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.

Overall

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…

Available Here…

19 thoughts on “Review: Italian Immigrant Cooking”

  1. I have 2-3 cookbooks like that which blend in immigrant history and recipes which reflect the immigrant cook’s adopted country’s influences. They are valuable books because it reflects how they adjusted recipes.

    Some of the (rare) food blog posts that I write, do feature some dishes that my mother prepared to cope with our poor family income with an Asian twist. ie. like stir fried butternut squash. It is yummy and easy to make: http://cyclewriteblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/butternut-squash-chic-carrying-on-stir-fried-memories/

  2. I too have this book and was excited when I first purchased it, a number of years ago. But frankly, while it is a “nice” book, I think my grandmother and mother’s recipes, as well as those of my uncle and father, many of which I have adapted are superior, at least to my taste. The stories are are good too. The thing about family cooking is that there is no bible, everything is tradition, usually oral, and the terminology is family-specific as well; e.g., “is it gravy, or is it sauce?”

  3. I think your word, idiosyncratic, is a good one for the description. The photo on the front cover is of the Nona everyone would want to cook for them, and I don’t think the recipes as you describe the ingredients fit the Nona of our imaginations. I think I need to better master traditional Italian recipes first! 🙂 Debra

  4. What’s their recommended method for making risotto? I guess it make mine the “usual” way but now I’m curious. My mother’s family is all from Sicily, not much rice in those parts, so we don’t have any good family risotto recipes.

    1. Nice to see you back Madam W. 🙂

      Generally, in the ‘traditional’ method, short grain (typically arborio) rice is used, then hot stock is added a ladle at a time until it gets abosrbed and the final result is very creamy and moist. Some say that if you smack one side of the pot, a ‘wave’ should pass over the surface…

      My method (and Elodia’s) uses long grain rice. The grains are first cooked in hot oil pilaf style and then the stock is added all at once with any additional infredients and cooked covered. The result is much drier (even fluffier). Purists will say this is not a risotto but I like it much better.

      1. Thanks! Interesting about the different technique. Mine is the traditional one with the arborio. The other method is how I make my basmati rice, but I’ll have to experiment with other rices now.

  5. Hi! I just checked out your blog because of a nice comment you left on mine and was so happy to see that old Italian lady’s face smiling back at me! This book belongs to my boyfriends father, and every time I am over at their house I always, always pick up this book and look at it. Ive probably read it from cover to cover a dozen times. He’s made a few dishes out of it, and they always come out incredible. This is one of my favourite cook books!

  6. I am going to need this book on my shelf! I knew a woman from Padua in Boston, who’d dismiss Italian Americans as ‘real’ Italians, until I pointed out her daughter was Italian American LOL… The North End of Boston is one place living in my heart and memories that can actually make me drool just thinking of the markets, bakeries and restaurants.

    Off topic, my family mostly came from Quebec and I would love to find some cookbooks like this, both about Canadian/French and American/FrenchCanadian cooking, any recommendations?

  7. Oh, lucky day! I was able to pick this wonderful book up used on Amazon for a few dollars! I can’t wait for it to arrive, thank you so much for posting this book, it will certainly enrich my life!

    1. I hope you enjoy! I’m afraid I don’t really know any decent Quebecois or Acadien cookery books… I’ve only ever seen a few that I recall.

      BTW … did you know that Montreal has a huge Italian population? There are probably as many Italian restaurants in the downtown core as there are Chinese (and this is a city with a Chinatown).

      1. really? wow, I’ve only visited Montreal once and 2 hours were spent in the backseat as my mother in law drove back and forth over the same bridge trying to find the way to the casino! Each year we visit Ticonderoga and this year we planned on sneaking across the border, just me and hubby but then discovered our passports had expired 3 years ago! D’oh! Next year for sure! I want to go to Quebec City too!

  8. Sausage, chicken, peppers, and potatoes recipe on p.99 was amazing. I kept coming back to this picture and thinking, that looks good. I finally made it and it was so simple and elegant for a comfort food. I also followed the tip about using it the next day for a sandwich filling. I make french bread stuffed with ham and cheese weekly for my husband, he needs no variety and loves them but sometimes I need a change LOL I filled a baguette with this the next day and actually received a phone call raving about the sandwich. I am so glad you reviewed this book, I was able to pick it up used on Amazon for pennies and shipping!

      1. Dear Husband got me a lovely wrought iron cookbook holder and I put the cookbook on display open to that page. Everytime I went shopping I bought peppers, onions, chicken and sausage but then I would scour my computer, WordPress and my desk for the recipe –which was right under my nose on the counter! LOL

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