Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens


If you dream of Italy — and who does not? — be prepared to fall in love with this extraordinary cookbook. Written by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, author of The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food (winner of both the James Beard and Julia Child/IACP Cookbook-of-the-Year Awards), it is every bit the equal of its celebrated predecessor.
Read its exuberant pages, eat its lusty dishes, and you enter a landscape vibrant with rural life. You ...

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If you dream of Italy — and who does not? — be prepared to fall in love with this extraordinary cookbook. Written by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, author of The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food (winner of both the James Beard and Julia Child/IACP Cookbook-of-the-Year Awards), it is every bit the equal of its celebrated predecessor.
Read its exuberant pages, eat its lusty dishes, and you enter a landscape vibrant with rural life. You are one with the terrain. In some sense, you are home. That, of course, is the miracle of Italy — no matter where we come from, we want to be a part of it. And the miracle of The Italian Country Table is its ability to take us there.
And what a journey! You will never be as impatient to get into your kitchen as when you are planning a meal from this book. Two hundred recipes, personally collected from home cooks throughout the length and breadth of Italy, will keep calling you back.
Who could resist the "Gatto" di Patate, a mashed-potato "lasagne" from the Neapolitan countryside? Or a Tuscan Mountain Supper of warm beans tossed with an herbed tomato sauce and eaten with tart greens? Or Pasta of the Grape Harvest, a Sicilian dish of grapes, red wine, orange zest, spices, pistachios and linguine? Or Chocolate Polenta Pudding Cake?
Kasper, host of Public Radio's The Splendid Table, is a master teacher who thinks about cooking in a way that is radically distinctive. Her chapter on tomatoes and tomato sauces, a treasure by itself, will change the way you think about them — and cook them — forever. Her guide to buying and saucing pasta contains more useful facts than many books that devote themselves to pasta exclusively.
Kasper, the grandchild of Italian immigrants, describes herself as someone with a love of lingering "in places where life changes slowly." This personal book abounds with stories of artisans, farmers and family. It is a portrait of Italian country life.
Where you read The Italian Country Table, cook from it or use it to plan a trip (there is an appendix that lists guest farms, country hotels, restaurants and museums), you have only to turn its pages to be transported to a rustic Italy that few of us know, but all of us long for.
* 16 pages of finished dishes in full color

• 50 black-and-white photographs of country life

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A Cooking Class with Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of NPR's "The Splendid Table" and author of the award-winning cookbook of the same name, says that in Italy, food is more than cooking: "You can't separate it from its context, from the people, the land, the mentalities, and the stories it is entwined with," she says. So in her new book, The Italian Country Table, she brings the reader not just the recipes of the many regions of rural Italy but also the sights and sounds and stories of the places and people who create them. A renowned cooking teacher, Kasper came to the New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's to share not just her expertise in Italian cooking but also her experiences traveling through her beloved Italy, staying in people's homes and cooking with them, visiting farms, cheese makers, and goatherds, and eating in rustic establishments all over the countryside.

About Lynne Rossetto Kasper and The Italian Country Table

In a world where most home cooks barely have time to stop by the supermarket and pick up a frozen chicken breast for dinner, life in rural Italy holds a special appeal: Food is not just sustenance but a way of nurturing connections with family and friends and with the seasons and the land itself. Lynne Rossetto Kasper brings that enviable way of being vividly to life in The Italian Country Table, with glimpses of the world of the people who produce Italy's incomparable foodstuffs, of the traditions and rituals of the table, and of the techniques and philosophies of home cooks from many regions. She also brings us recipes for food that is always simple, flavorful, naturally healthful, and immensely appealing. For anyone familiar with Kasper's previous book, The Splendid Table, which won both the James Beard and the Julia Child/IACP cookbook-of-the-year awards, Kasper's ability to convey the essential techniques that will allow the home cook to recreate authentic dishes and the sheer exuberance with which she describes her journeys through her spiritual home will come as no surprise.

About the Menu

Kasper started the class with a perfectly simple dish of Tuscan white beans with salami, sliced red onions, and fried sage leaves from the antipasto table of a pizzeria in Chianti, made especially delicious by tossing the just-cooked hot beans with vinegar and garlic and allowing them to soak up the flavors. An interesting Chianti white wine, Nozzole Vigneto Le Bruniche, accompanied the beans: Made entirely from Chardonnay, the wine was full-bodied, ripe, and complex while maintaining a clean crispness. Next, we traveled to Sicily—"It's so different from Tuscany it could be another planet, much less another country," Kasper said—where she introduced us to two shepherds who make ricotta cheese every morning at dawn over a wood fire from still-warm sheep's milk and then eat it over chewy pasta with spicy tomato sauce as a second breakfast. The re-created dish was one of the most luscious pastas I've ever tasted.

