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Finding Peace and Polenta in Italy

June 23, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE

ITALY FOR THE GOURMET TRAVELER by Fred Plotkin (Little, Brown and Co., $19.95, paperback, maps).

A remarkable tour of edible Italy by the author of, among other works, "The Authentic Pasta Book." Plotkin outlines the food specialties of 21 of Italy's regions (he splits Trentino-Alto into two), and describes a number of each region's cafes, restaurants, markets, bakeries, bars and wine shops.

Plotkin knows Italy and Italian food firsthand. Even non-foodies will be captivated by his anecdotal, personal approach to the culinary landscape. Shopkeepers are his pals; chefs tell him their secrets. One of the many joys of "Gourmet" is the joy that Plotkin brings to his subject. "What a lovely woman Anna Scholastico is!" he writes of a baker in Umbria.

Plotkin detours into history and travelogue, but all roads eventually lead to a golden polenta con ragu di pesce (polenta with minced fish and tomato) or a revelatory spaghetti con seppie (spaghetti with cuttle fish).

Though "Gourmet" is encyclopedic, Plotkin writes with great care and warmth. On the art of olive-picking in Larino, for example: "Each olive picker leaned a ladder against a tree, and the pickers would communicate with one another through song. It would be a sort of call and response between one man and one woman, backed up by a chorus that would chime in with commentary and then exalt "viva l'amore . . . ." These songs would last for hours as new verses were invented. The rhythms of the songs were the work rhythms that flowed in time with the movements of gathering the olives."

Bound to be a classic of its kind.

*

TRAVELERS' TALES: SAN FRANCISCO edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O'Reilly (Travelers' Tales, $17.95, paperback).

When they closed Alcatraz in 1963, convict Frank Weatherman gave it a valedictory of Shakespearean cadence: "All of us are glad to get off. Alcatraz was never no good for nobody." Ah, San Francisco, home of the Grateful Dead and the Love-in; city of the Beats and the beat of columnist Herb Caen. Ah, Herb Caen, who once described San Francisco's midnight pedestrians this way: "In the daylight you don't look twice at them, but in the quiet gloom they set fire to your imagination and your mind races back crazily to the nights of Tong warfare in Old Chinatown, and the smell of death in musty doorways."

The intense romanticism of the City--as San Francisco likes to be called--has long inspired crooks and craftsmen. Now it has inspired the best collection in the excellent "Travelers' Tales" series. (It also helps that San Francisco is the authors' home turf.) The formula is the same: several dozen short travelogue-essays, mostly excerpted or reprinted from periodicals. The result is a wide-ranging selection in a variety of styles. Herbert Gold's memoir of the early '60s, "When San Francisco Was Cool," bounces to a bongo beat. Michele Ann Jordan's "Circle of Gold" is an exercise in romantic nostalgia. Richard Rodriquez meditates on cynicism, hope and homosexuality in "The Late Victorians."

*

HOUSEBOAT ON THE SEINE: A Memoir by William Wharton (Newmarket Press, $22.95).

One day, while vacationing in Burgundy, the Wharton family received a telegram. It read: Votre ba^teau est coule. ("Your boat has sunk.") Thus began the Whartons' amusing-only-in-retrospect attempt to salvage a sunken houseboat and learn to live downstream from Paris.

In the course of this project, Wharton became a kind of Indiana Jones of do-it-yourselfers. He swam in sulfuric acid-tainted water; he waded in mud-thick oil; he battled floods; he tried to speak French with Frenchmen.

"Houseboat" has a happy ending, which is giving nothing away. Readers know from Wharton's happy-go-lucky writing style that the houseboat from hell will eventually become a home. (More than 20 years later, Wharton and his wife, both Americans, still spend time on the boat.) The only suspense is in wondering what tribulation is coming next.

The adventures are highlighted by Wharton's dealings with local workmen. Premier among them is Jacques Teurnier, boatman, builder, diver. It's Teurnier who comes up with the harebrained, though successful, scheme to lift Wharton's wooden boat on top of an iron-hulled craft and create a double-decker home.

Peter Mayle's Provence books have set the standard for French home improvement affairs and this one doesn't quite measure up. Wharton (with novels such as "Birdy" and "Dad" to his credit) doesn't have Mayle's effervescence. Some steps of the boat resuscitation are recounted in pitiless, Home Depot detail. Still, it's a pleasant read, especially for weekend fix-it types like me with minimal skills and maximum dreams.

Quick trips:

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