Reviewed by food writer Lari Robling
Judging by the number of Italian cookbooks on the market these days, it seems as though Americans want to cook, eat, and live like an Italian -- which is the premise and subtitle of Viana LaPlace's new book, La Bella Cucina. La Place has written eight Italian cookbooks including one of my favorites, Cucina Fresca.
Cucina Fresca was published in the early 1980s and turned a number of home cooks on to home-made ricotta as well as the joy and ease of food that can be served room temperature. In the past 15 years, however, Mediterranean and Italian cooking have dominated the cookbook shelves. From Lidia Bastianich's great teaching books to actor Vincent Schiavelli's memoirs, Italian recipes abound.
And so, it has to be asked. Is this new book worthy of shelf space on your bookcase? My recipe tests produced some nice, but not memorable dishes. The pasta with tomato sauce flavored with a little pork and red wine was good, but hardly noteworthy. And the fried yellow peppers with mint and red wine vinegar were tasty, but not quite as satisfying as described. With 125 recipes in La Bella Cucina, there will be something to please but little to delight.
The outstanding feature of La Bella Cucina, however, is the insight into living like an Italian. La Place writes about the fanatical details of making an Italian cup of coffee and the rites surrounding the beverage. Never a cappucino after 10 AM, nor a double shot of espresso. Always coffee after a meal; never with. La Place describes the people, sights and smells of Italy with great detail and passion. There are no pictures in the book, but it reads like an elegant travelogue.
La Place extols us to try the Italian custom of The Big Sunday Lunch. Here is part of her description of the meal: "....a feeling of time held in suspension, of living forever, of peace and playfulness, teasing and flirting, and babies being kissed and bounced on knees, all merging with the scents of food and a bit of giddiness brought on by wine. All that matters is the forkful, the feeling of togetherness."
I say, rather than the kitchen keep this book by your bedside table.
Read it and you'll find yourself dreaming of life in the piazza.