Southern Italy is full of svelte young women running around in black leather coats and exquisite, sharp-pointed shoes who eat pasta every day. I don’t know how they do it.
Yes, I’m referring to the shoes in part: torturous contraptions that look as if they could cause hammer toes within about an hour. But more than that, I’m talking about the diet which is full of simple carbs: pasta, bread, citrus fruits. And cheese, which as protein sources go is unusually rife with fat and sugars. During the time we were there, I did as the Romans do. . . .and despite the fact that everything was tasty — the noodles flaxen, homemade, and cooked al dente (which, by the way, lowers the glycemic index by quite a bit) — after about three days I felt tired and irritable and all gluey inside.
It was a great relief to me when we crossed over the transparent border into northern Italy and entered Tuscany, where the cuisine trends more toward meat, vegetables, and one of my favorite dishes in the world — a stew typically made of tomatoes, garlic, sage, and cannellini beans called fagioli. We had dinner one night in Lucca, a beautiful little walled Tuscan village, at a place called Trattoria da Leo: boiled sausage with fagioli and a side dish of cauliflower covered in a thin blanket of parmigiano-reggiano.
Even better was the meal ate in Florence, at a lovely sidestreet cafe called Ristorante Cafaggi, on our last day overseas.
Rare duck breast in a savory balsamic vinegar sauce with arugula, braised Swiss chard, and — of course — fagioli, only this time it had bits of sweet, sundried pomodoro and hot pepper folded into the bean stew. The place was run by an honest-to-goodness Italian grandmother and her son, who served us personally. They welcomed us like family and came out from behind the counter to say goodbye when we left.
I am not, of course, the first food expert to come out with a preference for the peasant cuisine of northern Italy over the Americanized pasta-and-sauce offerings of the South. In 1992, Lynne Rossetto Kasper wrote The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, which won both a James Beard award and a Julia Child Best Cookbook of the Year. In this book, Kasper — who went on to parlay the name The Splendid Table into a great radio show for American Public Media — sang the praises of simple, regional Tuscan fare including balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, rabbit, and pot-roasted lamb.
Forget such drivel as Under the Tuscan Sun, Kasper did more to convey the beauty and bounty of Tuscany than any soft-core romance memoir ever could. What’s more, I’ve known Lynne for years — interviewing her perhaps a half dozen times — and she is in person exactly like her radio personality. Warm, generous, open, and wild about good food. She’s also a fine, formidable lady who’s told me honestly about her past in the theater, her shoestring budget at the outset of Splendid Table, and her very personal struggles with weight and body image.
Next month, Lynne’s newest book, The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio’s Award-Winning Food Show, will be released. And the incredibly cumbersome title notwithstanding, I expect great things. Stay tuned for a description of the book, which I will receive for review very soon. And meantime, check out Kasper’s original publication if it’s not already in your cookbook library.
You’ll need some cold-pressed olive oil and a really good bottle of balsamic. Then, I trust, you and Lynne can do the rest.