Next came The Baron's Lemon Lamb, learned from the wonderful cook who served the guests in the country-home-turned-guesthouse of an incredibly rude and arrogant baron. An easy dish that can be grilled outside or roasted in the oven, it's made by rubbing butterflied leg of lamb with a paste of garlic, oregano, sage, white wine, lemon juice, and olive oil. Sweet red peppers roasted with mesclun greens and spiked with olives and hot pepper accompanied the lamb, along with delicious soft polenta enriched with Sicilian sheep's cheese (see below for Kasper's foolproof polenta cooking method). A Chianti Classico Riserva from Nozzole with classic leathery, leafy, rustic flavors was a wonderful partner to the shepherd's pasta and the lamb. Dessert was the most complicated dish of the bunch: a fabulous and festive almond-flavored semifreddo studded with candied fruits and drizzled with chocolate sauce, made from sometimes-tricky Italian meringue (a candy thermometer is recommended to make sure the sugar syrup is at the right stage when it's added to beaten egg whites). Michele Chiarlo Asti Spumanti, lightly sparkling and ethereally sweet, was a great finale.

Tips from Lynne Rossetto Kasper

  • Don't bother buying anything but top-quality salami. How can you be sure? First of all, no Hormel, no Boar's Head, but more importantly, "Taste!" says Kasper. Here's her method: Chew, and if it tastes good, swallow and count to ten. If there's an unpleasant aftertaste, don't buy it—it's not top quality and may have been treated or stored badly. The same technique works for cheese.
  • Kasper would normally use a Tuscan oil for cooking Tuscan dishes, but for our class, she used a Sicilian oil for everything. Why? Because every other oil in the store was two years old. Olive oil has one year, she explained, and after that, it's not that it goes bad, but it fades. "At the prices you pay for premium olive oil and at 100 calories a tablespoon, you do not want old olive oil!" she says. Look for a harvest date or year (most olives are harvested between October and March) and buy the newest you can find.
  • An essential tip for cooking great pasta—undercook it slightly and then add it to the pan where the sauce is cooking. It allows the pasta to bond with the sauce for authentic texture and flavor. For more on pasta, see the wonderful chapter on cooking various versions of pasta with tomato sauce in The Italian Country Table.
  • Polenta is a misunderstood dish, Kasper says: "Many recipes tell you to cook it, stirring, for 15 minutes—it's practically still raw at that stage and tastes harsh." In true northern Italian polenta country, it's never cooked for less than 45 minutes, but it's tedious. So she has devised a foolproof double-boiler method for perfect polenta: Combine one part polenta to three parts boiling water (for relatively stiff polenta; one to four works for softer texture) in a metal bowl and whisk to get rid of lumps. Add salt to taste, then cover the bowl with foil. Set over a pot of boiling water and scrape and stir with a spatula every 20 minutes to half hour. Cook this way for an hour and a half, and it will be perfect. It's also easy to hold and keep piping hot until the rest of the meal is ready. One more tip—buy your polenta in small quantities from a store with good turnover—it goes stale very quickly.

Kate Murphy Zeman
From the Publisher
Alice Waters Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California Lynne Rossetto Kasper's love of rustic, inexpensive Italian food, combined with her attention to details and aesthetics, make her writing and recipes irresistible. But, I think it is her insistence on purity and traditions that make her one of the most important food writers I know.

Harold McGee author of On Food and Cooking With in-depth explanations of basic techniques and ingredients, this book will inspire fans of Italian food to explore the delicious possibilities that lie just off the familiar path.

Mario Batali author of Simple Italian Food and chef-owner of Po and Babbo, New York City Lynne Rossetto Kasper brings Italian food folklore to a new level of clarity in her flavor-driven intellectual pursuit of truth, history, love and tradition in Italian kitchens. I love this book because I love to cook with my hands and my nose, but mostly because I love to learn.

Mark Bittman author of How to Cook Everything and the New York Times's "The Minimalist" I found more great ideas in the first ten minutes I spent with The Italian Country Table than in all the other cookbooks I've looked at all year.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins author of Flavors of Puglia and Flavors of Tuscany This is deeply rural Italy, unknown to most Americans, but for those like Lynne who have explored it, a truer and more genuine Italy than the country presented in tourist guides and brochures.

