It seemed so unlikely. Three ingredients: spaghetti, pecorino cheese and black pepper. That and a little of the salted water the pasta was cooked in. Toss them together, and you’d have a great dish.
How could it possibly amount to anything? But it did, and it was as good as promised. The dish was spaghetti cacio e pepe, the recipe from Lidia Matticchio Bastianich’s new book, “Lidia’s Italy.”
The concept of Bastianich’s fifth book, a companion to her PBS series of the same name (the show debuted this month), is enormously appealing; the subtitle says it best: “140 Simple and Delicious Recipes From the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most.”
Bastianich, owner of six restaurants, including Felidia and three others in New York, starts in her native Istria (now part of Croatia), then leads us through the dishes of Trieste, Friuli, Padova/Treviso, Piemonte, Maremma, Rome, Naples, Sicily and Puglia.
The dishes aren’t just the usual suspects, perhaps because of the geographic spread; many recipes are quite unusual and alluring. From Naples, Bastianich offers tiella, a pizza stuffed with octopus or escarole and olives. From Trieste, sardines in onion-wine marinade. From Maremma, sage pudding.
The spaghetti recipe is from the Rome chapter. It calls for an unholy amount of pepper -- two tablespoons of whole black peppercorns for one pound of pasta -- and a cup and a half of freshly grated pecorino Romano. “But because it is such a minimalist creation,” Bastianich writes in the headnote, “every ingredient is of utmost importance.” I used Rustichella d’Abruzzo spaghetti and pecorino from Lazio; I ground Tellicherry peppercorns coarsely using a mortar and pestle.
The technique is very natural; it feels like the way we all should have been taught to cook, and that’s true of just about everything I cooked from the book. You have your crushed pepper and grated cheese ready to go, along with a heated serving bowl, as the spaghetti cooks. When the pasta reaches al dente, you pull it out with tongs, let it drain over the pot for an instant, then plop it into the bowl, still dripping. “Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese,” Bastianich instructs, “and most of the ground pepper on the pasta, and toss in quickly. As you mix, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and amalgamate the pasta and condiments -- add more pepper or cheese to taste.”
I still had about a quarter of the pepper left, but it tasted just right. It was so good that although it’s supposed to serve six, four of us demolished the entire bowl (as a first course!). Bingo -- into my repertoire it went.
It’s a bit odd that Knopf published “Lidia’s Italy” in the spring; in general the dishes feel more autumnal or wintry than spring-like -- roast goose with mlinzi (homemade pasta baked dry) from Istria, gemelli with smothered cauliflower and saffron from Sicily. And curiously, there are relatively few antipasti.
In any case, what’s so refreshing is that Bastianich talks us through cooking by feel -- something so rare in cookbooks now.
Not all of the recipes are nearly as basic as that spaghetti, but many are very simple, and the six recipes I tested turned out to be terrific. Braised pork chops with savoy cabbage was irresistible -- and made all in one pan. Season and sear loin chops on the bone, remove them and deglaze the pan with white wine, add a little butter and olive oil, then drop in blanched savoy cabbage -- a lot of it -- and caramelize it in those pan juices. Add the chops back in, season and you’re good to go. Fabulous.
Chicken with artichokes, from Rome, is perfect for this season -- a simple, delicious braise with white wine, tomatoes and garlic. From Piedmont, roasted peppers filled with tuna make a wonderful antipasto. The tuna filling, made with Italian tuna packed in olive oil, and spiked with capers, anchovies, cider vinegar, mustard, mayo and Italian parsley, is somewhat addictive, even on its own.
Are all those recipes perfect? Alas, no. Often there’s too much to fit in the pan called for: That was a problem with those pork chops (no, 3 pounds of them plus 4 pounds of cabbage doesn’t fit in a 13-inch skillet). It was also a sticking point with an otherwise wonderful recipe for sausages with fennel and olive -- the recipe calls for 12 Italian sausages, about 2 pounds; I couldn’t fit more than nine in a 13-inch skillet (the recipe calls for a 13- or 14-inch skillet), and even then they were packed so tight I couldn’t “tumble” ingredients together as instructed.
With the tuna-stuffed peppers, the amount of peppers called for wasn’t nearly enough for all the filling. Bastianich called for three to four peppers; we needed eight to 10 for all that filling (we adjusted the recipe accordingly).
Bastianich sometimes forgets basic information such as waiting until the oil is hot to put ingredients in -- experienced cooks will instinctively do so, but beginners might not. And sometimes times are off. Still, Bastianich is a great cook, and there’s much in this book to look forward to. Summer. Fall. Naples. Trieste. Pappardelle with long-cooked duck sugo. Beefsteak Maremma style.
The photos are gorgeous. There are travel tips from Bastianich’s daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali.
I’ll invest in a bigger skillet, because this cookbook’s a keeper.