VINE VOICEon 20 October 2009
Laura Santtini is not a chef. Her publisher describes her as a writer who cooks, but do not let that put you off since her gastronomic pedigree is first class. She learned Italian cuisine from her Venetian Italian grandmother and her parents who ran the Santini Italian restaurant in high society Belgravia in London. Laura is half Italian, a quarter Persian, part Anglo-Irish with a pinch of Sephardic Jew, and both her writing style and her culinary appetite reflects most of those subtle influences. She writes well, always lucidly, insightful, highly practical, enthusiastic, with traces of humour. Her grandmother traditionally may have had to begin cooking preparations before 6 am in the morning in order to meet the high expectations of her menfolk for lunch, but Laura demystifies Italian cuisine sufficiently to achieve the same result within a fraction of that time, and so the "Easy" part of the book title is well justified. The "Tasty" epithet is accomplished by her use of what she calls "flavour bombs", transforming simple dishes into unforgettable experiences. Her main flavour bombs are fragments of chicken stuck to the bottom of the roasting tray, salty anchovy melted in tomato, creamy combinations of pancetta and Parmesan in a carbonara, and especially umami, the fifth sense of taste, which is neither sweet nor sour, neither salty nor bitter, and is related to the naturally found glutamates, salts of amino glutamic acids bound with proteins, and some ribonucleotides, present in, and exploited by her, in many foods typical of Italian cuisine. Her umami tend to be Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto crudo, porcini mushrooms, white truffles, balsamic vinegar, and a carrot-onion-celery soffritto which she makes the base of much of her Italian cookery.
The book begins with a list and brief discussion of the kitchen equipment and utensils found in a typical Italian kitchen, next the foods, ingredients, and seasonings which would be stored in a typical Italian larder, including many familiar sounding names such as spaghetti and polenta, gorgonzola, mascarpone, and mozzarella, pistachios, pesto, olives and passata, as well as the less well known borlotti, fava and cannellini beans; capellini, penne and rigatoni pastas; bresaola and cotechino meats; juniper berries, myrtle and clams in brine, to name just a few. She adds an alchemic larder consisting of hibiscus and jasmine flowers, barberries and sour black cherries, roasted almonds, orange and rose waters, cardamom and Scappi spice mixture and many more. You slowly begin to realize this is a cookery book that is out of the ordinary.
There are well over 200 recipes, with variations, in the book arranged in sections: creating ones own mayonnaise, pesto, salsa rossa, courgette trifolata, red wine marinades, the aromatic massaging of meats by wet rubbing or dry marinading, parmesan and prosciutto pastes, elixir black chocolate, and elaborate breadcrumb stuffings. The book reveals many of the secrets of her family Italian restaurant including ten antipasti or starters using scallops, mushrooms and asparagus among others. The book then explores the conjuring of carpaccio, ceviche, tartare, and ricotta and the creation of specially flavoured butters. There is a section on Italian soups, the architecture of pasta, tomato sauces, as well as 10 classic pasta sauces. Naturally there is a extensive study of risotto. The art of Italian grilling and poaching is explained with beef, lamb, venison, quail and swordfish examples. More familiar meat dishes include steak, veal and chicken as well as mocha chilli pork spare ribs. Fish recipes include monkfish kebabs, roasted sea bream, and sea bass with grappa. For those with a vegetarian preference there are 10 classic Italian vegetable dishes. Finally there are recipes for 12 quick Italian desserts, including Sophia Loren's Ricotta condita, finishing with a recipe for how to make the classic Venetian cocktail: sgroppino.
Physically the book is high quality, of good size and format, arranged with text on one page and with a full-size photographic illustration on the opposite page. Most of the photographs are of the completed dishes but a few bizarrely illustrate the ingredients instead. Some illustrations seem designed for humour, such as Garibaldi's statue with a busker, and Elvis kissing tenderly and true. The illustrations are not the greatest feature of the book, rather it is the inspired text and the quality of the recipes which achieve that. This is a book that explains the traditions of Italian cookery but daringly takes them to another level by means of the writer's unique creativity and innovation. Absorb the contents of the book and you could well open your own authentic Italian restaurant, or more probably dine and entertain your guests with a sublime Italian diner party.