There are several Italian cookbooks vying for attention this fall, but Urban Italian (Bloomsbury; 100 recipes; $35), from the husband-and-wife duo of chef Andrew Carmellini and writer Gwen Hyman, stands apart; its outstanding recipes and unpretentious voice are irresistible. At the moment, Carmellini may be relatively unknown in a crowded field of superstar Italian chefs, but this 37-year-old from the Cleveland suburbs has two James Beard awards (2000 and 2005) and a New York City restaurant (A Voce) under his belt—and now a cookbook that’s about to grab everyone’s attention. From accounts of family excursions throughout Italy to his own escapades in and out of culinary school, Lespinasse, and Café Boulud, it’s filled with the kind of laugh-out-loud stories you just know chefs share over a cold one at the end of a long day.
Ultimately, though, this book is about the recipes. They’re adventurous, stylish, and as much fun as the text itself—which is no small achievement for a project that essentially resulted from killing time. A few years back, while Carmellini was waiting for A Voce to open, he took Gwen and some key staff members to Italy for a whirlwind taste fest. When he returned home, he was inspired, determined to cook Italian food that was all about New York City, which meant using the best Italian ingredients he could find in inventive ways. Back in his tiny apartment kitchen, still waiting, he needed something to keep him busy. Urban Italian is that something.
Carmellini tells us that he cooks to make people happy. And as my Gourmet colleagues and I tested our way through this book, we became a very happy bunch. We were never alone in the kitchen. Our host, ever the laid-back teacher, was right there with us, explaining what a particular ingredient would do for the flavor of a dish, walking us through a cooking technique, telling us why a step was necessary and reassuring us by describing how the result should look when things got tricky. Plus, he divulges valuable chef secrets: how a tiny bit of Sambuca intensifies the licorice flavor of fennel; how Amaretto cookies bring the right touch of bitterness to a savory food like butternut squash; how panko adds a nice crunch to pasta dishes; and much more.
As Chef Carmellini now awaits the opening of his next New York restaurant, we can only hope that he has time to create another cookbook. Meanwhile, I know what I’m giving everyone this holiday season.
Key Ingredient: Calabrian Oregano
Intensely aromatic and flavorful, dried oregano from Calabria or Sicily (where it grows wild) is Carmellini’s oregano of choice, and many of his recipes call for it. The whole branch is picked, dried, and sold in small bags, and it is fairly easy to find at Italian specialty stores or online at buonitalia.com. Look for the Tutto Calabria brand.