I have loved cooking from this book. My mom has had it since I can remember (it was published in 1990), and gifted me a copy for Christmas/Hanukkah this past year. It’s a quiet classic, and well worth diving into.
The truly valuable part of this cookbook is that the rhythm of it encourages learning a dish, not a recipe. After making 3 or 4 versions of risotto, you will know how to make a risotto, and can use whatever vegetables are in season to do so. When you understand how you can make a delicious and simple spaghetti with just some fresh parsley, garlic, lemon, and a few kitchen staples, dinner is always within reach.
This is a great book for people who want to cook simple, fresh Italian food. It’s mostly a simply done kind of cookbook, not a big project cookbook. It is focused only on lunch and dinner, unless you want cake for breakfast, which, maybe, why not. The biggest downside is that the design doesn’t show off the food like more modern cookbooks, so it could be easily overlooked on someone’s bookshelf.
Cookbook Road Map:
Bruschetta (p.39) – So good. Just….it’s worth it. 10/10
Salad of green and yellow beans, prosciutto, and cherry tomatoes (p. 95) – If you have big beans, cut them in half after cooking. Really nice salad. 8/10
Red squash and rice soup (p. 135) – Delicious, easy peasy, 10/10
Ribollita (p. 140) – Too thick for me, maybe should try Pappa al Pomodoro (Bread-Thickened Tomato Soup, p. 139). 6/10
Spaghetti aglio e olio (with oil and garlic, p. 156) – Killer. 10/10
Long fusilli with grilled vegetables (p. 164) – Simple, delicious. Will try with olives instead of sun dried tomatoes next time. 9/10
Spaghetti with fried peppers (p. 167) – Simple, delicious. 9/10
Risotto with cauliflower (p. 212) – Add hot pepper flakes with garlic if desired. Roast the other half head of cauliflower, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, at 400 F, stirring every ten minutes or so, until well done. It should be dark brown on the edges, and soft. Use to top the risotto. 9/10
Risotto country style (p. 215) – Delicious, though not an Instagram kind of dish. Make sure to really soften the onions well, perhaps even adding them a couple of minutes before the other aromatics. Prep everything before diving in, up to putting the portioned last-minute dairy ingredients in a bowl in the fridge. 9/10
Grilled polenta with wild mushroom sauté (p. 236) – You have to really love mushrooms for this one. The dried mushrooms were overwhelming for me. Husband liked it, though. 6/10
Stuffed Yellow Peppers (p. 259) – Really nice and very pretty. 8.5/10
Potato pizza (p. 263) – This was fun, but felt like more of a kids meal than something for adults. 7/10
Lentils, greens, and sausages (p. 335) – This was tasty, but the way that the recipe is written uses four separate pans. That’s a lot of clean up for a pretty simple dish. 7/10
Grilled beef filets marinated in lemon and black pepper (p. 342) – This was probably my biggest disappointment in this book. I just think a filet doesn’t need to be marinated. It was good, but I think it could’ve been better prepared more simply. 6/10
Walnut almond biscotti (p. 367) – It was good, but you can’t beat Ina Garten’s biscotti: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/cherry-pistachio-biscotti-4554132. 7/10
Standout Star Recipe(s): Any of the following spaghetti recipes: Spaghetti aglio e olio (p. 156), Long fusilli with grilled vegetables (p. 164), Spaghetti with fried peppers (p. 167). In addition, I’m going to add two classic favorites of my mom’s which I love, Fast spaghetti (p. 152) and Thin pasta with inflamed Italian parsley pesto (p. 155). They are all super easy, could go well with almost anything (meats, fish, vegetables, just a salad), and are great choices for dinner parties. You can’t go wrong, they will be delicious.
Runner-Ups: Bruschetta (p.39), Red squash and rice soup (p. 135), Risotto country style (p. 215).
Arborio rice is a new favorite for me. It’s creamy and soft, wonderful in the red squash soup and in a risotto. I had an idea of risotto being very complicated and easy to mess up, which turns out to be not true at all. It’s very easy, it just takes a bit of time. The bruschetta is a good reminder that, if you have a grill fired up, you might as well throw some bread on there, and also some vegetables, which you can later julienne and use in a pasta sauce (as in Long fusilli with grilled vegetables, p. 164).
