Gastronomic vapor lock
Review © 2002 by Burton Kaplan

Rustico: Regional Italian Country Cooking
Micol Negrin
Clarkson Potter/Publishers, New York
400 pages, hdbk, $35, CDN$53
ISBN 0-609-60944-0


Did she eat my lunch?

Let's put it this way: she was a woman of appetites and she did make short work of me at table. But here's the thing tough as she was she was by no means my worst adversary. No, when it came to the Challenge of the Stars I was up against an even more formidable foe - craftier, wilier, sneakier: Myself.

"Two more portions of foie gras, please," I recall saying as we Tom Jones-ed our way through the early going of yet another Michelin-starred meal. (Pardon me if I can't name restaurant names here but, hey, after scarfing up 20 asterisks in just five days, you'd lose track, too.)

The fleeting expression of competitive dismay streaking Solange's silver-blue eyes in response to my instruction to the waiter did not escape gleeful notice. It deluded me into thinking that the appropriate question was no longer, Would she consume the magic number, 56? Now it was more like, Could she?

I had my doubts.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, with the presentation of our order, SHAZAM!, gastronomic vapor lock struck me down with sudden vengeance. In an inexplicable flash it zapped my appetite, snuffed out the smoldering seam of competitive coal deep in my personal geology, strangled my zest for the concours de cuisine on which we had embarked.

Less than a week earlier we had set off through rural France on a fortnight's journey. The big idea, possibly the basis for an article for the travel pages of The New York Times, was to dine daily at restaurants accounting for four Michelin stars. Two ones and a two, two each for lunch and dinner, three and one it mattered not at all so long as the diurnal bottom line was four.

Between you and me, it was no great loss to give up the game. But even as I openly and warmly celebrated her superiority I knew that it was not her prowess alone but, rather, my gastro-fatigue that had done me in. I needed a break from the increasingly painful "pleasures" of cream, eggs, butter, truffles, cheese, liver, caviar, lobster, and the like that render almost every haute cuisine meal in a binge of haute cuisine meals at once original and monotonous.

More complete relief was to be mine when we motored southeast the next morning to sample the honest-to-Italy fare of some of that peninsula's twenty regions. Honest in the sense that what identifies each with the green, white, and red is strict emphasis on local ingredients. This, of course, begets 20 different takes on what constitutes pleasure on a plate and, so, provides a wonderful restorative to even the most pooped of passions for things edible.

In determining how a nation covering an area only slightly larger than Arizona came to so wide-angle a view on things culinary, it is useful to recall that Italy was not Italy until 1861. It was only then she emerged out of congeries of ancient and independent city-states, islands, and republics, each very nearly self-sufficient.

With exceptions for Venice and Genoa, and the seafaring islands, imports were few. No great north-south river systems cut through mountainous terrain to facilitate internal trade, no central capital homogenized taste. Until the modern era, provincials produced most of what was consumed locally. Accordingly, what defined any one territorial gastronomy distinguished it from everything else.

Today's highly individual regional preferences for wine, meat, and cheese for example, Emilia-Romagna's parmigiano "ice cream" glazed with a syrup of balsamic vinegar versus Sardinia's mint-and-lemon-laced cheese pillows in warm chestnut honey - reflect centuries of making sectional dishes and beverages taste like the celebrations of local nature that they are.

It is this seminal notion of encapsulated completeness that forms the launching pad for first-time author Micol Negrin's peripatetic paean to the rustic Italian table. Happily, hers proves to be among the better books of its kind since Marcella Hazan's groundbreaking take on the Italian way of living and eating set the enduring standard in America more than 25 years ago. (Curiously, Negrin fails to acknowledge Hazan's work in her otherwise useful bibliography.)

Unlike the narrower views of Italian food extant in English, Negrin devotes roughly equal attention to every Italian region. For each she proffers 10 authentic recipes encompassing the entire meal, antipasti to dolci. Good as these are, it is not her 200 prescriptions alone that make this title shine. Rather, it is also the warm and easy manner in which they are presented. Ms. Negrin has a gift for accessible communication that makes her work read like a long-overdue letter from a trusted friend - informing and pleasant.

Each chapter begins with an overview of the region, its culinary influences, food staples, and important recipes; each includes information on the locale's wine and cheese; sidebars explore localized tradition, cooking techniques, and quality of life; favorite restaurants, shops, and places are conveniently identified (with telephone numbers) to make trip planning easier and more fulfilling. Equally helpful is a glossary of Italian culinary terms and a listing of United States sources for many of the ingredients called for in her recipes.

As for her recipes themselves, it is worth noting that, although many of these are as old as the hills from which they spring, they never cease to be vigorously alive. While it is true that the cuisine in most contemporary cookeries is usually more advanced than popular practice and establishes table fashion, Negrin's irresistible book demonstrates the opposite: trendy food may come and go but Italian home cooking will always remain and inspire.

"Pardon me if it sounds like I am gloating," Solange was saying as we approached the international boundary just east of Menton, "but ..."

She left the sentence hanging in air.

Ever the gentleman, I of course okey-doked her, the while thinking to myself that there are at least 104 different expressions, most of them crude, that the French use to talk about eating to excess but none of them include the word "Italy."

June 2002

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