Simply Tuscan by Pino Luongo

2000. 292 pages, 120 + recipes


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“I’ve always believed that the seasons of the year mirror the chapters in our lives. If I could choose a time for anything to begin-  the opening of a restaurant, the wedding of a couple, the birth  of a child – spring is the time I would choose. So I begin this book in spring because it’s the time of renewal and the start of life.”


 Watermelon Granitta

 Pastina with Milk and Eggs

 Arugula Salad with Speck and Walnuts

 Grilled Figs Wrapped in Prosciutto


Simply Tuscan is available for easy online purchase right now at Click the Amazon icon for current prices.

If you’re one of the three people who didn’t make it to Tuscany this year, Simply Tuscan would make a pretty good consolation prize. Even if you never take a look at the recipes, this is a charming bit of armchair travel. Beautifully art-directed, it’s packed with lush photos of sensuous meals in romantical Tuscan settings, intimate corners of Tuscan courtyards, and beckoning bends in cypress-lined Tuscan roads. Interspersed throughout are lovely watercolor sketches and artful scrapbook collages. (They look like they could be the work of a romantic young Victorian heroine in a Merchant Ivory film.)


The author, Pino Luongo, is owner of a restaurant and Tuscanesque food emporium in New York  as well as restaurants in other major U.S. cities. Although he’s lived half his life in New York, he’s quick  to claim his uncompromised Tuscan character. When Luongo signs his name in the book’s introduction he writes “New York, in body,/Tuscany, in spirit”.  


The book is organized by season “because Tuscan life follows nature’s lead”. He puts together menus showcasing bounty of each season. The most appealing tap into those earthy harvests of  fall and winter such as the wonderful Arugula Salad with Speck (smoked prosciutto) and Walnuts (and potatoes).  I’ll probably pass on the wild boar recipe. And while the menu which features truffles in every dish sounds dreamy, I’ll have to wait until  someone gives me a truffle-finding pig and the truffle-laden property to go with it. 


The “Simply” in the title could be misleading for those who equate simplicity with ease and speed. True, the recipes are simple in that they are unadorned by haute cuisine furbelows and cross-cultural experimentation. But many are time- and labor-intensive. For example, the Spring Vegetable Lasagna with Ricotta Ravioli with Osso Bucco Gremolata makes me tired just to read the two pages of directions. These kind of  intriguing recipes would be perfect when you have time to spare and consider cooking a leisurely, soul-restoring pastime. Of course, there are some recipes that are simplein the quick-and-easy sense. Luongo’s mother’ bruschetta al pomodoro is the ultimate in simplicity. It’s made by rubbing a thick slice of bread with fresh tomato pulp drizzled with a little olive oil and salt. (In fact, it’s so simple that it is not presented as a recipe, but a sentence in one of his remembrances.) It has become our bruschetta of choice around here this summer.


Every now and then when I’m reviewing a cookbook I’ll discover an extraordinary recipe which I consider  worth the price of the book alone. I found one in Simply Tuscan. It’s called Pastina with Milk and Eggs. One taste and I felt like I had slipped into the skin of an Italian version of myself. In my Italian persona I’d maybe live in the slightly run-down arty section of Milan. Whenever I’d had it with the stresses and responsibilities of grown-up life I’d goes home to Mamma in Tuscany. I’d sit at her  table and ask her to make my childhood favorite, Pastina with Eggs and Milk. Of course, Mamma would comply happily, urge me to have seconds and say I was too skinny anyway. This is comfort food supreme. I wish I had grown up on it. 


Aside from recipes and wonderful visuals, the book is also something of memoir and soapbox for Mr. Luongo. He may be a great a cook, but he is not a writer. Perhaps his musings are supposed to give a warm intimacy to the book and give us a real picture of what life is like in Tuscany. But he is like the dinner guest who doesn’t realize his stories are not as interesting as he thinks they are. And his opinions come across as  pronouncements: basil is “overrated”; white wine shouldn’t be drunk with dinner; eating outside “leads to meaningful interactions.” Basta already!


Although Luongo claims to “adore” his adopted city, New York, he frequently points out the superiority of Tuscan life to city life among “the towers of indifference”.  He writes, “Sometime I’m going to walk around (Manhattan) calling out to these people:’ When was the last time you took a walk in the park? Have you eaten a great home-cooked meal this year?’ Me,  I want to call out to Luongo’s publisher, why didn’t you assign a good, ruthless editor to this book?  Perhaps Luongo is a celebrity chef (if so, it shows how far out of the food-scene loop I am), and maybe that’s why he was given the freedom to ramble on.


Luongo’s narrative in this otherwise lovely book  is like the person who sits down in front of you in the movie theater and blocks your view of the screen. Although you are annoyed, you simply shift your position so he’s not in the way. Then you can sit back and enjoy the show.