. As a result, some of the recipes in Tasting Rome end up seeming more restaurant-inspired than the homier dishes of Florentine. There's a recipe for a Carbonara Sour cocktail featuring a guanciale-washed vodka, inspired by the carbonara sauce traditionally served with pasta. (There's also a recipe for making your own guanciale, an Italian cured meat.)
While Florentine opens with pastries and saves street food for last, Tasting Rome flips this organization and jumps right in with several variations of rice croquettes that seem right at home for happy hour. Romans, the authors note, always pair drinks with food, and nearly all bars serve complimentary snacks.
I have been on something of a meatball bender this year, making mostly pork, beef or turkey versions, so I gravitated first toward Tasting Rome's recipe for chicken meatballs in a light white wine and lemon sauce. The ingredient list calls for an intriguing mix of cinnamon, nutmeg and pistachios to flavor the chicken. Soaked bread, in part, makes for a very sticky meatball mixture, but this possibility was noted in the recipe. I could overcome this small hurdle if the result was tender, excellent meatballs that I look forward to making another night.
Detailed headnotes manage to pack in a lot of historical and practical information for when and with what to serve a dish. These notes framing the recipes are also filled with intimate details about specific bakeries and local ingredients. Parla and Gill may be American-born, but they've adopted Rome wholeheartedly. At one bakery, they note that the slightly charred tops of the baked goods are a trademark to be embraced, not eschewed. In a recipe for braised oxtail, they dare you to eat it the traditional way, with your hands.
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Ribollita (Vegetable and Bean Soup)
Emiko Davies notes that her in-laws, like many Tuscans, serve ribollita with a quarter of a fresh red onion to dip into the soup and bite into throughout the meal. Though it is an authentic way to eat this soup, it is totally optional, she notes, as the raw onion addition is not for the faint of heart.
9 ounces drained, cooked cannellini beans, either homemade (recipe in book) or canned
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
5 or 6 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, finely chopped
1 ounce pancetta, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4½ ounces savoy cabbage (about ¼ head), chopped
4½ ounces Swiss chard, central veins removed and leaves chopped
4½ ounces cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale, or whatever kale you can find), central veins removed and leaves chopped
1 potato, peeled and diced
4½ ounces stale bread, cut into chunk
Puree about half of the beans together with about ½ cup of the bean cooking liquid (or water if using canned beans) until smooth. Set aside.
Place the onion, garlic, celery, parsley and pancetta in a large stockpot and cook in the olive oil over a low heat. Gently sweat the onion until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Add the cabbage, chard, kale and potato and cover with 4 cups water. Season with salt and pepper, then add both the pureed and whole beans. Bring to a simmer, uncovered, and cook until the vegetables are cooked and tender, about 30 minutes. (Test for tenderness with the poke of a fork.)
Remove the pot from the heat. Add the bread, cover the pot and let it rest for at least 20 minutes. (An hour is better.) Before serving, stir the pot to break up the soaked bread. It should be thick like oatmeal but you can add a bit of water if it is too thick. Reheat gently and serve. If desired, garnish with a quarter of a red onion.
Save any leftovers for reheating the next day. After all, it wouldn't be ribollita if it weren't reboiled.
Source: Adapted from Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence by Emiko Davies (Hardie Grant Books, 2016)
Polpette di pollo in bianco (Chicken Meatballs in White Wine Sauce)
3 slices day-old bread of any kind, crusts removed
1 cup chicken broth or water plus more for cooking, warmed
1¾ pounds ground chicken
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 tablespoons pistachios, chopped
2 packed tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots, minced
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup dry white wine
1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from ½ lemon)
Soak the bread for a few minutes in 1 cup warm chicken broth. When it has softened, squeeze out the excess liquid and place the bread in a large bowl.
Add the ground chicken, eggs, garlic, salt, pepper to taste, cinnamon, nutmeg, pistachios and half the parsley. Mix thoroughly by hand. Form the mixture into balls roughly the size of walnuts and set aside.
In a large frying pan or cast iron skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the shallots and a pinch of salt and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly dust the meatballs all over with the flour (a mesh strainer works well for this) and shake off any excess. Add them to the pan and brown all over. Add the wine, scraping up any browned bits from the sides and bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula. When the alcohol aroma dissipates, about a minute, add enough broth or water to cover the meatballs about halfway. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, until a creamy sauce has formed, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Season with lemon juice, garnish with the remaining parsley and serve the meatballs warm or at room temperature with sauce spooned over.
Note: If the meatball mixture is sticky, wet your hands with warm water before rolling.
Makes 30 to 35 polpette or meatballs.
Source: Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill (Clarkson Potter, 2016)