Nick Malgieri didn't feel like a stranger even on his first visit to Italy in 1973. "My grandmother had talked of so many places and people--I already knew so much." He didn't anticipate, however, the reaction to some of the Italian expressions he used. "People cracked up because I was talking in a dialect of their grandparents--one no longer even spoken."
Malgieri's grandmother, Clotilde Lo Conte, grew up in the village of Grottaminarda. After moving to this country, she lived with the Malgieris; because she spoke so little English, her grandson became bilingual.
Although basically a simple, rustic Southern Italian cook, Malgieri's mammanonna had learned baking from a retired Neapolitan pastry chef. Desserts were her greatest glory and influenced her grandson's decision to become a pastry chef.
Since that first visit 17 years ago, Malgieri has returned to Italy many times. During his travels from Sicily to Milan he collected recipes--many thus far unknown outside Italy--from professional chefs and home cooks. He has compiled these pastries in "Great Italian Desserts" (Little, Brown & Co., 1990: $19.95).
Malgieri's greatest wish "is to see the wonderful Italian baking tradition take its rightful place beside the French and Viennese schools as one of Europe's and the world's most refined." He hopes this will be a ground-breaking book, introducing Americans to this concept.
In the opening, Malgieri makes the following comments about authenticity: "Italian cooking and baking have undergone waves of foreign influence over the course of centuries, so that elements of cuisines from France, England, North Africa, Yugoslavia, Austria and, most recently, the United States have all left their mark."
Because of this, Malgieri says, "to define an 'authentic' Italian recipe presents a few problems. Must it have originated in Italy, free of foreign influence? This would, of course, eliminate last week's adaptation of a cake from a French magazine, but it would also eliminate the Sicilian version of Moroccan couscous, Neapolitan Krapfen , derived from German and Austrian carnival fritters, and Milanese fruit tarts in the French style."
In light of this, he has documented the recipes with names, places and background facts, but has adapted them to readily available American ingredients and created some desserts that are Italian in style, although he has not actually found them in his travels.
The chapter on basic ingredients and recipes gives recommendations and substitutions, along with some recipes that are important foundations of authentic Italian desserts: Zuccata (homemade candied fruit), homemade ricotta, mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) and vino cotto (cooked wine) .
Remaining chapters are broken down by types of desserts, and each includes background material and hints for success. Many of the recipes have been used by Malgieri in cooking classes during the past 10 years, and his teaching experience is evident in the detailed directions and explanations.
If there is one drawback to the book, it is the lack of photographs other than on the cover jacket. Illustrations by Christine Buhr, however, are helpful in demonstrating some of the more complicated techniques.
(Venetian Cornmeal Diamonds)
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cold
3/4 cup currants or dark raisins
Grated zest of 1 small lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla
Combine cornmeal, 1 1/2 cups flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in large bowl. Rub in butter finely, leaving mixture cool and powdery. Stir in currants.
Beat eggs with lemon zest and vanilla. Stir into flour mixture with fork.
Flour dough lightly and divide into 4 pieces. Roll each into cylinder about 1 inch in diameter. Flatten cylinders slightly and cut diagonally at 1 1/2-inch intervals, making diamond shapes.
Arrange Zaleti on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees about 15 minutes or until light golden. Cool on racks and dust with powdered sugar. Makes 2 1/2 to 3 dozen.
Note: If desired, dry ingredients may be placed in work bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse to blend. Add butter, cut into 8 pieces, and pulse again 6 or 8 times until finely mixed. Pour into bowl and continue as directed in recipe.