Review: Italian Immigrant Cooking
by Elodia Rigante
1996, First View Books, ISBN-13: 978-1885440020
I have had this book for quite a few years now and I like to leaf through it from time to time even though many of the recipes it contains are often far removed from traditional Italian dishes. The book is chiefly about American-Italian food, specifically native to Brooklyn, and, even more specifically, the family favorites that have graced the table of the Rigante family. As such, it is not destined to become a classic amongst Italian cookery books but it is nevertheless… and I can’t express it much better than to say… a very *nice* book…
The book contains 148 recipes, almost all of which are nicely illustrated. The various dishes are generally organized according to the part they play in a meal and there are two sections that focus on traditional Italian feasts, to wit: the Christmas Eve spread featuring seafood, and the particularly gargantuan Easter meal. There is not much in the way of any instruction in general technique, nor does the book include the typical ‘Introduction to Italian Food’ one generally sees. Rather, instead of examining the cuisine in terms of general Italian culture and history, the various sections of the book (and most of the recipes) are prefaced by anecdotes and stories that illustrate how the various dishes are special to the author’s family.
Each section of the book, and most of the recipes, are prefaced by glimpses into the Rigante family’s history following their arrival in America. There are photographs of weddings, family outings, and long-dead relatives interspersed with descriptions of family gatherings and other amusing incidents. Clearly, learning about such things as ‘Pappanon’s’ efforts at wine-making don’t really add much to one’s understanding of Italian cuisine, by any means, but it is this intimate and personal quality of the book that makes it a pleasure to own and read.
As to the actual recipes themselves, many of them can best be described as, well… idiosyncratic. There is, for example, a recipe described as ‘Paella’ (hardly Italian to begin with) that, incredible as it may seem, contains no rice whatsoever, and there are a few dishes, such as a pasta topped by sauce of creamed corn and bacon, that strike me as the sort of thing that you have to grow up with to truly love. Still, I don’t want to be too critical of the recipes on offer since, other than a very heavy reliance on oregano throughout the book, many of the dishes are deliciously innovative and nicely put together. Of particular interest to me was the Rigante’s method of making Risotto, which, though being very un-Italian, was the way I learned to make it from my father and yields, in my humble opinion, a far superior result than the classic method.
Ultimately, this book can best be described as a ‘family’ cookbook that leans heavily on Italian roots. It is not the sort of book I would recommend to those just looking for an introduction to the basic techniques of Italian cookery but for those who enjoy reading about food in all its aspects and wish to try some interesting ‘takes’ on mainstream Italian cuisine this is a lovely book to add to one’s collection…