Jane and Michael Stern authors of Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. and Gourmet magazine's "Two for the Road" What pure joy it is to read Lynne's ode to tomatoes that burst with flavor, and her rhapsody about the "breads of ingenuity" takes the reader deep into a culture that is wise as well as delicious.

Paul a Wolfert author of Mediterranean Grains and Greens Lynne Kasper's The Splendid Table was so good, it was destined to be a hard act to follow. Well, Lynne has written a fantastic second book — enthusiastic narrative, great food and uncomplicated recipes.

Carol Field author of In Nonna's Kitchen, Celebrating Italy and The Italian Baker I challenge anyone who picks up The Italian Country Table to resist Lynne Rossetto Kasper's lively voice, lusty appreciation and irresistible enthusiasm for all things Italian.

Sally Schneider author of Food & Wine magazine's "Well-Being," column In this marvelous new book, Lynne Rossetto Kasper brings home what I miss most about Italy: a way of life that deeply nurtures connection with family, friends, the seasons, the land itself, through food and cooking. Her recipes are inspired in their simplicity and inventiveness, and are instinctively healthful, utterly delicious.

Fred Plotkin author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler and Recipes from Paradise When Lynne Rossetto Kasper writes a recipe, you can take it to the bank — and to your heart. Here is cooking at its most assured and most gratifying. The reader will delight in discovering an Italy less traveled and very worth knowing.

People Magazine
Even the most dedicated Italophile could reaonably say basta! to another book on pasta. But Lynne Rosetto Kasper, the host of public radio's The Splendid Table, brings something new to this groaning board. She traveled the length of Italy, seeking down-home recipes from real pople. One thing she found is that no two Italians make tomato sauce the same way. She also found a Sweet Potato—Pear Pizza that kids devour. And she collected a larderful of lore, such as a tale of San Antonio Abate, patron saint of piglets who, on the evening of Jan. 16, lets farm animals gossip in Italian. For dessert, Kasper includes a list of guest farms you can dream about visiting.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684813257
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 10/6/1999
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 699,929
  • Product dimensions: 7.70 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynne Rossetto Kasper is host of the nationally broadcast radio show The Splendid Table with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Public Radio's food program and winner of the 1998 James Beard Award For Best National Radio Show on Food Her first book, The Splendid Table Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, is the only winner of both the James Beard and Julia Child/IACP Cookbook-of-the-Year Awards as well as the Julia Child Best First Book Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: The Grape Harvest

It is 1993 and I have begun researching this book by spending the month of October on my cousin's farm in Tuscany, outside the town of Lucca. It is the end of the day of the grape harvest.

The fragrance of just-crushed grapes is seeping through the floor boards, rising from the wine vats in the barn below. At long tables crowded with food, seventy of us are feasting in the hayloft. Every person in this room has participated in this ancient ritual of bringing in the grapes.

From America, we, the children and grandchildren of immigrants from these hills, have returned to be with the children of those who stayed behind — cousins Edda and Alcide. As every year, their friends have gathered to help, traveling from as far away as England and Denmark and as near as the next farm and village. Together we are drinking the wine of last year's harvest as the new wine is starting to ferment beneath us.

Four generations have been working in Edda's farm kitchen to prepare the harvest feast. Since yesterday, plied with strong coffee and biscotti, we family women have been cooking for the harvest party — chopping vegetables and herbs, pounding beef cutlets and rolling pastry. Edda's mother, Amelia, two years shy of one hundred, nods from her chair. Edda's daughter, Antonella, and I share the big cutting board, while Antonella's toddler, Michèle, tries stuffing tiny fistfuls of bread into his mouth, missing half the time. Family is everything to Edda. She is the daughter of my grandmother's brother, and more sister than cousin to my mother since they first met as girls in 1928. That my mother and I have returned along with our husbands means to her that we are all finally together in our rightful home.

Our general is Francesca, Edda's older cousin. Though she adores Edda, Francesca will tell you, shaking her head, that Edda is hopeless in the kitchen. Edda laughs — this is an old story between them. Francesca is the family's legendary cook. "She couldn't cook bad food if she tried," says Edda.

