Book Review: Ciao Italia: Five-Ingredient Favorites by Mary Ann Esposito, Host of Public Television’s Ciao Italia: I was excited to recently receive a copy of this cookbook to review. This book gave me a chance to take a deeper look at Italian cuisine, because even though I’m familiar with quite a few Italian dishes, I don’t have much experience cooking Italian food. While reading this book, I was happy to see that the cooking methods are straightforward and attainable for cooks of all experience levels.
Going through this book I discovered how refreshing it is that Italian dishes are mainly based on bringing out the flavor of a few high quality ingredients, which coincides perfectly with the theme of this book – delicious dishes with only five ingredients. I really love the concept of this book, and I think it works well for each recipe; I just want to say that in order to incorporate each recipe into a meal, you will probably need other ingredients. For example, you’ll probably want to make some sort of veggie to accompany a pasta dish, or some kind of protein dish to go with a salad of veggies. Even though this book is full of five-ingredient dishes, it’s not necessarily full of five-ingredient meals, which worked fine for me since I don’t mind making a couple of dishes for a meal.
This book is nicely organized into the following chapters: food for thought (which discusses food staples in the pantry, fridge, and freezer), antipasti, soups, pasta, sauces, meat and poultry, fish, vegetables, sweets, and seasonal five-course menus. Each chapter contains an introduction, which gives personal stories and background information related to the Italian dining experience. Directly after each chapter’s introduction there is a list of five useful tips that pertain to each chapter. I found the tips interesting and helpful; here’s one of my favorite tips from the soup chapter: Drop a slightly beaten egg white into boiling broth or stock; it will foam up and act like a magnet to attract the scum that forms on top. (I never knew that, but I can’t wait to try it!)
I know a lot of people prefer cookbooks with pictures of every recipe; I think that while cookbooks with pictures of every recipe make for nice coffee table material (and also help to visualize a recipe), you can really miss out if you forgo reading through cookbooks without pictures. This book only has a few pictures, which I didn’t mind because the recipes were amazing enough to stand alone…in this book there are two inserts of color photos, each insert containing four double-sized pages, for a total of 16 pictures of recipes. Even though I didn’t mind the scarcity of pictures in this book, the way the pictures were done was strange…there were a total of 16 pictures, but there were three recipes (cauliflower salad (pictured above), prosciutto and pine nut pizza, and chocolate, hazelnut, and banana tartlets) that had duplicate pictures so that only 13 pictures were of different dishes. In a book with limited picture space, I thought it was a little strange to see duplicates of three recipes.
The Recipes: The recipes in this book are fabulous, and right off the bat I noted at least one-third of them that I want to make. There are a few classics in here, such as creamy leek soup, Tuscan bean soup, little parsley gnocchi, and coal-miners’ style spaghetti (spaghetti carbonara). There are also a few twists on classics that I can’t wait to try, like cheesy stuffed meatballs and Italian cheese fondue. Many of the recipes are new to me, and sound phenomenal…one of the most interesting recipes I found is for paradise soup. In this soup, little “meatballs” are made from breadcrumbs, cheese, and eggs and cooked in broth. It’s called paradise soup because who would have thought that soup made of this would taste so divine!
The Recipe I Made Right Away: When you read through few of the recipes, you might think they sound delicious but could use another ingredient or two (don’t fall into this trap!). This is what I thought when I saw the recipe for linguine roman style. The recipe calls for linguine, ricotta cheese, butter, cooking water from the linguine, and pecorino cheese. When I first read the recipe I thought it sounded great but could use maybe just a little garlic. I didn’t give into temptation though…I followed the recipe as written (except I used fettuccine instead of linguine because that’s what I had on hand) and I was glad I did! It was fabulous and I didn’t miss the garlic at all. Even though I didn’t have to add any other ingredients to this recipe, to make this dish a meal I made a big green salad to serve alongside the pasta.
This dish was deliciously cheesy and tasted similar to fettuccine alfredo. The only thing qualm I have about this dish is that it tastes much better served right after making. If there are leftovers that are reheated, the ricotta takes on a lumpy, cottage cheese-like consistency (don’t get me wrong, I like cottage cheese, but it was not a pretty sight). To solve that, I recommend only making enough at a time for what you plan on serving; be forewarned, this recipe uses a pound of pasta and it says that it makes four to six servings…if you consider it four servings that means that one-quarter pound of pasta is a serving, and this is a LOT of pasta! To avoid leftovers and stick with a healthier serving size, I consider the entire recipe to be about six to eight servings.
Linguine alla Romana (Linguine Roman Style)
(Yield: 4 to 6 (or about 6 to 8 to avoid leftovers) servings)
1 lb linguine (I used fettuccine because it’s what I had on hand)
1/2 lb whole milk ricotta cheese
1 stick (8 TB) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c cooking water from the linguine
1/2 c grated pecorino cheese
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring 4 quarts of water up to a boil, then add 1 TB of salt to the boiling water. Cook the pasta to al dente according to the package directions. When you drain the pasta, reserve 1/4 c of the pasta water to add to the sauce and return the pasta to the cooking pot.
In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the ricotta cheese and butter and heat for 8 minutes (stirring constantly) until it forms a smooth, creamy sauce.
Heat the pasta over low heat, and stir in the ricotta sauce and the reserved pasta water. Stir in half the pecorino cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Transfer the pasta to a serving dish and serve with the remainder of the cheese to pass around to sprinkle on top.