Equipment and Ingredients
Only basic equipment. If you plan on getting in to the risotto section, you may have to order arborio rice online, depending upon your local grocery store. I got six 1-pound boxes from Amazon, and am very happy to still have two left. It’s good quality rice, and once you get started with risotto, it’s an easy, nice dinner to put together. Most of the ingredients that the book calls for are very simple to find, though, and the book definitely wants you to choose recipes based on seasonality.
Are these recipes difficult?
Tips and Advice
Breaking down the basic steps for most stovetop risotto:
- Olive oil and/or butter in saucepan.
2. Cook onions, garlic, and vegetables gently, no browning. Wait until thoroughly softened, though—the onion will not cook more once you add liquid!
3. Add rice (no rinsing) and sauté for a couple minutes, stirring; add wine and stir until absorbed.
4. Keep hot broth or water in a small saucepan. Add a cup at a time over medium low heat, stirring frequently. Wait to add the next cup until the liquid is absorbed.
5. Add salt and pepper midway through cooking.
6. When it’s soft and lovely, take off the heat and add any cheeses, herbs, extra butter or olive oil.
- For a quick and delicious take on the Spanish pan con tomato, grill your crusty bread as for bruschetta, then rub with a garlic clove and drizzle with good olive oil. Then cut a tomato in half and rub the juice and seeds sides on the top of the bread until you have nothing left but the skin. Half a tomato could probably do a couple of slices. Discard the skin of the tomato. Salt and pepper to taste, and top with a little prosciutto or very thinly sliced parmesan cheese if you have any in your fridge. Serve it while everyone’s waiting for the rest of the food to be ready. Doesn’t get better than that.
Is this food delicious?
Yes, it is. It’s fresh and simple and relies on good ingredients, simple instructions, and a bit of care.
Is it Family Friendly?
Sure, if your kids are open to vegetables and alliums. My middle guy is especially picky, and most of this won’t work for him. But, it’s pretty easy to set aside some pasta with just butter for him and make that kid a smoothie, so it works out.
Tone of the Book
This book doesn’t have a lot of gimmicks. It’s meant to be simple, but also fresh, so there’s not a lot of advice on making food ahead. There are, however, a lot of (unnamed) 30 minute meals, once you get acquainted with the recipes. The focus is on the food, how it is prepared in Italy, and how it will be on your table.
I don’t mind personally, but it is not very modern and the lack of photos could make it harder for people to be drawn in. The design is simple and well organized, but has no pictures, which is tough in today’s cookbook market.
Healthiness of recipes/ adaptability to dietary needs
It’s not suited to most special diets that I can think of, like vegan, vegetarian, gluten free. However, it is healthy in my opinion, because the focus is on seasonal produce and preparing food instead of buying it prepared.
Who wants this book? Is it a good gift?
I have enjoyed cooking from this book so much. I think it’s a great deep dive book, and also a great book for anyone who wants to cook really simple, seasonal food. Beginners can learn a lot from it. More advanced cooks could have fun adapting some of these recipes using more modern techniques and kitchen tools. Because these recipes are very simple, there’s room to add a pinch of this or that and make it your own. If you can just trust that it’s delicious, and suspend the need for photographic enticement, you won’t be sorry.
TLDR: Cucina Rustica is a book of simple, seasonal Italian recipes. It’s a bit dated in format, not having any pictures, but the classics of the cuisine never go out of style. This book is filled with delicious, easy recipes. Many 30 minute meals, many fresh and fast dishes, and none of the gimmicks. Go deep into this book and you will learn a LOT about Italian food. Well worth it.
Find Cucina Rustica, published by William Morrow & Company, wherever you buy books, or order it from Amazon!
If you love this book and want to hear more from Evan Kleiman, check out her podcast, Good Food. The show has been on the air since 1997, which, wow. It’s a very cool blend of talking about food and cookbooks, and also food culture and food issues like food scarcity and farming. There are episodes on seeds, soil science, Native American food sovereignty, GMO pigs, Bollywood cuisine, and on and on. It kind of runs the gamut. I’ve listened to a couple so far and am really enjoying it—I’d say it’s for thinker foodies.
More Books from Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman:
Pasta Fresca: An Exuberant Collection of Fresh, Vivid, and Simple Pasta Recipes
Cucina Fresca: Italian Food, Simply Prepared
Verdura: Vegetables Italian Style by Viana La Place
Angeli Caffè: Pizza Pasta Panini by Evan Kleiman