Planted between her two sauté pans, Francesca is frying off mounds of beef cutlets, tossing jokes and gossip at her crew while directing us in our chores. She is cooking in a pressed apron and pearls. "So what would you serve, la giornalista, Miss Professional Cook?" Francesca teases me, "What would you make?" Probably a simple buffet, light and casual, I explain. She stiffens. "Lynne, I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but that is barbaric!" She throws out her arms, embracing me, the kitchen, the vineyard, the world at large. "Lynne. From America, from England they come. Our neighbors give up a Sunday; everyone is here to bring in our grapes. A buffet! I would dishonor myself, and Edda and Alcide — disgrace for the family."

Early that morning, Edda had taken me to the Vendémmia (grape harvest) mass. I knelt in the church where my grandmother, Enrichetta Pollestrini, knelt every Sunday until, at nineteen, she left Italy for America to marry my grandfather. Outside the church, the world she came from is all contained within the arc of the crescent-shaped ridge and the valley below. The church looks out from one end of the ridge. Across the valley at the opposite end is the sharecropper's house where Enrichetta, Edda's father and six generations of our family were born. The bread oven where my grandmother baked each week with her mother and sisters still stands next to the house. Bread bakes there still, made by old friends of Edda's, now the house's owners. On the slopes of the little valley between the two ends of the ridge's arc are the olive trees and vineyards my family worked. Crowning the center of the crescent's curve is the walled estate of the landowner who dominated their lives.

In the 1920s, Edda's father, Clementino, emigrated from the ridge to America. For him, the streets were truly paved with gold. He returned to the ridge wealthy and eager to claim his betrothed, and take her back to California. She refused to go: "I cannot leave my church. I cannot leave the hills." It was a refrain I would hear again and again as I traveled in rural Italy, talking with country people. For some it was prefaced with, "I will not leave my mother. I will not leave my village." Always home, family and the land kept them there.

So Clementino stayed, buying the farm over the ridge from where he was born. This son of a sharecropper became a landowner with sharecroppers of his own. He never saw California again; he is buried next to the church. After visiting his grave, Edda and I took the ridge road back home.

In grape harvesting, water and wine do not mix. Rain threatens. Everyone works fast, breaking away grape clusters with anything that cuts — serrated blades of cheap kitchen knives, proper clippers, old scissors. No one stops. Children run snacks of cheese and bread out to the vineyard. My stepfather, son of a farmer from Piacenza and a retired New York businessman, roams the vineyard, a bottle of grappa tucked under one arm, a bottle of water under the other, offering pickers refreshment from the glasses he clenches in his fists.

Back in the kitchen, we are staggering. "We need air!" proclaims Francesca, leading us behind the house to where vegetables and herbs grow beneath the oldest vines, planted there by Clementino himself. Edda calls it the "women's vineyard." The family women have always harvested these grapes alone, perhaps because of their proximity to the kitchen. We begin twisting clusters from the vines. Jokes start. Francesca hums, goes into singing a bawdy song. Her niece and Edda's daughter, Antonella, winks as she starts singing. Sweet cousin Lahlia tries to scowl and look embarrassed. Edda finally leads us back to the kitchen for more coffee and cooking.

The grapes are in. Teenagers are relaying food through the garden and out to the barn's hayloft that Edda converted into a room for celebrations. Wet harvesters clamber up the hayloft stairs, shaking out slickers. A fire blazes on the wide corner hearth. Across the room, the pizza oven is stoked with wood, keeping pastas and meats hot. The ceiling's beams are thick tree trunks, the walls rough plaster. Wide floorboards slope a little east and a little west. Patiently, we bow our heads during the priest's blessing. Then pitchers of wine are being emptied into tumblers. Everyone is passing platters and huge bowls brimming with course after course of antipasti, pasta, beef cutlets, roast chickens, vegetables, salads, tarts, cookies and cakes. The harvest is in. We are together. All of us, friends and relatives, are family on this night. We are all home.

Copyright © 1999 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper


Every time I drive down country roads in Italy, I wonder what people are cooking in those farmhouses I pass, what their lives are like, what stories they have to tell. With this book, I set out to find the answers to those questions. I wanted to learn about the home cooking of Italians who live from the land. I wanted to know what country people eat every day when they come together around the table, and what they reminisce about when they talk of the cooking of their parents and grandparents.

For me, these are the elements that make Italian food Italian. It always begins on the land and in the home. That link to the land tied into my longtime interest in organic foods and sustainable agriculture. Were any Italian farmers in those houses talking about these issues? And how were the European Union's new food production laws affecting their lives?

