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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the November 29, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Mario Batali’s Holiday Cookbook

I had every reason to dislike Mario Batali’s latest

cookbook, "Mario Batali Holiday Food" (Clarkson Potter, $23).

First, I am almost always disappointed in books by celebrity chefs,

and Batali is among the most popular chefs in America right now. As

Food Network’s "Molto Mario," he is instantly recognizable

for his signature ponytail and shorts, which he wears even to the

black-tie James Beard Foundation awards. His particular style of

Italian

cooking has also made him one of Manhattan’s most popular

restaurateurs,

with three restaurants, Babbo, Lupa, and Esca, and an Italian wine

store to his credit. None of these accomplishments necessarily heralds

a good book — often quite the opposite.

Also, his is a small book, both literally (eight inches by eight

inches)

and in terms of the number of recipes (about 60), with a relatively

big price ($23). Add to that an extremely limited focus — four

meals, from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day — and you’ve just

about eliminated any possibility that I might buy such a book.

The killer for me, though, should have been the subject matter: the

feasts of the most important days in the calendar for

Italian-Americans

— like me. Nevertheless, I still thought Batali’s accumulated

memories and household traditions growing up in his Italian-American

family in the Pacific Northwest would be no match for the ones I

accumulated

growing up in mine, in northern New Jersey. (Although, to his credit,

he did graduate from Rutgers University, where he majored in economics

and Spanish theater.)

Needless to say, I loved this book and everything about it. Mario

Batali, who will appear at Wegmans in West Windsor on Saturday,

December

2, to sign copies of his book, brings such a generous spirit to the

book and its recipes that it is impossible to dislike it. What’s more,

even those unfortunate souls who weren’t lucky enough to grow up in

Italian-American families — heck, even those who don’t celebrate

Christmas and New Year — can get a lot out of this book. All it

takes is a love of the kind of authentic Italian food Batali dishes

up, which combines pristine ingredients and traditional principles

with a modern sensibility that is informed by his extensive travels.

The book opens with a menu centered on the traditional Christmas Eve

Feast of Seven Fishes (of which the specific number can vary, Batali

acknowledges, to ten or some other number, depending upon where in

Italy the family comes from). This menu is representative of the ones

that follow in that it consists of a combination of easy-to-love

favorites

such as linguine with clams, more gastronomically challenging dishes

such as marinated eel, and modern but fitting additions such as a

blood orange bellini aperitivo. (For the last, pour one-quarter cup

blood orange juice into a chilled champagne flute and fill with

chilled

prosecco, the sparkling Italian wine.) The recipes are so tempting

and so well thought out that I could forgive even Batali’s preference

for red sauce for the linguine, a mortal sin in my family where white

clam sauce reigns supreme.

The book is greatly enhanced by Batali’s descriptions of family

holiday

traditions. "I wouldn’t consider it Christmas Eve without a dish

of glazed eels… It wouldn’t be New Year’s in Italy without lentils

and sausage," he writes. I enjoyed reading that one of his fondest

memories is of Christmas Eves when the Batali household was lit only

by candlelight. I wonder if he continues that tradition with his own

family, which includes his wife, Susi Cahn, whose family owns the

Coach Dairy Goat Farm, and their two sons, Benno and Leo.

Throughout the book, I came across reminiscences that mirrored my

own, with subtle differences. In both our households, for example,

it is a tradition for the senior male to make homemade sausage for

the holidays. In the Batali family, whose recipe is included in the

book, it is served on Christmas Day; in my family, it is the

centerpiece

of the Christmas Eve meal that follows midnight mass. Such variations,

explains Batali, are typical: "Not everyone celebrates the same

way or with the same dishes; each region (indeed, each household)

has its own specialties and rituals, all of them irresistibly

good."

A few family photographs appear at the beginning of the book, but

the bulk of the photos are glamour shots, taken by Quentin Bacon,

of the prepared dishes, as well as stunning views of Italy’s Amalfi

coast, the area that runs more or less from Naples to Sorrento.

Batali’s

affection for and knowledge of this, the Campania region of Italy,

where he has traveled and studied in recent times, is an important

part of the book. Seafood plays a significant role in the cooking

of the region, and this dovetails nicely with many of the traditional

holiday dishes, as do regional specialties like limoncello, the sweet

lemon liqueur made from giant coastal lemons. Limoncello appears in,

among other things, a baba, where it replaces the traditional rum.

This and other recipes are appropriate for any form of entertaining.

Take the Napoletano potato cake, for example, which is part of a

Christmas

Day dinner that includes three antipasti dishes, two pastas, a

three-part

"secondi" or entree, and an assortment of treats from the

cookie box Grandma Batali sent her grandchildren each Christmas.

Of the potato cake side dish Batali writes, "I make

this in a springform pan because it looks twice as cool… Like most

of the contorno (side) dishes in this book, it serves very well as

a light lunch with a salad." Such dishes, and such advice, are

what make this book surpass its seeming limitation as just another

holiday cookbook. What dinner party, what brunch, what "light

lunch with a salad," wouldn’t be enhanced by a savory potato dish

that includes ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, sopressata, and mozzarella

— especially one that looks "twice as cool" as you might

expect? The Batali style is everywhere in the book: biancomangiare,

which he describes as "almond clouds in vanilla almond milk,"

is, he predicts, "destined to replace panna cotta as the next

hip dessert in post-tiramisu Italian restaurants."

Two other aspects make this book much larger than it may seem at first

glance. Each of the four menus (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New

Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day) includes suggested wines from the Campania

region, courtesy of Batali’s business partner, Joseph Bastianich.

With the exception perhaps of the white wine Lacryma Christi

("Tears

of Christ"), these are not as well known as other Italian wines.

They deserve to be, if my sampling of one of the recommended wines

is any indication. At Princeton’s Corkscrew wine shop I found a

delicious

red, a 1998 Rubrato from one of Campania’s leading winemakers, Feudi

di San Gregorio ($12).

Best of all, each of the four sections ends with a selection of

"regali"

or edible gifts, many of which are a snap to make. This, too, is a

Batali family tradition, according to the chef: "We flavored

grappa,

cured our own olives, made all the cookies and decorations for our

Christmas tree. We did this because the joy of creating good things

together is what great traditions and holidays are all about."

It is also what this book is all about.

— Pat Liuzza Tanner

Mario Batali, Wegmans Food Market, Nassau Park,

Route 1 South, West Windsor, 609-919-9300. The chef signs copies of

his new cookbook, "Mario Batali Holiday Food" ($23; Clarkson

Potter). Saturday, December 2, 4 p.m.


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