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Our poet of Renaissance alta cucina

Luigi Ballerini champions historical Italian cookbooks and brings the culinary past to the table.

March 09, 2005|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

"Excuse me," said Professor Ballerini, "I have to put on my cardinal's hat."

He stood up from the table, whipped out a red miter and put it on his head. Throwing an arm around a young chef, he jovially announced to the room full of diners:

"I am Cardinal Trevisan. I am very rich. My villa rivals the pope's. And this is my chef, maestro Martino."

That's the kind of theatrical moment that can happen when people throw historical banquets, such as this late-February re-creation of dishes once enjoyed by the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

This particular meal -- including macaroni romaneschi (pasta with butter and cheese), baccala mantecata (a light, luscious salt cod puree), and a dramatic chocolate "Vesuvius" -- was inspired by recipes of 15th century chef Martino of Como, whose wealthy employer liked to give intimate dinner parties for Renaissance big shots. The event was an example of Ballerini's efforts to bring attention to centuries-old writings by Italian chefs.

Now, Luigi Ballerini is not a foodie. He's an energetic figure in the literary world, in both English and Italian: a prolific poet, a well-known translator, the former chair of UCLA's Italian department, a specialist in avant-garde art. Somehow he manages to maintain a residence in New York while teaching at UCLA ("Planes are where I get my sleeping done," he joshes).

He was playing the part of Cardinal Trevisan at this dinner at Il Grano restaurant because he recently wrote introductions to new editions of two historical Italian cookbooks, Martino's "The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookbook" (University of California) and Pellegrino Artusi's "Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well" (University of Toronto).


Cookery's turning points

Both books document watershed moments in the development of Italian cuisine. Martino steered Renaissance cooking away from the medieval mania for spices and spelled out things earlier authors had not, such as measurements, cooking times and how to choose the best ingredients. "He was not afraid of revealing professional secrets," says Ballerini -- perhaps because he was well known around Rome, almost a celebrity.

"He became prominent enough to have detractors," Ballerini says. And in Rome, that's when you know you're somebody.

Artusi's book, originally published in 1891, codified a specifically Italian approach to cookery after the political unification of Italy in the 19th century.


Much more than recipes

But why is Ballerini, a man of letters who admits he doesn't cook, involved with historical cookbooks? Because there's more to cookbooks than recipes, the professor explained in his UCLA office the day after the dinner. "In Artusi," he said, "my interest was the exploration of a literary genre. I can consider his recipes as writing, as I would a villanelle or a sonnet." (Artusi is a great read, full of odd, amusing asides.)

"I'm also interested [in historical cookery literature] because it reveals a great deal about the society and the times. As a cultural historian, I have an opportunity to draw a lot of material out of it, to describe and analyze economic and behavioral elements." For instance, dry pasta has always been poor people's food, while fresh pasta has always been associated with luxury because it can spoil.

Still, cookbooks are mostly recipes. Are the recipes themselves still of any interest?

"In the case of Artusi," Ballerini said, "the recipes are not obsolete at all -- his book is still used in domestic cooking in Italy. In the case of Martino, the fascination came from the fact that so much of what we thought contemporary has a long history."

In particular, Martino apparently invented battuto, the mixture of onions, carrots and celery fried together that is the foundation of so many Italian dishes.

But Ballerini admits that antique recipes are also interesting in themselves. "I think we're going to do more and more historical cooking," he predicts. "There was a time when regional cooking was important. We're shifting from space to time.

"Maybe that's one way of recovering history. Nobody's paying attention to history anymore -- I think this is one area where the historical canon has a chance to survive."

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