Booksellers Call for Encore of Italian Cookbook

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Those who link carnival food with corn dogs and gyros are missing out on almost sixteen centuries of outstanding Italian cuisine. Food fit for a banquet or a carnival (which comes from the Latin phrase for "removal of meat") is offered by Boston-area chef and food writer Franco Romagnoli in Cucina Di Magro: Cooking Lean the Italian Way (Steerforth Press, January 2003). Romagnoli dates Italian cooking without meat to the fourth century when edicts from the Roman Catholic Church prohibited meat eating on certain days, totaling about one-third of the year.

First published in 1976 as The Romagnoli's Meatless Cookbook (Atlantic Monthly Press), the cookbook featured recipes that the native Roman and his wife, the late Margaret Romagnoli, demonstrated on their popular Boston cooking show. The cookbook gained a loyal following, particularly among booksellers, although, Romagnoli told BTW, "the title was a downer -- meatless."

The publisher of Steerforth Press, Chip Fleischer, explained that the reissued version, with many revisions and 22 new recipes, resulted quite directly from the input of a small group of independent booksellers. Fleischer described the scene at an event held during the 2001 New England Booksellers Association trade show: "We [Steerforth] held a Roman feast at the Boston restaurant, No. 9 Park, to introduce booksellers to Franco's travel memoir about Rome, A Thousand Bells at Noon (Steerforth/HarperPerennial). Franco's friend Julia Child was the center of the show, while Franco went quietly from course to course, from table to table. As he made the rounds, he lit up each table with his charm and humor." One table of booksellers recalled the Romagnoli's meatless cookbook with enthusiasm, and one declared it "the best cookbook I've ever had."

Fleischer continued, "A group of booksellers called me over and insisted that Steerforth reissue the work with Franco's choice of title and a major round of updating to reflect the times. What choice did I have?"

Romagnoli was pleased to update the cookbook and present it anew in a much-changed culinary environment. He told BTW, "In 1976, even though we were here in Boston, with a sizable Italian population, even so, many ingredients were not available." For example? "Fresh mozzarella…. Maybe somewhere there was one little artisan making two a day. Mussels too. Strange that in a city like this [they were available] just in a few fish stores. Fresh Parmigiano Reggiano was unheard of. Only the [prepackaged] supermarket type.

"But," Romagnoli was quick to add, "people use what they have, and they make do."

One of the attitudes that Romagnoli has tried to change is that preparing quality cuisine is only for the elite. "All along, we are trying to touch the general public -- to help them avoid a special trip to a special store to get special things."

Romagnoli's recipes, which rely on a few main ingredients and simple, intelligible directions, are appealing to today's rushed but ambitious cooks. Cooking lean, without meat, is also a big draw.

Romagnoli seasons his writing with large helpings of humor and passion for food. On selecting good olive oil, he writes: "If it [the oil] delights the palate, it's perfect. If it leaves a bitter aftertaste, it is also perfect—to boil in cauldrons and pour on attacking enemies. You get a castle for that." --Nomi Schwartz