Much like David Rocco’s recent excellent cookbook, Avventura, for which Rocco toured Italy gathering recipes from local chefs, the strength of The La Fenice Cookbook, by Luigi Orgera, is its authenticity. Orgera, who died last September, was the chef/owner of the renowned Toronto restaurant La Fenice. According to the introduction, Orgera’s family was in the restaurant and hotel business in Italy, but their village, and thus their livelihood, was destroyed during the Second World War. La Fenice means The Phoenix, and this cookbook presents the recipes Orgera eventually brought to Toronto after his family “rose from the ashes” to rebuild their business.
Like many Italian Canadians, Orgera kept close ties to his homeland. The book boasts of how Orgera imported special olive oil and rare goat cheese from Spigno Saturnia, his native village, for exclusive use at La Fenice. These boasts have an odd double effect: they inflate our appreciation of the late Orgera’s expertise, yet since neither item is available to the general Canadian public, they also deflate our hopes of matching that expertise using this book. Orgera’s readers will have to find their own signature olive oil and goat cheese.
Nonetheless, it is a small price to pay to gain access to Orgera’s oeuvre. Calamari stuffed with monkfish, spaghetti with garlic oil and hot pepper, potatoes roasted in goose fat, ricotta mousse cake – with such recipes, had Orgera lived out his career in Italy, he might easily have been one of the chefs David Rocco visited on his tour.
Orgera was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2000, just as the manuscript was nearing completion. Despite the occasional editorial slip, co-authors Sally Doulis, a Toronto psychotherapist and patron of La Fenice, who wrote the book’s introductory sections and an overview of Italian wines, and Colleen Mathieu, a Toronto caterer, did an admirable job of bringing the book together. Overall, this very pretty book, illustrated with reproductions of Orgera’s folkish paintings, is a delightful tribute to a superior chef.