by Kate Heyhoe
Ciao! September 2002 is Italian Food Month at Kate's Global Kitchen
"At the time it was first printed, it was a great book for non-Italians, people who couldn't get authentic Italian ingredients where they lived."
—Alfred Lepore, co-author of The Little Italian Cookbook, printed in 1968; revised in 2000
Cookbooks, it has been said, are like old friends. For me, they are also like mentors.
When I was growing up, my mother had a small but eclectic collection of cookbooks that represented the era. Picture the 1960's: Julia Child was broadcasting as The French Chef, the 1964 World's Fair in New York really did put the world on a plate, and diners were discovering new flavors, courtesy of waves of earlier immigrants now turned restaurateurs, and a flood of new immigrants, made possible by the Immigration Act of 1968.
From the 1960s onward, my mother's small but focused cookbook collection always represented both the classical and the fashionable foods of the times: The Joy of Cooking, Larousse Gastronomic, Mrs. Ma's Japanese Cookbook, the Wok, and the Little Italian Cookbook, to name a few.
Because ethnic ingredients were less widespread forty years ago than they are today, most cookbooks tended to minimize the use of hard-to-find ingredients, or they would automatically substitute American ingredients for authentic ones. Sometimes the "adapted" recipes worked well, other times they suffered.
I recently ran across a copy of The Little Italian Cookbook, published in 1968, at my local library. I grew up with this charmingly illustrated book; it was one of my mother's favorites. And I couldn't believe I found it at the Beaumont Public Library, which serves our small, rural community of Cherry Valley, California. Perhaps it's a fitting book for our area, because unlike urban metropolises where gourmet and ethnic markets thrive, our community is lucky if you can find Parmesan that doesn't come in a green can.
"At the time it was first printed, The Little Italian Cookbook was a great book for non-Italians, people who couldn't get authentic Italian ingredients where they lived," explained co-author Alfred Lepore from his shop, the famous Ferrara's in New York City. As such, the recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara lists bacon where pancetta would normally be used. But cooking with local ingredients is a hallmark of Italian culinary style anyway, so to adapt traditional dishes based on what's fresh and available is not so un-Italian after all. Remember, in 1968, pancetta was hardly a household word, nor was prosciutto, mostarda or buffalo-milk mozzarella. In fact, America's version of mortadella was introduced by Oscar Mayer and renamed as "bologna."
I had loved The Little Italian Cookbook but knew little of its background. The book has since been revised and republished as Ferrara's Little Italian Cookbook, by Alfred Lepore, who explains:
"New York in the Gay Nineties had almost everything, except for a place where an Italian opera singer, after a night of Verdi or Puccini, could relax, play a Neapolitan card game called 'scopa' and drink a few cups of espresso. This situation was remedied when Antonio Ferrara, opera impresario and showman, and Enrico Scoppa, opened a café called Caffé A. Ferrara. Caruso thought the coffee marvelous but especially loved the cookies and cakes."
After World War I, Peter Lepore, a nephew of Antonio Ferrara, stowed away on a ship bound for New York and later married Scoppa's daughter. Ferrara's, the café, became known for its fresh pastries, baked up to four times daily to minimize waste during those tough times. Today, Ferrara's is still a family owned, prospering business, and in the over one hundred years since it began, has changed very little. Author Alfred Lepore is the son of Peter Lepore and grandson of Antonio Ferrara, and he and his daughter still run the family business today.
Even though they were first published some 45 years ago, the recipes in Ferrara's Little Italian Cookbook still stand up because, in the true Italian sense, they're simple and emphasize flavor based on a few select ingredients. One of my favorites which has ended up in my regular repertoire is Scampi alla Griglia, below. As the recipe suggests, if you don't have prosciutto, use lean bacon, and oftentimes I do, with equally good success. Add an ensalata mista, some crusty bread and a perfectly elegant Italian meal is yours in a matter of minutes.
Kate's Global Kitchen for August-September 2002:
08/30/02 More Grilling, All Year Long
09/06/02 "Meating" the Italian "Salumeria"
09/13/02 Cooking Up an Italian Life
09/20/02 Savoring Salt-Packed Anchovies & Capers
09/27/02 The Little Italian Cookbook, Revised
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created August 2002
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