Italian Food Lover

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 27, 2007

There is no doubt that Italian is my favorite cuisine in New York City — I write more about Italian food than any other cuisine, though Japanese comes in as a close second. I cannot go a week without satiating my cravings at some of my favorite Italian restaurants or cooking pasta at home. I’m thankful to live in a city that has such high caliber Italian fare and talented chefs constantly challenging themselves to bring us the best in both traditional and contemporary Italian food.

I bring this up because I recently fell in love with a new cookbook, titled Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, by Faith Heller Willinger. The cookbook is unique because it is not only a compilation of recipes from “254 of [her] very best friends,” but also a shopping and restaurant guide to Italy.

The concept is totally akin to our doctrine here at Cravings in that she introduces some of her favorite Italian restaurants, regional cooks, winemakers, food markets, and one very special chocolatier (Amadei!), and she asks each to contribute a recipe. Having spent more than thirty years exploring Italy and writing about its cuisine, Willinger collects recipes from the kitchens of restaurants and private homes. The cookbook reads more like a narrative, conveying warmth and passion in Willinger’s introduction of her friends and their food. While I read, I wanted to be a part of the adventures, but as I could not join the author in Italy at that very moment, cooking her recipes has allowed me to recreate and imagine her experiences.

The book is divided into three regions: Northern and Central Italy, Tuscany, and Southern Italy and the Islands, and all throughout there are beautiful watercolor paintings of Italian scenery by Willinger’s sister, Suzanne Heller.

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover is such a joy to read that it makes me want to visit Italy for an extended period of time to check out all her recommendations.

(Don’t forget your chance to win a copy of Adventures of an Italian Food Lover through this week’s Baking Friday. Just tell us your favorite Italian restaurant in the City and you’ll be eligible to win! For those interested in buying a copy, click here.)

To give you a taste of the book, for a recipe from the chapter on the winery, Castello di Ama. I can’t imagine how delicious the grape tart made with Castello di Ama’s Chianti would be!

After indulging in Ms. Willinger’s fantastic tour of Italy, as an Italian food lover myself, I thought I would give you a quick overview of some of my favorite Italian cravings in the city. Click here for the list.

Credits: Water color paintings in this feature are by Suzanne Heller from Adventures of an Italian Food Lover.

Italian Food Lover

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 27, 2007


Serves 6 to 8

1 package active dry yeast (2 ½ teaspoons)
¾ cups warm water
3 tablespoons Chianti — drink the rest with dinner
1 tablespoon honey
2 ½ – 2 ¾ cups soft wheat flour (Italian “00” or White Lily flour)
¼ cup Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling the bowl
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Around 1 ¾ pounds wine, Concord, or red Grace grapes
6 tablespoons sugar

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, wine, and honey in a large bowl. Let sit for 10 minutes or until bubbles form. Stir in ¾ cup flour — it doesn’t have to be smooth because lumps will dissolve. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.

Add the olive oil, salt, and 1 ½ cups flour, and knead dough until smooth and elastic. Add up to ½ cup additional flour if necessary so it isn’t sticky. Shape into a ball, place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 ½ hours.

Punch the dough down and divide into two pieces. Roll each piece out to a rough 10 by 16-inch rectangle. Place one rectangle on parchment paper on a cookie sheet (or use a nonstick cookie sheet), scatter the dough with half the grapes, and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons sugar.

Use the second rectangle of dough to cover the bottom layer. Sprinkle the remaining grapes on the dough, gently press the grapes into the dough, and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and a dishtowel and let rise for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until dark brown. Remove from pan while still warm and spoon excess juice over the tart. Serve at room temperature.

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