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When Another Expert Is Not What You Want

October 25, 2000|RUSS PARSONS

The writing in most cookbooks is characterized by a kind of earnestness. That is understandable. Somebody has spent a lot of time studying a subject and wants to be sure to get it just right. After having devoted several years to a project, the authoritative voice of the "expert" comes naturally.

Lori de Mori doesn't have that problem. And that's why, just when you think you'll scream if you read one more "Living in Italy" cookbook, her "Italy Anywhere" (Viking, $29.95) is such a treat.

De Mori is technically the co-writer of this book, along with her husband Jean-Louis de Mori and Antonio Tommasi (local foodies will recognize them as the partners behind Locanda Veneta and Ca' Brea, among other Los Angeles restaurants). But while the recipes belong to the men, it is her voice that makes this more than just another cookbook.

Put plainly, she comes across as a bit of a princess. Not for her is the precious questing for the ultimate in authenticity so typical of American foodies abroad. Quite frankly, she finds a lot of those things a pain.

"The truth about gardening is this: For some, it holds a Zen-like appeal--the sweet rich smell of humus, dewy leaves in the summer morning light. . . . The reality is . . . gardening involves an inordinate amount of stooping and bending. There's always something to do. . . . Your garden is like your child. It relies on you to do all those little things you wish it could do for itself."

Of her mother-in-law's miraculous way with leftovers: "I grew up in a house where, if you were asked to smell the milk for freshness, your response was to throw it out. In Jean-Louis's house, any doubts were resolved by boiling the milk, and if it didn't separate, using it for coffee."

And when Tommasi insists on disassembling her Tuscan kitchen and wiping it down with alcohol before he'll cook in it: "Tail between my legs, I scurried off to Impruneta, my chosen destination not only because of its proximity to my house but because the local cafe, Bar Italia, makes the best gelatos to be found outside Florence. Truth be told, I was in much need of a little break and relieved to have a respite, however brief, from the dissection of my kitchen."

This is not in any way to slight the recipes. The boys did their jobs, too. Many of the old Locanda and Ca' Brea favorites are here: the fried whitebait, the radicchio salad, the braised short ribs and beans. And there are many more dishes that sound equally natural and delicious.

But let's face it: At this point, it's not so difficult to find good Italian recipes. Finding a cookbook that actually charms you is another matter.

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