Before one even gets to the first recipe in La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio (Gangivecchio's Sicilian kitchen), it is clear that this collection by Wanda Tornabene, her daughter Giovanna and co-author Michele Evans is a most uncommon cookbook (Knopf, $35).
Scattered throughout are family photographs going as far back as the mid 1800s. There are husband and wife portraits, snapshots of pets, even a 1912 baby photo of Wanda's late husband Vincenzo in his birthday suit. Providing continuity into the current era are sepia-toned photos of food and color illustrations.
The reader gets both a written and pictorial history of the Tornabenes, who have lived and farmed for generations on the site of a 14th-century abbey in Sicily's Madonie Mountains.
In this remote spot the family operates an inn and two restaurants. Regular patrons share the dining rooms with international food mavens who make the pilgrimage in order to be fed by the matriarch Wanda and her family.
An authentic Sicilian dining experience is not just about the food, but about being fed - by a caring person who wants every guest to eat and enjoy, and share with the family. Through brief essays and recipe introductions, these women succeed in including us. We can imagine ourselves at the kitchen table of a Sicilian grandmother, who keeps a close eye on our plate and urges us to "mangia, mangia" all that she's cooked.
Here are some of the offerings:
This robust Sicilian comfort food is exciting to cook and eat because, in many cases, it is so simple. Its goodness comes not from complicated cooking techniques or a great quantity of ingredients, but from using the freshest and highest quality available.
These include cured - not canned - olives; bread crumbs homemade from scraps of good bread; Italian cheeses that have never been shrink-wrapped; extra-virgin olive oil and local vine-ripened tomatoes.
There are also ingredients that are more exotic in some American kitchens. This book will remove any hesitation from cooking with artichokes, eggplant, fennel, fava beans, capers, currants, pine nuts, anchovies, salt cod and ricotta cheese.
And once these ingredients are in the house, there is an unexpected dividend. Cooks, infused with the Tornabenes' enthusiasm, can improvise. Instead of butter on that steamed spinach, why not toss it with some olive oil, pine nuts and currants? Wouldn't those boiled potatoes be delicious garnished with a spoonful of black olive pate and toasted bread crumbs? You bet! And Wanda and Giovanna will be pleased you thought of it.
The "tricolore" (three colors) - green, white and red - of this salad represents the vivid colors of the Italian flag. Although a basic salad, the green beans, potatoes and tomatoes produce a harmonious blend of flavors.
18 small new or red potatoes boiled, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 pound fresh cooked green beans, with the stem ends cut off
4 medium-sized fresh, firm but ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Put the vegetables into a large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle lightly with olive oil and vinegar. Gently toss, cover, and chill thoroughly. Toss again before serving and taste for seasoning. Add a little more vinegar if desired. Makes 6 servings.
Recipe from: "La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio" by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene with Michele Evans. Knopf, 324 pages, $35.