Another part of this curiosity must come from my heritage. I am the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. My grandparents on both sides came to America from Italy at the beginning of the century. My mother's mother was a Tuscan sharecropper's daughter, who married an estate manager's son from a nearby village. I don't think I wanted to acknowledge it at the beginning of the adventures that became this book, but my fascination with the farm and country food wasn't just about finding what I believe is the soul of Italian cooking, it was also the beginning of exploring my own sense of home.

My penchant for spending a lot of time in small, remote areas of Italy shaped this book. In over twenty years of exploring, I still have not seen all of Italy. One friend joked that when I was writing about the Emilia-Romagna region in my first book, The Splendid Table, it took me six months just to get out of one country village — I kept discovering more to know. I love to linger in places where life changes slowly. So for this book, instead of, for instance, visiting all of Tuscany's farming areas, I couldn't pull myself away from the region's remote Garfagnana and Lunigiana mountains. Puglia, the region that is the heel of Italy's boot, captivated me for the same reasons. Most people still live from the land and the food always tastes homemade. To me, Puglia is the Tuscany of the South. It has the same kind of unadorned cooking that delivers an immediacy of taste. I dream longingly of Puglia tomatoes — maybe the best I've ever eaten.

Few Americans visit the Alto Adige, the region that sits right up against Austria's border, but border food is fascinating and farm life there is governed by different laws than the rest of Italy — I had to go. And I had to stay in a single village and thoroughly explore its valley and surrounding mountains. There was so much to learn. So this book tells about country life in the places I couldn't leave.

Country life museums all over Italy became one of my doorways into understanding something of how people lived from the land in each area I visited. In the Alto Adige, I found Italy's only outdoor farming museum — a whole village of antique farm buildings brought from all over the region and spanning several hundred years. The museum's director is Hans Griefsmair, a professor and historian who understands country life from firsthand experience. He was raised in the mountains, the son of a local cowherd. One farmhouse he showed me was so welcoming I felt as though I could move right into the kitchen and start cooking. Even the butter churn next to the hearth was alluring, with its decorative carvings. When I told Professor Griefsmair it tempted me to try churning butter, he started reminiscing about how even when food was scarce, his family always had a mound of butter in the middle of the table. I realized that while he was eating butter to survive, in other parts of Italy it was pure luxury.

I told him how I constantly heard people waxing poetic over life in the cowherds' huts you find all over the region in the high mountains. He explained how cowherds were and still are entrusted with an entire village's cows. They herd them up to high pastures for a whole summer of grazing and cheese and butter making.

Italian country life museums can be deeply personal places. Nearly nine hundred miles south of Griefsmair's world, in Sicily, I found the remnants of a museum where a man who was a poet and schoolteacher attempted to touch the sense of home he believed we all share in common. As Antonino Uccello created his farmhouse museum in the country town of Palazzolo Acreide where he was raised, he tried to make tangible his belief that we all long for the innocence, imagined or real, of the past and have a common sense of home. He believed the farmhouse was the key, with its link to the land and universal rhythms of life, death and rebirth. This was not your typical museum. He called it La Casa Museo, the museum of home.

Uccello died in 1979. I never met him — only read about him and heard his story from his admirers. I did visit what's left of Casa Museo, now run by the government. Governments don't search for the kinds of things poets do. If Uccello were alive, he'd probably have been a touchstone for me. But another man filled that place. He lives in a farmhouse in the hills outside the northern Italian city of Parma. His name is Ettore Guatelli. He brought home to me the resourcefulness and ingenuity I found in most country people.

Ettore Guatelli's in his mid-seventies. He's small and sturdily built, wears thick glasses and looks stern when you first meet him. He lives with his two brothers and their families on a rambling hill farm. They all grew up there as the children of a sharecropper. The big house where the landowner lived is across the barnyard.

Thirty years ago, Guatelli bought a pair of pliers his neighbors were getting rid of and from them he built a museum scholars consider a unique study of northern Italian folklife. Without coyness, he just calls it his collection. There is no sign on the buildings about the museum. Carved into the rough wooden door to his house is something to the effect of "Guatelli lives here. If you want him, ring the bell." I rang the bell. It took time, but after a while Guatelli started to tell his story.

After the pliers, he bought more tools and kitchen implements at local farm sales. He said he saw farm people getting rid of objects that revealed how they'd lived. I saw a homemade toy car fashioned from used shoe polish tins and tomato cans. Guatelli held up a pair of shoes repaired again and again. With their soles and top held together with nails, tacks and cord, they were sculpture to my eyes, but they must have been so painful to wear. I held in my arms a copper polenta pot that had been patched with scraps of metal and rivets through two generations of cooking.

