By Mario Batali
Photographs by Mark Ferri
Clarkson Potter -- 1998
Buy it on Amazon
More than a decade ago -- long before Del Posto, Otto and road trips through Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow -- Mario Batali had two restaurants, Pó and Babbo, and was just beginning to grow his rock-'n'-roll, orange-Croc-wearing legend through the Food Network.
It's there that we find him with "Mario Batali Simple Italian Food," his first cookbook, which takes readers through the tastes of Borgo Capanne, where Batali worked in Trattoria La Volta on the border of the Italian regions Emilia-Romagna and Toscana, as well as his other "village," New York.
Batali divides the recipes of these villages by color: The orange-titled ones are those he invented in New York; the brown titles are those he learned in Italy.
See what we tested and whether it's worth buying after the jump.
Takeaway tips: Think seasonal. "The single most important discovery I made [in Italy] was how simply they all combined their local seasonal ingredients," Batali writes. While you can flip-flop some seasonal ingredients in these recipes, there are four ingredients that can never, ever be substituted: a good extra-virgin olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, a good balsamic vinegar and prosciutto.
Quality of pictures: Mark Ferri's sepia-toned and black-and-white photographs of seasonal ingredients at markets pepper the recipe pages. Lush full-color photographs are included of some of the recipes in four insert sections throughout the book, though some of the plates date the dishes to the late 1990s.
We tested: Fettuccine with Lobster alla Pantelleria and Guido's Garlic Bread
Some leftover Cape Cod lobster and a desire to make some garlic bread lead us to these Italian (the fettuccine) and American (the bread) village recipes. Both lived up to the book's title. They were simple and how! The most labor-intensive portion of the fettuccine recipe was plucking the basil and mint leaves from their stems. They joined parsley, garlic, capers, plum tomatoes, hot red pepper flakes and black pepper in the food processor, where they were emulsified with olive oil to make the base of the sauce.
Add to that cold sauce the cooled lobster meat and you have the backbone of the dish. We took a tip from Bill Buford, who chronicled his time in the Babbo kitchen in "Heat," and used tongs to lift the fettuccine from its salt-water bath straight into the sauce, hoping that some of the starchy water would give a little more gel to the sauce. It did.
Guido's Garlic Bread turned out to be even simpler. We didn't even need to wrap it in aluminum foil. The secret to this dish is brushing the bread with olive oil and red wine. The latter had our guests raving, "What did you do to this bread?"
Worth the investment: If you're a fan of Italian cooking and want to easily prepare it at home, Batali's your man.