Mia Cucina Toscana
A Tuscan Cooks in America
by Pino Luongo, Andrew Friedman, and Marta
Pino Luongo is the owner of several restaurants, among them
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Tuscan in the Kitchen, Fish
Talking, and Simply
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
by Kevin Schoeler
(Updated: 12/02/08 SB)