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Avventura: Journeys in Italian Cooking

by David Rocco

Toscana Mia

by Umberto Menghi

In a perfect world, all cookbooks would be as enjoyable on the coffee table as they are on the kitchen counter. As it is, too many cookbooks are either weak on recipes but pretty to look at, or vice versa. Should someone ever decide to build that perfect world, however, David Rocco’s Avventura, which is based on his PBS television series of the same name, would be a near-perfect model on which to base its cookbooks.

Rocco, an Italian actor, model, and restaurateur who lives in Toronto, went on a culinary tour of Italy for the television show and book. Having touched down in 26 destinations, he offers up each here in its own short chapter with informative descriptions, beautiful colour photographs of the scenery and food, and two or three recipes from the region. It’s not a new idea, but where Rocco raises the book from a charming travelogue with pretty pictures to something worth buying, is in the quality of the recipes he collected from chefs en route.

Pesto is familiar to most home cooks, but how often does one see a traditional recipe for making it with mortar and pestle, as is provided here, for a sauce served on linguine in Genoa? Cleaning squid for the first time can be intimidating, but Rocco’s instructions – in an antipasto recipe from the Gardesana restaurant on Lake Garda – are clear, precise, and thorough. Then there’s that rarity in Italian cookbooks: a recipe for tomato sauce, this one from Lecce, that uses fresh tomatoes, not canned. And though just about every amateur chef knows how to make risotto by now, Rocco fine-tunes the process by telling readers how in Valle d’Aosta they preheat the stock before it is stirred into the cooking rice one ladleful at a time (thus allowing a consistent cooking temperature).

Rocco has achieved a rigorous and satisfying level of professionalism and authenticity here. Avventura is a beautiful book, and although it might have looked slightly better on the coffee table in hardcover, on the kitchen counter it will likely prove to be one of the best surveys of Italian cooking to have been published in recent years.

Umberto Menghi is a highly successful and prolific restaurateur, television cooking show host and author, who has figured prominently in the Canadian cooking scene for many years. Most recently, however, Menghi has been occupied back in Tuscany, his birthplace, with Villa Dalia, an inn and cooking school he opened in a converted farmhouse in the village of Ripoli.

Menghi’s new cookbook, Toscana Mia, is his homage to Tuscany, his attempt to capture the essence of the place. The book, he says in his introduction, “is more than a collection of recipes.”

Well yes, but only just.

Toscana Mia is not a bad book, but it is far from perfect either on the kitchen counter or the coffee table. In the kitchen it offers many authentic and interesting recipes – venison with rosemary, sage, and cherry crust; eggplant stuffed with tagliolini (paper-thin egg noodles); Florentine tripe; almond ricotta tart – but there are also moments of laziness and sloppiness.

Compare Toscana Mia to Avventura. Menghi’s pesto is made in a food processor. His squid-antipasto recipe provides no instructions for cleaning. His tomato sauces are inconsistent, some calling for fresh tomatoes, some for canned, and some either. And a risotto recipe instructs readers to add all the stock to the rice at once. (Three pages later, there is a risotto that uses the correct method.)

“To a Tuscan,” says Menghi, “food is not just something to eat, it’s the very core of life.” That sentiment should have informed the recipes. Instead, it becomes a posturing that permeates the coffee table aspect of this book. There are token vignettes covering such topics as olive oil, the hunting season, and Chianti wine, and there are charming candid photographs of the people and places of Tuscany (though oddly, no food shots), but Menghi tells readers little about the place that they don’t already know from a dozen other recent titles.

In the end, Toscana Mia has a lot to offer, but despite its hardcovers and coffee-table format, it is merely a good recipe book. Avventura is an excellent one.