Cookbook Review - Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I think the most daunting task about getting a cookbook which singularly covers a specific type of cuisine you aren't used to cooking is its perceived exoticness. It can seem, at times, overwhelming. That's how I feel, or felt, about Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini.

I'm generally not a super fan of Western European styles of food preparation and flavors. They're nice enough, I admit, but I prefer the bold temerity of Asian and Middle Eastern styles of cooking. I learned to cook Chinese food from little old Chinese women in college. I picked up a penchant for Lebanese and Israeli food thanks to my parents traipsing me through so many parts of the world. I adore Costa Rican cooking, and their clever use of papaya seeds as a faux-pepper (as I see it with my American eyes). Indian style curries are a constant staple for lunches and a quick way for me to use leftover produce.

My kitchen is stocked with miso, dashi, ground mace, nutmeg extracts, black bean paste, sumac, and pomegranate molasses. My fridge filled with bok choi, eggplants, Chinese mustard greens, and purple long beans. Italian food is rare. I have tons of garlic and a few cans of tomatoes, but the only pasta I had I threw out as I'm pretty sure I bought it back in 2003 and the bag had torn open.

The sad fact is though, many friends I have are timid to coming over for dinner. They fret about what I may serve, and indeed, I am questioned all too often after offering an invitation, "Depends, what are you making?" I decided then and there that it was time to learn to make a few dishes that were more familiar using ingredients that didn't have so many x's, z's, hyphens, or other linguistic circus performances.

To avoid this I went out and purchased a copy of Urban Italian completely on the fly. There was no research that went into my decision making; rather Ruth Reichl suggested it, the cover was pretty, and the opening anecdotes were well written. These anecdotes, notes from Carmellini which colorfully demonstrate how he came to develop his cooking style without actually talking about cooking, was artful and engaging. A quick flip through the pages and the recipes convinced me that this was a book worth trying.

The recipes are split up into 6 main sections: antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci, and bases (read: appetizers, first course, second course, vegetable/side dish, desserts, and base recipes). Each one is carefully laid out and introduced with clarity and a bit of wit.

Throughout the book you'll find little sections about ingredients or techniques. Taggiasca olives are described with clear details: "Taggiascas are a little like Nicoise olives, only metier, and with a stronger olive taste, since Taggiascas are stored in olive oil instead of brine" (166). This same clarity is applied to cheeses, vinegars, and other Italian food stuffs. Some recipes cover in detail various techniques; the ravioli and gnocchi recipes are fine examples of this, each with step by step pictures and detailed instructions.

If you keep a kitchen with most of the Italian ingredients called for, or at least have a good source of where to find things such as sheep's milk ricotta then you're set. For me, I had to make a few trips. Still, the recipes were simple to execute and thoroughly tasty. The spaghetti pepe de vellis is amazing in flavor and texture; spaghetti with anchovies, Pernod, Nicoise olives, parm, and plenty of garlic "sliced Goodfellas thin." The almond granita is also a favorite, one I've now made plenty of times and always impresses company.

Furthermore, with the purchase of these ingredients, I'm set to make these Italian dishes again. In addition, after understanding the flavor pairings and techniques, I can put together Italian-esque dishes myself on the fly it seems. (My roommate is also a huge help in this arena as well.)

The pictures are engaging and well laid out. Even the most fervent photography inclined foodie will appreciate the rustic shots taken and the clarity of the step by step photos. Something any food blogger can attest to being a total pain in the ass. Still, I found that there could have been more shots of completed dishes and fewer shots of styled ingredients.

Simply enough, I find it's a good cookbook. Is it great? That may be a bit generous of an adjective, but again, I'm biased. Italian isn't my thing, and I honestly feel that I still need a comprehensive Italian cookbook someday to really ground me into the style and mindset of Italian cooking. This has definite flair and a bit of a cosmopolitan domesticity to it but it isn't the end all by a long shot. Still, if you're proficient in Italian already, this may be the next logical jump for you.

It has done its job of making Italian food less exotic to me, rather the style seems warming and familiar, something that isn't quite so strange anymore. For that, I must extend thanks to Carmellini.


  1. Many of the recipes in this book appealed to curious to hear how you fare!

  2. If you ever need someone to taste test let me know, I love being a guinea pig!

    BTW, Ruth's got a new book coming out. :)

  3. Good for you Garrett. We love to cook Cal-Italia. Taking advantage of our great local produce and fresh ingredients but with an Italian flair. The thing that's great about original Italian cooking is that it is very regional so depending on the author's influence you can get a completely different spin on many dishes. I find that refreshing and inspiring. We have a few old Italian cookbooks that we hang on to for the classics. Buon appetito! - D&M

  4. I was intrigued by the cover, and thank you for introducing it, to me. Another for my wish list, heh.

    However...your post title says the book is by 'David' Carmellini, not 'Andrew'...which was another reason to do a double take! (normally, I'd never be writing police, but this is the title...)

  5. Nilliem - Wow, thanks for catching that. Honestly, I was just cooking with David Tannis' book the other night and it must have slipped by me. Lordy, some days I would kill for a copy editor. =P

    Can't believe I effed up the author's name. Jesus. O.o Oh well, I guess no matter what we all miss something in our own proofing.

  6. Il Cucchiaio D'Argento (Silver Spoon) or Il Talismano (The Talisman) are the real deal (both are available in English although the Italian versions are better).

    Anna Tosca Lanza is a great resource if you're interested in Sicilian cooking (which might appeal to you with its Arab/Middle Eastern influences), although I think her books are out of print they are still readily available (in English). She's the "guru" of Sicilian cuisine and cooking.

    Great post and excellent review!

  7. Personally, I grew up on Marcella Hazan's recipes - the woman basically taught my parents to cook. To this day, any time I come home with a new vegetable or I have a craving for something vaguely Italian, the first thing I do is pull out her book and look for a recipe. She spells things out with just the right amount of detail and I'm always amazed at how just a few simple ingredients can turn into magic by following her directions.

    With that said, I had the pleasure of eating at A Voce, where Carmellini used to be executive chef, and oh my god it was one of the most incredible meals of my life. So if you'd recommend his book to someone who's already familiar with Italian food, I guess I'll have to pick it up!

  8. I've been reading this for...oh...two years now? And that is the first time I found a hit me over the head oops! I think you do just fine!

  9. I find Italian food I can do easy enough as the basic ingredients are so minimal - it is the combinations that are endless.

    In contrast I break into a sweat at the thought of having to prepare a stir fry, and my few forays into other Asian dishes have mostly been disastrous (curries being one exception).

    I think if you can do Asian food and do it well, you have nothing to fear from Italian cooking. The trick with this cuisine is that cheese is used like we use ketchup - to cover up any flavour that is less than optimal. Almost always works too...


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