This book is Patricia Wells' Italian companion to her French cuisine's `Bistro Cooking' and it succeeds in doing for the Italian comfort food world the same great job she did for the Bistro. A look at the table of contents shows at a glance where the major differences lie between the two cuisines. Where `Bistro Cooking' had a chapter on potatoes and one chapter on pasta, `Trattoria' has two chapters on pasta (dried and fresh) plus chapters on `Rice and Polenta' and `Breads and Pizzas'. While `Bistro Cooking' desserts concentrated on pastries, `Trattoria' desserts concentrate on granitas, sorbets, and ice creams. The French book also seems to give more attention to eggs and cheese than the Italian book.
Recipes for a large number of Italian standards are presented in this book, but not all classics make an appearance, since this book does not deal with all of Italian cuisine, only that food you would most commonly expect in a family-run Trattoria. This means that the book gives a lot of attention to antipasti, salads, vegetables, soups, pastas, sauces, and condiments. The most common land based protein is chicken. Veal, so common in many classic Italian dishes, just barely manages to make an appearance in a recipe for veal shanks. There are no expensive veal dishes here. Some pork and lamb dishes make an appearance, but chicken is definitely the star of the show. There are also few long cooking beef braises like ragu Bolognese either. I was surprised to see that even gnocchi was absent, in spite of a healthy representation of other dishes from famous Roman Trattorias.
The classics which do show up are things like marinated, grilled, and fried artichokes; panzanella and other salads featuring arugula, celery (puntarelle), and spinach; and pasta such as spaghetti alla Puttanesca and lasagna. One of the real stars of the book is the selection of chicken dishes, including chicken cooked under bricks and the chicken cacciatora dishes.
Although Ms. Wells specializes in French cuisine, she has really done us a service with this book in making these Italian classics available in such an effective manner. The nature of the subject means that almost all recipes, especially those for vegetables, starches, and seafood are very straightforward. Still, the author does not skimp on important details. This is no more evident than in her chapters on pizza and breads. In reviewing books like this, I typically advise people to refer to books by specialists in baking, but I make an emphatic exception with this book. I am delighted, for example, to find a really effective recipe for ciabatta, a rustic type of bread which is superb for making panninis, not to mention a killer Philadelphia cheese steak sandwich (See Tyler Florence's book for an over the top recipe).
For those who are unfamiliar with bread baking, do not be surprised at the long waiting times for some types of bread baking, especially the artisinal yeast breads and natural yeast breads such as sourdough. Ms. Wells suggestions on bread baking techniques are repeated by every bread expert I have read. Do not skimp on her resting times or on her suggestions to have doughs rise in a cool location. Also, I strongly suggest you get a baking stone if you do bread, at least for your pizza. This is not to say that all bread recipes take days. The previously mentioned ciabatta and a recipe for olive rolls are relatively fast. Wells's chapter will not turn you into a professional baker, but it will certainly turn on the bread-baking gene, if you have it.
In the chapter on desserts, I was particularly happy to find a recipe for the ricotta cheesecake, a very chic pastry with as much panache as a Brooklyn cheesecake with much fewer calories.
If you like cooking Italian food without a lot of fuss, this is the book for you. If someone asked me for a recommendation on a book with which to have fun, I would recommend they get both `Trattoria' and `Bistro Cooking'. Together, they are less expensive than many recent celebrity written cookbooks.