The Chef Cookbook That Won Me Over
On Don Angie's "Italian American" + their Cacio e Pepe (100 Gecs Remix)
When I first began thinking seriously about cookbooks, I was skeptical of the cheffy ones, those books that attempted and often bungled a translation of the restaurant experience into something that could be useful to the lowly home cook. I remember falling into a rage when Daniel Patterson’s Coi landed on my desk: a cerebral Phaidon-published clunker whose enormous, glossy food photos had clearly been styled with not one but eleven pairs of tweezers. The recipes were downgraded to the BACK of the book, if I remember correctly, more reference than central purpose. I still didn’t understand that there were people who earnestly liked this kind of book. It was proof of concept for an aesthetic project, not a tool.
There is one existential question that chef cookbooks must answer for themselves before heading to the printer’s hot hands, and that is the question of accessibility. Does this book care at all about its utility for the home cook1, or does it just want to preen for them? Some chef books are coffee table books, and often beautiful ones. Or they’re gastronomical reference, or a historical document of an influential place. I’m not saying the El Bulli cookbooks shouldn’t exist, I’m just saying they should be available on JSTOR.
The accessibility question is one I became intimately familiar with in 2016, when I landed a gig working on the Estela cookbook. Every week I would go to the Nolita restaurant well before service, interview a sous chef about that day’s recipe list, then watch them make it, pestering with questions all the while.
I’d then schlep around Manhattan for the required ingredients: Oro Blanco, a man-made grapefruit hybrid, from Manhattan Fruit if Whole Foods was out; Chardonnay vinegar from Despaña; Ubriaco Rosso cheese from Di Palo’s. I’d spend my week cooking each dish and then attempting to translate it into a written recipe that didn’t sacrifice the restaurant’s standards for technique and ingredients.
Estela is, for the uninitiated, a restaurant that’s secretly a wine bar with food, where dishes are meticulously plated and where acid—lemon, vinegar—holds a saintly place in the kitchen. Salads are monochromatic towers of shaved cheese and bitter leaves, moated in a tangy golden ring of dressing.
It’s delicious, though somewhat fussy, food. Over weeks of kitchen interviews, I learned the chefs wouldn’t budge on that fussiness: yes, it has to be Chardonnay vinegar, not white wine vinegar; yes, it’s crucial to buy this specific microplane so that the cheese coats the salad in narrow, wafer-thin planks. (I gotta say, I still love mine.) The message was clear: you can make this at home, but it will require extensive and expensive schlepping2. If you follow the recipes as written, though, you will eventually sit down to a brilliant, beautiful, shocking dinner. My friends were always thrilled when I called them over to eat what I’d been testing.
My old boss and now-friend Kristen Miglore once explained to me, well before I got the book gig, why the food at Estela is so good: they take each flavor, and crank it up to its limit. (Lemon, vinegar, chile, anchovy, dried squid, etc—none of it is quiet.) It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve cooked through Italian American: Red Sauce Classics and New Essentials3, a new cookbook from Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, the (married) chefs behind Don Angie in the West Village. (I’ve never eaten there—my friends say it’s a tough reservation to get, and I’m out of the game.)
One of the great pleasures of a well-written restaurant cookbook is the ability to see, firsthand in your own kitchen, how chefs calibrate the flavors of their food. It’s a worn-out talking point that restaurants use aggressive amounts of salt. What that point rarely omits is the ways that chefs offset that salt: namely, through fat and acid. Italian American will ask you to dump a full half-cup of kosher salt into your (4 quarts) of pasta water, which feels nuts, but it works. It’s all part of the equation.
I first cooked from this book in November, when I went wild and used it as the crux of a dinner party. First came the Smoky Chicken Ragu with Mezcal, Chiles, and Olives, a classic of the chef cookbook genre in that it’s inspired by a dish that some staffer likes to make for family meal—this time, chicken and rice from “a longtime member of our team, Jose.” It’s cheffy in that a litany of ingredients build—and then are ruthlessly strained out of—a smoky, rich-but-not-heavy sauce studded with pulled braised chicken and smashed fat green olives. Goat cheese, pine nuts, and cilantro round it all out with a confounding but undeniable logic. It’s one of the most delicious things I’ve made in recent memory. I paired it with a broccoli salad—here, too, the acid is cranked up to eleven, but softened with the comforting richness of roasted garlic purée and a canopy of fried shallots, both homemade.
Weeks later, for a Thanksgiving appetizer, I made the Scacciata with Swiss Chard and Spinach. It’s such a show-stopper that the book uses it as a centerfold, its raunchy cross-sections splayed across the title page for the “hot appetizers” section. Hot indeed, yow!
This is essentially a laminated calzone: take pizza dough4, pat it into long rectangles, and cover with a garlicky, lemony filling of cooked greens and cheese. You then fold it over itself a few times, adding more filling after each fold to form a maze of green within the monster’s belly. The whole thing gets brushed with olive oil and baked—I gasped upon pulling it out of the oven, it was golden and fat and bursting with promise. You serve it in slices. Everyone lost their shit over it. It’s an excellent party trick.
Italian American is mostly full of recipes like this: they’re serious projects, even when they have home-cooking origins in Rito’s or Tacinelli’s families. They don’t require trips to seven grocery stores, but they do require the type of labor that’s a breeze for pro chefs but that can cause us plebes to grumble. (A successful chef cookbook convinces you that the extra labor is worthwhile.) Roasting garlic and slicing a dozen shallots for frying can be annoying, but these dishes make the labor with it—they take each flavor and dramatize it. Everything I’ve made packs a wallop.
There are a handful of simple recipes; one has stolen my heart. It’s a pantry pasta, if you have eggs and hard cheese in the fridge. They call it “Pasta Gemma” after Angie’s great-grandmother who often used her sister-in-law’s chickens’ eggs to stretch a dinner.
The dish lands squarely between carbonara and cacio e pepe5. You heat a loud-n-spicy mix of chopped garlic (10 cloves!), pepper, and hot paprika in lots of oil, and mix that into your (well-salted) cooked pasta. Then you stir in a slurry of egg and grated cheese which turns into a glossy sauce, and finish with scallions and lemon.
This is a pasta that’s firing on all cylinders. The garlic-pepper oil and sharp cheese prickle and sizzle and sting, but not unkindly. The egg-cheese mixture thickens everything up and offers a fatty backbone to all that salt and spice. Lemon brightens and rescues it from the depths of richness. Each flavor has been put through a ray gun…..it’s the 100 gecs of pasta dishes. Does that make sense? It feels right in my heart. Make it and let me know if you agree.
Serves 4 to 6
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