Mangia! Mangia!Last summer I had the good fortune to spend a month in a beautiful Italian hill town. The everyday fare in restaurants and friends' homes was fresh and fabulous, but nothing was as joyous as going to a local festival or sagra, as they are called. There's a sagra to celebrate practically everything, and the heart and soul of every sagra is food. We sat at long, crowded tables under huge striped tents and ate and ate, as a bevy of busy women cooked up plate after plate of perfectly sauced pasta and all the delights that go before and after. I wondered about festivals at other times of the year and in other parts of Italy and thought how much fun it would be to eat one's way from town to town, from sagra to sagra, from antipasti to dolci. Now, with Anne Bianchi's richly researched Italian Festival Food, it's possible to share her multi-year culinary journey through tiny villages from Piemonte to Sicily and, following the over 150 recipes included, it's possible to reproduce regional specialties in your own kitchen. Ms. Bianchi, who divides her time between New York and Tuscany, where she runs a cooking school, introduces each of the nine recipe sections with a story about her experiences in a particular region each vignette, an armchair eating adventure and includes practical information with each individual recipe prep time, level of difficulty, what can be done ahead, serving suggestions, and wine recommendations. There's a steady stream of new Italian cookbooks, often without anything new in them, so it's a treat to have this novel approach to traditional dishes, a book that's a festival in itself.
Erica De Mane, unabashedly passionate about pasta, has a novel approach too, and the expertise and enthusiasm to make converts of us all. She wants us to be confident and, most importantly, creative when we cook, sauce, and season the tubular treasures that have become a mainstay of American cuisine. To that lofty end, Ms. De Mane has written Pasta Improvvisata: How to Improvise in Classic Italian Style (Scribner, $27.50, 068482972X). In this fusion-frenzied world, pasta, in its many shapes and sizes, has been or will be combined with almost anything. But Ms. De Mane, admitting that her real love is pasta in true Italian style, aims at teaching us how to use recipes creatively while staying within the Italian flavor palette and with the countless combinations possible in this productive palette, the result is liberating rather than limiting. She shows us how different cooking techniques can make the same ingredients taste totally different, how, for example, the simple delight of pasta tossed with garlic and oil can be amplified with anchovies and parsley, then turned into a Mediterranean masterpiece with the addition of capers, black olives, orange zest, and bread crumbs (I added some shrimp and ripe tomatoes and had a glorious summer supper).
To tweak your creative impulses, Ms. De Mane offers Ideas with every recipe, providing suggestions for other ingredients that will take the dish in a different direction. The book is divided into three sections Pasta with Vegetables, Pasta with Fish, and Pasta with Meat and is followed by advice on an Improviser's Pantry, Italian cheeses, and making fresh pasta. Ms. De Mane says that cooking is a continuous process of discovery and her straightforward, sensible yet sensuous take on pasta in particular and cooking in general makes that process practical and pleasurable.
Sybil Pratt is an avid cook.