In the 1960s, a series of new laws changed the sharecropping system in Italy. Instead of working for a landowner, sharecroppers were encouraged to either buy their land, which some, like Guatelli and his siblings, did, or hire themselves out to the industrial food producers who were buying up acreage from landowning families.

Either way, in Guatelli's part of Italy, the hill country of Parma province in the Emilia-Romagna region, many country people wanted to throw away reminders of the past. Living from the land wasn't easy. As Guatelli talked, I was reminded of my friend Paola Bini, whom I met while researching my previous book, The Splendid Table. Paola's farm, Villa Gaidello, is about a two-hour drive south of Guatelli's. When Paola inherited her grandmother's farm over twenty years ago and wanted to open a part-time restaurant where the local farmwomen would cook their traditional foods, she discovered the women found more status in working in the village equivalent of a five-and-ten than in making the phenomenal handmade pasta the region is famous for. The only way she could convince them was to pay very high salaries. Finally, when they saw people driving from faraway cities like Milan to eat at Gaidello and raving about the food, they began to appreciate the value of their own heritage. Paola said they had been ashamed of their cooking — it was what peasants did, not people who were affluent and secure.

Guatelli told me the same thing. Some of his neighbors couldn't wait to leave the land. They wanted to live in new, shiny, sterile apartments in town and to work as mechanics at the local garage, or become shopkeepers. Who could blame them? Farming is hard work with no set hours other than the rhythm of the seasons and weather. As Guatelli's collection of the objects of local country life grew, he said, he realized it was turning into a tribute to his people and to how they found solutions to dilemmas and needs by using their hands and their minds. Many of them left the farm eagerly, but Guatelli's collection, which now is crowded into a huge barn and almost his entire house, documents their incredible ingenuity — and their determination to survive, even prosper.

His objects seem to be bursting to tell their stories, maybe because once you break through his reserve, that's the way Guatelli is. He led me into what he calls the kitchen room, where he'd gathered all sorts of kitchen objects. There are cupboards made of hollowed-out tree trunks with shelves hammered into their interiors, and improvised bread ovens a lot like the clay cloches sold in our kitchen shops for baking bread.

He took me over to a collection of homemade cutting boards he'd arranged leaning against a white-washed wall. They were of thick pieces of hardwood cut from local oak trees. They reminded me of the ones I'd seen at my friends' farm in Lombardy. He said in these hills, people always claimed that when a cutting board was worn through, deeply grooved by the rocking motion of the half-moon knife, it was time to marry off your oldest daughter. According to Guatelli, it took about twenty years to wear out a cutting board — just the right age for a firstborn daughter to find a husband. He lifted a small object from its hanger on the wall and showed me how old coins no longer honored by the government were turned into pasta cutters. Farmers notched them so they'd cut in a zigzag pattern, pierced their centers and secured the coins to hand-carved wooden handles.

The same ingenuity I saw in the tools and toys is at the heart of the food of every good country cook I've ever met. Whatever the land gives, the ingenious cook turns into good eating. Rosalba Ciannamea is this kind of cook — but very different from the farmwomen at Villa Gaidello and Guatelli's neighbors in northern Italy. Born and raised in southern Italy's Puglia region, she comes to the kitchen and the land as a student of her own heritage. She is a city woman turned landowner who learns from the farmers working for her and studies the old scrapbooks of her olive estate's turn-of-the-century mistress.

This is one aspect of understanding Italy that, as an American, I find difficult to express. The past is always present in Italy. Italians might revere it, rail against it or just accept it, but the past is always there. People seem to have a oneness with what has come before. The dishes I've eaten time after time at the tables of farmers and country cooks are always linked to heritage. They might be inventive, but they always taste of the place where I'm sitting at the moment.

In the Naples countryside, farmwomen make a casserole of mashed potatoes mixed with salami and peas. Thick slices of mozzarella are buried in its center. Neapolitans love mozzarella. They have some of the best in Italy and it goes on everything — pizza, potatoes, meats, pasta and anything with tomatoes. Far to the north in the Italian Alps, a cowherd's wife explained how she cooks her potatoes in buttermilk and finishes them with tablespoons of browned butter. Why buttermilk? I wondered. Why not? She has quarts of it every day, left over from churning the butter she sells to a local shop. Will the cowherd's wife ever put mozzarella on her potatoes? Probably not. She has no connection to it. It is not part of her world.

