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Next Farmhouse

August 02, 2000|RUSS PARSONS

Susan Herrmann Loomis has a thing about farmhouses. After writing the "Farmhouse Cookbook," she followed with the "French Farmhouse Cookbook." Now she's onto the "Italian Farmhouse Cookbook" (Workman Publishing, $16.95). Whatever works. As long as the quality is high, I wouldn't care if she did the "Aleutian Farmhouse Cookbook" next.

How does she fare with this book? The answer probably depends on how much or how little you know about Italian cooking. Folks at either end of the spectrum are likely to fall hard for this book. Those in the middle may be lukewarm.

Loomis' approach in these farmhouse books is to spend as much time with real farmers as possible, interviewing them about their family stories and their culinary traditions and collecting their recipes. In this case, when she's talking about the farmers, "Italian Farmhouse" shines. When she gets onto the recipes, it's more uneven.

Hard-core fans of Italy or of agriculture will appreciate the efforts that must have gone into digging up what seem like dozens of agriturismi, those Italian bed-and-breakfast type operations based on farms. They will also appreciate the clear-eyed view she brings to the subject. This book is about farmers--albeit mainly "alternative" farmers--living in the modern world. And she is frank about the downside of Italy--the corruption and the misguided plans.

When it comes to cooking, though, she comes undone. In all fairness, she is not the first Francophile to founder on the rocks of a cuisine based on simplicity and improvisation. The glory of Italian cuisine is its easy way of making a few humble ingredients taste like a million bucks. But this often leaves more rule-bound writers scrounging for recipes.

As a result, though the hundreds of recipes in "Italian Farmhouse" are good and cover a wide range of regions, there aren't many you won't already have if you've got more than two or three other good Italian cookbooks. True to its subject, it's the farmers that make this book worthwhile.

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