From the title of Lidia Bastianich’s new cookbook, “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine,” you might be expecting an encyclopedic textbook, along the lines of Julia Child’s classic masterwork from which it borrows the name. This book, the 14th from the popular restaurateur and public television cooking show star, is not that book — which is not a criticism at all. After all, we already have a good comprehensive guide to the basics of Italian cooking: “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by the late Marcella Hazan.
What Bastianich delivers in this book — written with her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali — is something more personal. It’s essentially a collection of more than 400 of her favorite recipes, from a wide enough range of categories that you could cook quite happily from it for several years.
Someone reasonably conversant in Italian regional cooking will probably notice that these sound different than the usual Italian dishes. Bastianich is from Istria and Trieste, located on a sliver of land between Venice and Slovenia that is as much influenced by Central European cooking as by the well-trod culinary landscape between Bologna and Florence.
These are related in a clear, concise manner that is brief but descriptive enough not to sound clinical. It’s like having a no-nonsense mother (or maybe grandmother) standing at your side while you’re cooking.
Bastianich is an ideal candidate to take over as the mother of Italian cooking in America. She is widely known from her many cookbooks and television shows. Some of her newer fans might be surprised to learn that she first made her mark as one of the founders of Italian fine dining in this country. Her Felidia restaurant is still a Manhattan landmark, more than 30 years after its opening.
And then, of course, there’s the business with her son Joe Bastianich, who is a partner with Mario Batali in 30 restaurants, including Babbo and Del Posto in New York and the small Mozza empire in Southern California. Lidia is a partner in two of those restaurants — Del Posto and Esca — as well as being a partner with her son and Batali in the Eataly emporiums in New York and Chicago and coming in a year or so to Century City.
In most cases, what you’ll find in “Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” aren’t classic versions of familiar dishes. Instead, Bastianich gives each her own spin — which is, of course, quintessentially Italian. The results are often surprising and almost always delicious.
Pork spareribs braised in tomato sauce is about as familiar a dish as you can imagine. But Bastianich adds chopped pickled red peppers in her version — a transformative touch that may have you buying these peppers in bulk and throwing them into almost everything you cook.
Similarly, there’s nothing much new about a tart with potatoes and chard, but Bastianich wraps hers in a crostata dough made with flour, olive oil and water — no leavening, no butter. It might seem like a misprint, but the result is almost like a strudel dough that stretches incredibly thin and bakes very crisp.
Is “Mastering” a comprehensive guide to the classic dishes of Italian cuisine? Absolutely not. Instead, it’s a well chosen collection of delicious, somewhat unusual recipes from one of America’s great Italian cooks. And really, how many more recipes for ragù Bolognese do you need?