The Rose Pistola Cookbook: 140 Italian Recipes From San Francisco's Favorite North Beach Restaurant

Mini-Review

The Rose Pistola Cookbook: 140 Italian Recipes From San Francisco's Favorite North Beach Restaurant

by Reed Hearon and Peggy Knickerbocker

Broadway Books, 276 pp., $35

Want to know how to shave artichokes? Skillet roast mussels? Cure fresh sardines? Turn vegetables into a savory bread pudding? The Rose Pistola Cookbook unlocks these culinary secrets and presents dozens more. What the cookbook lacks in glamour (local food photographer Laurie Smith's appetite-provoking photos are too few and far between in my opinion), it makes up for in originality.

Although the time-honored family recipes of San Francisco's Italian immigrant community inspired The Rose Pistola Cookbook, the tome speaks to the student of modern Italian cuisine. With "grandmotherly" tips (like saving pasta water and parmesan rinds) to anchor the recipes in the traditions of the Old World, Hearon and Knickerbocker then make a quantum leap into the future without falling prey to too much of today's technical fuss. You won't need hours to prepare a Rose Pistola dinner, and you'll almost certainly be pleased with the success of the straightforward recipes. Hearon and Knickerbocker don't include preparation and cooking times, but a dinner using three of the book's recipes with the addition of a simple polenta took about two hours from start to finish with a good hour of that purely enjoyable table time.

The dinner that I prepared was intentionally chosen for its simplicity. Many of The Rose Pistola Cookbook's recipes are what I have come to consider "weekend" or "special occasion" recipes. What this means is that they demand more time than I am willing or able to give on the average weeknight after I've put two toddlers to bed and then turn to dinner. So, with creative time a luxury in my kitchen, I opted for a "quick," if sophisticated, dinner.

It began with the chopped salad -- a trattoria-styled bowl of greens that gets its flair from nutty watercress and colorful radicchio. To these designer lettuces, Hearon and Knickerbocker add romaine hearts and endive. The dressing calls for lemon juice in place of vinegar as a base for the vinaigrette, and the dressing also includes crumbled Maytag bleu cheese. The salad tasted good, looked pretty, seemed different, and was put together quickly.

Next came braised sea bass with wild mushrooms, an excellent, unpretentious dish demanding minimal preparation. This recipe taught me a lesson: Read cooking instructions carefully! As my sea bass cooked in a 500-degree oven, its braising juices began to evaporate and brown. I added more liquid, and the end result was fine, but in rereading the recipe to determine my error, I noted Hearon's instructions: "In a flameproof baking dish just large enough to hold the fish." My baking dish was clearly too big, which could have meant trouble had I not carefully surveyed the fish. A simple polenta with a generous amount of coarsely ground black pepper complemented the fish, and dessert was equally straightforward but absolutely magnificent.

As I've said in previous reviews, I'm not a home pastry chef. The mathematical/scientific approach required to feel confident about cooking sweets intimidates me, so when I saw Laurie Smith's mouthwatering photo of Hearon's gorgonzola with honey and hazelnuts, I knew it was a dessert for me. Now I know that my meal included a bleu cheese "double whammy," but as far as I'm concerned, a meal rarely suffers from too much cheese. So, gorgonzola, honey, and walnuts it was, and it was fast, sweet, sensual, and oh-so-good!

If I have a criticism of the The Rose Pistola Cookbook, it's really with its design. The book doesn't stir excitement or engage readers with its three-color pages illustrated solely with black and white historical photos of life in North Beach. That said, if you take the time to look beyond the bland print and static images and delve into Hearon and Knickerbocker's fine print, you'll find a slew of updated homestyle Italian fare that will be sure to please.

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