In our past cookbook reviews, when we have found a cookbook particularly compelling, we tend use words like "noteworthy," "fantastic" and yes, "compelling." But when Nancy Silverton's The Mozza Cookbook (with executive chef Matt Molina and writer Carolynn Carreño), which hits shelves today, landed on our desk, we had a more visceral response:
This cookbook is freaking awesome.
Even better, it didn't have to be.
Mozza and its culinary offspring have become such cult L.A. institutions, a pizza-centric cookbook would have satisfied loyal patrons with simply a few "come hither" photos of fennel sausage-scallion and Gorgonzola dolce-fingerling potato-radicchio pies. But as those who know her well will tell you, Silverton doesn't undertake any new venture halfheartedly. And writing a restaurant cookbook is never quite as easy as it initially seems -- even for Silverton.
For starters, there are the inevitable restaurant ingredients and equipment that don't translate well to the home cook: Those imported Italian flours used to make handmade pasta, a professional pizza oven that creates very different results than a home oven, the emulsifiers (versus more widely available cornstarch) used in the gelatos. Most chefs simply make note of those ingredient swaps in the Introduction and leave it at that. After all, if you truly want that chef-created pizza experience, you're going to have to go to the restaurant, cookbook or not. With Silverton, her frustration with that very idea -- and unwillingness to accept it -- is refreshingly evident in every chapter.
Of course, making your own cookbook detours is easier if you're someone as pedigreed, and respected, as Silverton. If she wants to share something as simple as how to whip cream to the perfect lightness -- not at the beginning of the book, where such basics are usually found, but on page 274 as merely a recipe component -- her publisher, it seems, is going to let her.
All the better for us, as we're more than happy to surprise our former pastry-trained selves by learning a thing or two about something as simple as whipped cream. This is the very beauty of Silverton's cooking, be it in that first loaf of Campanile bread or that pizza margherita today. Silverton truly wants to share what she knows with her pupils. Usually, that knowledge is passed on to her restaurant chefs and cooks. But with The Mozza Cookbook, for a brief moment, it gets to be us.
And so the book begins with a glossary and explanation of the restaurant's essential ingredients: An olive oil primer; the reason oregano is the only herb the restaurant kitchen uses dried rather than fresh ("because the leaves are even more flavorful dried and that's the way oregano is used in Italy"); the type of anchovies to seek out ("I prefer salt-packed anchovies to those packed in oil, but of all the salt-packed anchovies, the most special are Alici di Menaica.").
A few pantry recipes follow, including the restaurant's tomato sauce, their house lemon vinaigrette, a classic soffritto (an olive oil-rich combination of sautéed onions, celery and carrots). Even within these basic pantry recipes, Silverton offers up handy, and refreshingly honest for a high-end restaurant, head notes: "At the restaurant we chop the carrots and celery in a food processor, but we chop the onions by hand to avoid their becoming a watery puree." And with that, we can finally put an end to our food processor guilt.
From there, Silverton moves on to a chapter dedicated to "Aperitivi and Stuzzichini" (a handful of cocktails and small bites like roasted olives with garlic confit and prosciutto-wrapped breadcrumbs). Another is dedicated solely to fresh mozzarella and its siblings (mozzarella with bagna cauda, bottarga and croutons; burrata with asparagus, brown butter, guanciale and almonds). Add the chickpea and salami-speckled chopped salad or the more substantial meatballs al forno (get the recipe here) from the "Antipasti" chapter, and you could call it a meal.
But then you'd miss out on the "Pizza" chapter, where Silverton begins by recounting her studied pizza pilgrimages before opening Mozza. Forewarning: You'll soon be itching to buy a plane ticket to go to Pizzeria Bianco -- in Phoenix, not Rome (and yes, Silverton agrees with Rachael Ray on this particular issue).
Silverton reminds us to think thoughtfully about our pizza ingredient combinations. ("Sometimes the pizzas people create look so unappetizing and crowded -- My biggest pet peeve being adding tomato sauce to the mushroom pizza... at that point I just have to look away.") Silverton is equally upfront from the beginning that the dough recipe in the book is not exactly what they make at the restaurant. "Dough reacts differently in different ovens," she explains of the need to adjust the recipe for the home oven.
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From there, the "Primi" chapter is full of handmade pastas like fresh ricotta and egg ravioli, as well as gnocchi with duck ragu. And yes, Silverton gives proper credit where it is due: "Everything I know about pasta I learned from working with Mario and his team of chefs," she begins. The "Secondi" and "Contorni" chapters include several of the main dishes and simple vegetables you find on the Osteria and Pizzeria menus -- pan roasted sea trout with lentils and red cabbage sottaceto, roasted carrots siciliana, and sautéed cavolo nero (Tuscan kale). Even that simple broccolini with red pepper flakes has us reconsidering our side dishes tonight, thanks to that generous 1/3 cup of red wine vinegar ("Using vinegar and chilis in an aggressive way is something Matt [Molino] picked up from Mario," she says).
But as usual, we're saving room for dessert. And yes, butterscotch budino is the first recipe in that Meyer lemon gelato, torta della nona and toasted coconut biscotti-filled chapter. The final recipe? Not so much a recipe but a closing statement on coffee. In it, Silverton reminds us of that well-known, unspoken cappuccino rule in Italy (a proper Italian never drinks cappuccino after 11 a.m.) And so we leave you with this, as Silverton sums up her cappuccino philosophy, and this cookbook's charm, much better than we ever could:
It's a [cappuccino] rule I break every day at the restaurant at 5:30 p.m., when I start my shift. Breaking the rules -- or at least bending them -- is an American tradition that I relish.