This sense of intrinsic "rightness" and the feeling of being connected to what has come before may be what naturally evolves for a people who are irrevocably connected to the land. Land is at the heart of all things Italian. City people almost always seek out a farmer or wine maker they will go to each year for their annual stocking up of wine, salami, hams and sausages. No patch of land behind a city apartment building or private home is ever without some kind of food growing. Everyone farms, even if it's a short row of tomato plants and a few heads of salad greens. The holiday in the country (soggiorno in campagna) used to be an institution. In high summer, city families would go to stay on a farm — often a relative's farm, or that of a farmer they knew who rented out rooms. The guest farm is going through a renaissance. Recently the Italian government encouraged the guest farm by offering tax breaks to farmers who create accommodations for visitors. Staying on guest farms was another doorway for me into Italian country life, and it can be yours too. The farmers are usually wonderfully welcoming.

But why Italians' deep connection to the farm? My own theory is that by the time the Industrial Revolution came along in the mid-nineteenth century, Italy had been an agricultural society for about four thousand years. Industry and modern technology are merely the newest wrinkle. Food is the land; it is what the land gives. No wonder "new and improved" rarely succeeds as a food marketing strategy in Italy.

Three Italian expressions brought home to me the commonality I kept feeling among all the country people I met, even though they were so very different from one another. If there are keys to understanding Italy and maybe to what constantly draws so many of us Americans to things Italian, I think they are in this trio of expressions.

"Nostrano," "campanilismo," and "si sposa." Walk through any Italian market and see the produce and the cheeses, the seafood and the dried beans, the new chestnuts and even the sides of lamb with the occasional label "nostrano." Compliment your host at an Italian dinner party on a wonderful dish and hear "nostrano" somewhere in the response. Nostrano literally translates as "local," but it comes from nostro, meaning "ours." When we refer to "local" produce, we essentially mean geography. When an Italian says nostrano, she means from her own part of Italy. The green beans from a farm outside town are nostrano. Local is geography; nostrano is an embrace. Nostrano lays claim to food, saying this is from our land, from our place in the world. Italians are certain the very best foods are theirs, grown from their land, by people in their part of Italy. Nowhere else can equal that. And nowhere else does anything taste quite the same. One secret to know: Food is all about microclimates, changing from place to place — which is why traditional, handmade and local are everything to quality in Italy. The culinary artisan is master, and the cheese is never the same from one side of the hill to the other.

Nostrano helped me to begin to understand campanilismo. The campanile is the bell tower of the church at the center of every Italian village. Within the sound of those bells is the land, home, family and the only people to truly be trusted. The food of this place is as much a part of an Italian's personal identity as family name and individual personality. This is where the eternal mamma cooks, even if her skills are more affectionate imagination than reality. In nostrano and campanilismo are two keys to Italy's deep regionalism.

Si sposa means "it marries" and is always used in talking about food. This is how a friend in Milan, where Risotto alla Milanese is almost a religion, explained si sposa to me: Imagine you are dining in a home in the Milanese countryside. Go to sprinkle a Sicilian sheep cheese over a plate of Risotto alla Milanese and watch your hostess bite back an expletive. Politely she will explain, "Non si sposa (it doesn't marry)." These foods come from two entirely different worlds and mentalities — one the northern city of Milan, with its northern European culture; the other from Sicily, an island ninety miles from the coast of Africa with almost as much Arab, Greek and pure Mediterranean influences as Italian ones. One place is hot, the other cold. She could go on. Notice she's not gotten to how they might taste together. She is focusing on why they don't and never will marry. That they will not taste right in the same dish is a foregone conclusion.

We come full circle back to nostrano, campanilismo and the notion of what grows together goes together — spiritually and in taste. Even with the expression "go together," perhaps we lose the wonderful intimacy of foods and traditions "marrying." It is for this reason that I think we are so drawn to the Italian table. Without knowing any of this, the direct simplicity of Italy's foods connects us to it all. This brings me back to Ettore Guatelli, whose tribute to his people in his collection of country objects is all about that profound connection Italians feel to the land, family and the will to flourish. As those objects speak to Guatelli, so I believe Italian food speaks to us in a way we can all understand. Somehow Italian food speaks to us of home.

