Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The CIA's Italian Cooking by Scappin, Vanoli, and Kolpan

Mention "CIA," and the response will invariably distinguish a black ops wanna-be from a foodie.  This post is for those who first think, "Culinary Institute of America." My wife Caroline and I have eaten in CIA's Ristorante Caterina de' Medici, and eaten very well indeed, so I was predisposed in favor of this cookbook.  Italian Cooking is in the atHome series of cookbooks published by the CIA; it came out in 2011.  Basically a survey of regional dishes illustrated with lush photographs, it has an introductory chapter on the foods and wines of Italy and then a sequence of chapters loosely resembling the sequence of a meal, except that it begins with  spuntini (snacks), takes a detour to conserve (preserves and pickles), and only then briskly proceeds through crudi, soups, pasta, gnocchi, rice dishes, fish, meats, and dolci (desserts).

Many recipes are illustrated, but not all.  Those that are, however, confirm Levi-Strauss's perception that food photography aimed at an affluent audience presents the food in close-up, easily within reach because they can afford it.  This volume's photographs are not only close up, they are enlarged more than life size, much like what you might glimpse just before you buried your head in the platter.  The magnification quickly becomes off-putting.

Another off-putting aspect of this book is its layout.  Every recipe is given in Italian, with a following translation in English.  Then come a few sentences of introduction.  The text for the number of servings is in bold typeface, but then, inexplicably, the steps to follow for the recipe are in light typeface.  Given that anyone following a recipe has to look at each step several times, making the type harder to see makes no sense at all.  This is bad design.

But wait, there are more problems.  It appears that nobody tried to follow these recipes.  Take the one for Minestra di fagioli e cozze, Bean and Mussel Soup.  After soaking the beans for a least eight hours, the recipe calls for adding the beans to the broth the mussels have been cooked in.  Fine.  How long should the beans cook?  "Until the beans are very tender"--that's no help at all for the cook trying to figure out a time schedule.  Saying the beans should take approximately 45-50 minutes would be far more useful.  And the quantities are questionable:  one pound of mussels for a soup that serves 10-12 people?  What, two mussels per bowl of bean and mussel soup?  I cut the recipe in half and used two pounds of mussels.

Another problem is organization.  The recipe for polenta gnocchi (p. 201) is based "on using leftover polenta"; fine and dandy, but how one makes the polenta in the first place is only accorded three sentences some 60 pages later. To find even that information, one has to go to the index and read through two more recipes, with only the second being helpful.

A similar problem can be found in some of the pasta recipes.  The introductory material on cooking pasta suggests keeping back a cup or so of the pasta water to finish the sauce.  Excellent advice.  Sometimes a given pasta recipe will tell the cook to hold some back.  Others, however, contain a kind of bizarre boilerplate, as in step 2 for Spaghetti cacio e pepe:  "Transfer a few ladlefuls of pasta water from of the pot (sic) to a bowl or cup to have ready for finishing the sauce if your recipe calls for that step" (my italics).  And what do we find in step 3?  "Add about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water to the spaghetti to moisten the pasta slightly."  Better copy editing would have eliminated these awkward spots.

Finally, if you do find what looks like an interesting recipe, you'd better make a note of its page number on the endpaper.  I tried for the first time Pasta alla Norma, Pasta with Tomatoes, Eggplant, and Ricotta Salata. It was delicious.  But, when I wanted to go back to the recipe and make some notes for another time, I couldn't find it in the Index.  It's not under "Pasta" or under "Norma."  I had to go page by page through the pasta section to find it. 

Bottom line: give it a miss.


  1. I would have been very impatient with this. Cookbooks at a minimum should give useful simple techniques,or inspiration. On the occasions that they ask you to do something beyond your comfort zone, they should be detailed and explicit beyond the possiility of screwing up. if a food book does none of the above, banish it!

  2. Absolutely. The model here of course is Marcella Hazan, may she rest in peace. When, in my 40's, I was learning how to cook, her clarity gave me the confidence to get on with it. I also like very much Giuliano Bugialli.