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La Mia Cucina Toscana

A Tuscan Cooks in America
by Pino Luongo, Andrew Friedman, and Marta Pulini

La Mia Cucina Toscana

Chef Pino Luongo is the owner of several restaurants, among them Coco Pazzo in New York and Coco Pazzo and the more casual Coco Pazzo Café in Chicago. The title of Luongo's fourth and most recent cookbook is La Mia Cucina Toscana: A Tuscan Cooks in America. The English translation is My Tuscan Cuisine, which, in this case, is an understatement. It is, indeed, Luongo's Tuscan Cuisine.

If you are familiar with Tuscan cooking, you know that its key characteristics are simplicity and distinct flavor—like fried eggs with asparagus. Asparagus are sautéed in butter just before the eggs are broken over them and the whole lot is sent into the oven, with perhaps a dusting of parmiggiano. Can it get any better?

Well, Pino Luongo decided to put his spin on Tuscan food in La Mia Cucina Toscana. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it's Dungeness Crab Pasta with Roasted Tomato and Red Bell Pepper Sauce—where sweet, delicate crabmeat is lost in a bold sauce. Some things are better left alone, although Luongo makes clear from the very beginning that that this book is suited to the nonconformist (to be fair, there's food for lovers of tradition, too) and these are recipes adapted to his personal taste.

What you find in La Mia Cucina Toscana are ten compelling recipe sections, grouped by key ingredient (i.e. poultry, pork, fish and shellfish) with a few pleasant surprises—like a chapter devoted to Mushrooms, one for Spring Vegetables and one for Autumn Vegetables. Dessert becomes Cheese and Dessert. For most recipes, Luongo wisely details Il Classico (the classic version from which he adapts) and then rationalizes his approach in La Mia Versione. Sometimes it is enlightening, but other times you want to ask why?

Take Frittelle Di Minestrone, or Vegetable Soup Fritters. Il Classico talks about the difference between minestrone and zuppa (minestrone refers only to vegetable soups whereas zuppa is the broader soup category). In La Mia Versione, Luongo simply tells us that making fritters from vegetable soup was inspired by the dense texture of leftover minestrone. So, why take a tasty, hearty soup, turn it into patties that are dredged in flour and breadcrumbs and then fried? Does the world need another fritter?

There are plenty of examples of things better left alone. But let's turn to what works and enjoy some great food from a talented chef and successful restaurateur. The Crostini are wonderful: Black Cabbage and Bacon; Anchovy and Mozzarella; and D'Acquacotta (Tomato Mushroom Stew).

Grains and Legumes features a Soft Polenta with Pork Sausage and Truffle Sauce, where polenta replaces pasta in the traditional version, but, really, we'd be perfectly happy with just polenta and the truffle sauce. Indeed, we were perfectly happy with Tuscan-Style Porcini Mushrooms, sautéed with garlic, olive oil and basil—and Tagliarini with Small Veal Meatballs, Mushrooms and Sweet Peas.

When it comes to Spring Vegetables, we'll pass on Peas in a Light Tomato Sauce with Scrambled Eggs in favor of Six Spring Vegetable Chopped Salad, bursting with zucchini, asparagus, artichokes, peas, and fava beans. Regarding the former, there something about the combination of mint and peas, tomato sauce and scrambled eggs that doesn't seem worthwhile. As for Autumn Vegetables, we already discussed fritters, but Roasted Autumn Vegetable Salad is tasty and beautiful. And, although far from Tuscany, Turnip and Beet Carpaccio with Gorgonzola is something we'll keep in mind for a future taste.

Luongo's Baked Sea Bream on a Bed of Potatoes and Pecorino pairs fish with cheese; verboten but intriguing. Halibut Steamed with Lemon Leaves and Asparagus sounds more reasonable if you consider that it's just another way of pairing fish with citrus. It works. But Braised Salmon Fillet with Savoy Cabbage and Black Truffle is overkill—and there's bacon in it as well. There's too much going on. Too many wonderful flavors competing. It's just not necessary.

We're happier when things become simple again, in the Tuscan-Style Fried Chicken, in the Spicy Cornish Game Hen and in the Veal Stew with Gremolata. Prosciutto with Roasted Pears sounded interesting and made a heavenly combination, although we reduced the spicing dramatically.

The cheese plates shine. Luongo's notes are mini-primers on cheese, and his pairings are delightful. Try to resist the Winter Cheese Plate: Gorgonzola, Cabrales, and Stilton, with quince paste, dates, figs, and walnut bread. The Tuscan Cheese Plate is three Pecorinos with pears, apples, rosemary honey, chestnut honey, and country bread. The small handful of desserts, however, did not excite us—maybe because they followed the spectacular cheese course. Somehow an Eggplant-Chocolate Mousse, regardless of its aristocratic pedigree, doesn't sound appealing after Pecorino Toscano drizzled with fragrant honey. But maybe the next time around we'll sample the Cream and Pine Nut Tart, based on the classic Torta della nonna.

Keep a few things in mind. Pino Luongo is no slouch. With scores of successful restaurants and a bunch of cookbooks to his claim, he obviously wanted to try something different after A Tuscan in the Kitchen, Fish Talking, and Simply Tuscan. La Mia Cucina Toscana is a serious, weighty effort with more than 250 pages of well-written recipes that were given a lot of thought. That we respect. But the overall result is uneven. It's too much, when less would have been thrilling.

Reviewed by Kevin Schoeler

(Updated: 12/02/08 SB)

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