There are so many good Italian cookbooks that the arrival of another tempting treasure trove of authentic, creative recipes always amazes me. Biba Caggiano's latest, Italy al Dente, instantly prompted that amazed and happy state. This is a book of essentials a la Italiana, a book devoted to primi piati, the beloved first courses of a traditional Italian meal pasta, risotto, gnocchi, soup, and polenta the heart and soul of la cucina Italiana. That Biba Caggiano, who hosts a popular Italian cooking show on The Learning Channel, is passionate about these dishes is obvious from the enthusiasm, care, and love with which each recipe is introduced and presented. Biba believes that Italian cooking should be rooted in strong regional traditions, but that it must also be flexible and adaptable to new modes of cooking. Because ingredients are so very important, she begins with a discussion of the basic Italian pantry and goes on to some fundamental "how-tos" roasting peppers, cleaning mushrooms, mussels and clams, peeling those ever-essential tomatoes, and more. Then we get into the recipes, whose redolence and aromas seem to waft from the pages. From agnolotti to ziti, there's no doubt that pasta is primo in the hearts of many Italians and non-Italians alike, and it's primo here. Three sections, one on fresh pastas, stuffed and string, one on factory-made pasta, and one devoted to "La Spaghattata," spaghetti dishes that can be completed in the time it takes for the water to come to a boil. Mix and match among these fabulous farinaceous concoctions if you want: "Pietro's Meat Ragu," a rich, slow-simmered Bolognese specialty, served here over homemade pappardelle, can make any variety of factory-made pasta sing; or try homemade tonnarelli with Mushrooms Carbonara or Hot Anchovy Sauce.
Soup, soup, glorious zuppa, they're here in abundance, "Bean and Mussel Soup," "Tuscan Onion Soup," sublimely simple "Passatelli," from Emiglia-Romana. And more than 40 risotti, braised in flavorful broth, mixed with meats, cheeses, vegetables, shellfish, game, even blueberries, produce splendid rice dishes with ever-changing identities. Then come the gnocchi, those delicate little dumplings made with potatoes, ricotta, semolina, spinach, squash, or chestnut flour, that can be served plain or fancy, dressed with bit of butter and sage or dressed up with smoked salmon and mascarpone. Last, but not least, there's polenta, once a poor man's staple, now a star, baked with sausage ragu, molded with pork skewers, or served soft and creamy with pancetta, garlic, and hot pepper. For most Americans, these "first courses" become the focus of dinner and why not? I'm sure Biba wouldn't mind at all. Reviewed by Sybil Pratt.