The recently released Italian Cooking At Home is part of the growing At Home With the Culinary Institute of America series. The problem with any series, be it a crime novel or a cookbook, is they either continue to successfully shed light on a single subject with in-depth looks at those sfoglia (fresh pastas) and sputini (snacks and small bites), or they quickly become littler more than a publisher's latest sales tactic. Remember the Williams Sonoma single-subject collection from ten years ago?
Fortunately, Italian Cooking At Home by CIA instructors Gianni Scappin (from the school's Ristorante Caterina de' Medici), Alberto Vanoli (regional Italian Cuisine) and Steven Koplan (wine) falls into the former category. But that doesn't mean you should expect the creative flourishes that are the backbone of most cookbooks today. As with culinary school, the point of this book is simple: To teach you the basics. And yes, there is a “right” way of making that baccalà mantecato (whipped salt cod), just ask Lidia Bastianich. Actually, the book's recipe is very similar to the one made by the Italian cooking doyenne.
This is a book best thought of as a guidebook for those who really want to take a cooking course on traditional Italian cuisine, but don't have the extra few thousand dollars for that culinary school course or two — or even the $90+ that those three hour amateur cooking classes seem to be running these days. Here, your $35 (actually $20 with that Amazon discount) goes towards a menu of 150 traditional Italian recipes: bagna caôda (anchovy and olive oil dipping sauce), gnocchi di semolina, maiale al latte (milk-braised pork), brodetto di pesce (fish soup), and for dessert, you can expect classic panna cotta and zabaglione recipes.
Of course, there is a fundamental problem with a cookbook covering an entire country, particularly one with such a regionally diverse palate like Italy, in only 150 recipes. Then again, at the CIA, that intro course covers all of the regional dishes of Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Greece, and Egypt.
We found the classic lasagna Bolognese recipe to cook up exactly as promised, a solid rendition of the traditional ricotta-free, meat and béchamel sauce version. In typical culinary school fashion, it uses an alarming amount of béchamel sauce. Tasty, but best eaten in measured restaurant doses. In other words, when outside the restaurant setting, you're probably eating that lasagna as your main course, not as a small nibble among a sea of gifts from the chef.
Of course, there are nights when a simple, olive oil and Parmesan-rich risotto alla parmigiana is exactly what you're after. At least until you first taste of how those wild mushrooms and a trio of freshly chopped herbs can forever change your risotto palate. But first, you still have those other 149 basic recipes to master.