`The Flavors of Southern Italy' by Erica De Mane is one of the most revealing expositions of a regional cuisine I have had the pleasure to read. This includes about twenty books covering Italy, regions of Italy, France, regions of France, Morocco, regions of China, and regions of the United States, plus several on the Mediterranean as a whole and the Arabic lands of the Mediterranean. The quality of the presentation is due to the most distinctive approach revealed clearly in the title of the book.
Most writers on regional cuisines do a gloss on the ingredients of the cuisine and proceed to a presentation of many of the classic dishes of the region. This is certainly the approach of the three different books I have read and reviewed on the cuisine of Rome. As long as the recipes are reasonably authentic and not the author's overly interpreted versions of these representative dishes, this approach can be quite good, as it is in these three treatments of Roman food.
Ms. De Mane's approach is most similar to the ingredients driven monograph `The Essential Mediterranean' by co-Italian specialist Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
Ms. De Mane makes no claim whatsoever to being true to the recipes of southern Italy. This is not to say there are not some authentically Italian dishes here, but this is not Ms. De Mane's game. Her book is not on the recipes of southern Italy, it is on the FLAVORS of southern Italy. Her approach to her subject begins with a very long chapter entitled `Essential Southern Italian Flavoring Ingredients'. This chapter covers virtually every major spice, herb, and condiment used in southern Italian cooking plus sections on olive oil, tomatoes, peppers and chilies, salumi, cheeses, nuts, and wine. The remainder of the book is organized not by course as is tradition with many other Italian cookbooks, but primarily by principle ingredient or type of preparation. In this way, salads and appetizers are not treated in a separate chapter. They are presented with other dishes with a common principle ingredient.
The chapters of recipes are:
Vegetables, including sections on shopping, cooking, and making salads
Seafood, including sections on buying and flavoring seafood
Meats and Poultry, including sections on typical usage and cooking for a group.
Savory Tarts, including sections on pizza and calzones.
The book ends with a chapter on the author's favorite southern Italian wines and a chapter on menus.
The author's definition of southern Italy is comprised of the provinces, in order of emphasis, of Sicily, Apulia (heel of the boot), Campania (Naples, Capri and the Amalfi coast), Basilicata (instep of the boot), and Calabria (toe of the boot). Sicily, Apulia, and Campania are the rich regions, which produce great quantities or olives, grapes, and wheat. Calabria and Basilicata are poorer, having a geography inhospitable to agriculture.
The author's strategy in the book is based, among other things, on three important aspects of what is available to her. First, many native southern Italian products simply do not travel well beyond their native land, in spite of the author's access to an excellent Manhattan source of Italian foods, DePalo Cheese, run by a family native to Basilicata. Luckily, this problem does not affect most classic ingredients like olive oil, hard cheeses, procuitto, and wines. Second, many Italian salumi products cannot be imported into the United States. Third, for many fresh ingredients, native American products are actually superior to what is available in Italy.
While the author relishes the wealth of American ingredients, she remains true to the Italian simplicity, especially in salads and soups. Unlike American and French salad constructions, she does not pile in everything but the kitchen sink. On the other hand, some classically influenced dishes such as the recipe for meatballs with green beans and potatoes does have a rather large ingredients list; however, the recipe is for meatballs, green vegetable, and starch.
My conviction that this is a superior treatment of it's subject is based on the fact that it says nothing which disagrees with things I have heard and read from reliable sources and it tells me much about the skillful use of many classic ingredients which I did not know or fully appreciate before.
If you are fond of an authentic Italian approach to food, like good writing about food, or are simply an all around foodie, then get this book. The spirit is all Italian, but the ingredients are very supermarket friendly. No heavy use of truffles or porcini or balsamic vinegar or even Parmesano Reggiano here. Unfortunately, you will probably feel just a bit left out if you don't have a good source of buffalo mozzarella at hand.
Highly recommended, especially for salads, vegetables, seafood, and pasta recipes. Intermediate skill level.