New Italian cookbook features five key cities

Biba’s Italy
by Biba Caggiano
Artisan, New York
320 pages, $39.95 (Cdn)


(Canscene) — Seasonal gifting will again this year feature many eligible new cookbooks, but Biba’s Italy offers a special magic for italophiles, whether they’re merely aficionados of Italian design, clothing, automobiles and gastronomy or well-travelled in the peninsula.

Biba Caggiano is the chef-owner of Biba Restaurant in Sacramento, California and the author of six previous Italian cookbooks. In her newest volume, subtitled favourite recipes from the splendid cities she focuses on the gastronomy of Venice, Bologna, Milan, Florence and Rome in a beautifully designed book that contains a great deal of food and wine lore to accompany the recipes.

For instance, what is the difference between a ristorante, an osteria and a trattoria? Biba has a section titled Eating in Italy which defines ll different types of eating establishment from the formal ristorante to the paninoteca or sandwich shop
“But what great sandwiches!” writes Biba. “Panini stuffed with ham, seafood, vegetables and cheeses, alone or in combination.”

Biba’s writing reflects the tender loving care with which a vast majority of traditional Italian purveyors regard the food they serve. She warns against frequenting humdrum establishments which advertise a menu turistica. For visitors of modest means, there are plenty of out-of-the-way places where excellent fare is provided.

For each of the five cities, Biba lists local wines of note and also offers the addresses of pastry and gelato shops.

Biba’s cookbook matches her democratic principles with recipes from both large and small establishments, such as the famous Harry’s Bar in Venice where well-in-advance reservations are mandatory to the unassuming Nino in Rome.

Most of the recipes, while demanding due care in the cooking, are made of simple and easy-to-obtain ingredients especially since in Canada many cities are replete with specialty food stores.

To me, a good cookbook is more than a mere listing of recipes with sketchy notes of their origins. Start looking for a recipe in Biba’s Italy and chances are you’ll wind up an hour later having finally settled on one but also having picked up a great amount of absorbing information along the way.

Here’s one of my favourites as presented by Biba.

Calf’s liver with onions Venetian ztyle

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large, sweet onions, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 lbs calf’s liver cut into 1/4 inch wide and 3 to 4 inch strips
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is nice and hot, add the onions, stirring with a wooden spoon until soft and brown, about 25 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the onions to a bowl, letting the oil and juices fall back into the skillet.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the butter. As soon as the butter begins to foam, add the liver without crowding (cook in 2 batches if necessary.)
Cook stirring until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper.

Return the onions to the pan and stir until liver and onions are combined, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the contents of the skillet to a warm serving platter.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to the skillet, scraping up the brown bits attached o the bottom of the pan. Add the parsley, stir once or twice and pour the butter sauce over the liver and onions. Serve hot.

Tips: Use only fresh, young calf’s liver of the finest quality with any thin membrane pulled off. Use the sweetest onions: the traditional recipe calls for equal amounts of onions and liver.

Make sure the skillet is large enough to contain onions and liver without crowding.

Serve with grilled, fried or roasted polenta.

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