Copyright © 1999 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

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Table of Contents





Antipasti / Light Meals


Pasta Meets the Tomato

Rice, Grains and Beans


Poultry, Meats and Fish

Vegetables and Salads

Focaccia, Pizza and Breads of Ingenuity




Mail-Order Sources

When in Italy

A Partial Bibliography


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A Recipe from The Italian Country Table

Penne with Sicilian Shepherd's Sauce
Penne dei Pastori Siciliani

Serves 6 to 8 as a first course, 4 as a main dish

Shepherds in Sicily offered me this dish—a spicy tomato sauce over chewy pasta, transformed by ricotta—after making ricotta at dawn. For them, it was a second breakfast; for me, it has become a favorite supper in a bowl. Pasta, tomato and cheese is one of the most irresistible of all combinations, but in this dish, ricotta makes everything sing. It must be the sweetest, creamiest you can find. If you don't have a good one, leave out the ricotta, finishing the pasta with a generous handful of shredded Asiago cheese. Quite a different dish, but you won't be disappointed.

Cook to Cook: Here's an excellent example of sautéing a soffritto over medium heat to build both bold and gentle qualities into a tomato sauce. Protect the soffritto from burning by lowering the heat if it seems to be cooking too fast. Sauté it to golden, stirring frequently but letting some bits stick to the pan; they will build a crusty glaze. The sauce's depth and resonance lies in this glaze. Once it's swept into the other ingredients when the tomatoes are added, it opens up all the other flavors.

Wine Suggestion: A Sicilian red like Regaleali Rosso, Etna Rosso or Corvo Rosso

Top third of 3 large celery stalks with leaves
1 medium carrot
10 large fresh sage leaves
1 tightly packed teaspoon fresh Italian parsley leaves
2 tablespoons robust extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/8-inch-thick slice salami (such as soppressata or Genoa), coarsely chopped
2 medium onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large cloves garlic, minced
Generous pinch to 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (to taste)
3/4 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 28-ounce and 1 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, both thoroughly drained
1 pound penne rigate or bucatini
6 quarts boiling salted water
1 pound creamy whole-milk ricotta (sheep's milk, if possible)

1. Mince together the celery and carrot, adding the herbs toward the end to chop only coarsely. Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the salami and cook to release a little of its fat, then stir in the minced celery blend, the onions, a little salt, and a generous amount of black pepper. Turn the heat down to medium and sauté to golden brown.

2. Stir in the garlic and hot pepper, cooking a few moments. Add the wine and slowly simmer down to nothing, scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Stir in the tomato paste and cook 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as they go into the pan. Cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble (turn the heat up if necessary), stirring and scraping down the sides of the pan with a spatula. Cook 10 minutes, or until thick. Taste for seasoning, cover, and remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in fiercely boiling water, stirring often, until slightly underdone. Drain in a colander.

4. To marry the pasta and sauce, add the pasta to the sauce and toss together over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes, tasting for hot pepper and salt. Spread about a third of the pasta in a heated serving bowl and daub with a third of the ricotta. Layer in more pasta and ricotta, then the remaining pasta, finishing with a few spoonfuls of ricotta. Serve hot.

Recipe from The Italian Country Table, copyright © 1999 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. All rights reserved.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2000

    A book that is as readable as it is usable

    This engagingly written book captures the vibrant spirit and traditions of the Italian countryside in an enticing blend of evocative text and family recipes. The hearty, flavorful dishes described by Lynne Rossetto Kasper range from appetizers to desserts, and nearly all of the ingredients called for in the recipes are not difficult to find. A helpful discussion of ingredients, a list of shopping sources, and appealing menus add to the book's usefulness.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2012

    More than a great cookbook!

    Practically a tour through the Italian countryside! The first recipe I tried was the red wine and balsamic glazed leg of lamb. It was wonderful and will be the star of my Easter dinner menu. I can't wait to try something else and read more of the stories that make the recipes just come alive!

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  • Posted February 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Great read and wonderful recipes

    Wonderfully researched and written, with stories as well as great authentic recipes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2006

    My favorite cookbook of all time!

    I showed it to a friend who grew up on a farm in Italy, and she swears it's totally authentic. The Friday Night Spaghetti recipe is one of the few carb fests I allow myself -- best recipe in the book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2003

    One of my favorite cookbooks

    Not fussy at all. Some (not very many) of the recipes might take a little while to cook, but are all accessible to the home cook. Quite a few of the recipes have become staples in my house. The vegetable section is especially good.

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