Letizia Mattiacci's reputation precedes her. Her Alla Madonna del Piatto cooking classes are rated a perfect five stars on Tripadvisor, and they have long been a darling in the Umbrian tourism circuit. After the New York Times featured her voice as an ambassador of Umbrian cuisine, her culinary star shone all the brighter.
So it was with great enthusiasm that I began flipping through my own copy of her cookbook, A Kitchen with a View. First, I should mention that unlike many cookbooks on Italian cookery, Ms. Mattiacci's selection of recipes, ingredients, and techniques is accessible for the home cook. Rather than pack a zillion recipes into half a zillion pages, Ms. Mattiacci has carefully curated her recipes. What does this mean? Well, to be frank, it's not overwhelming—it's easy to find a recipe worth exploring. As a bonus, this means there is at least one photo per recipe, allowing readers to get visual sense of both Umbria and her foodways. This makes for gorgeous and evocative reading.
Here are the standards of Umbrian fare, simplified to some degree at times for the home cook (often with gluten-free variations), but with the flavors and sensibilities familiar to anyone who has spent time in the green heart of Italy.
In order to write this review, I made several of the recipes, some familiar from our year in Spello, and some novel. In short, I found that the familiar foods took me right back to cobblestone alleys and glittering olive tree terracing of Umbria, and the foods adapted from Ms. Mattiacci's mother's Sicilian recipes, even those sang with Umbrian tones.
Highlights of my cooking my way through Ms. Mattiacci's fine collection were the "olive oil, anise, and wine ciambellini" cookies, which reminded me so much of the ones we'd buy from our little bakery with the string beads in the doorway that I wanted to hoard them all to myself. The "Umbrian style chicken alla cacciatora" replicated the one I had in Spello, redolent of wild herbaceous flavors. I prepared "Eufrasia's pork involtini" all the while thinking about our butcher's display of meat stuffed with salumi, and my family devoured it with incredulity at the simplicity but elevation of Umbrian flavors. I served it with "zucchini carpaccio" which added a nuanced tang to our meal. I'm going to admit something here, at risk of judgement—I actually don't like zucchini. It's flat tasting and I find the texture too spongey. Well, it turns out, I've just been eating it wrong. Marinate zucchini in lemon juice and it not only maintains its crunch, but takes on almost floral notes. Seriously, a revelation.
There were other revelations in this cookbook. There was a trick for how to make those ubiquitous grain bowls actually delicious, and skew toward an Umbrian flavor profile. The secret ingredient in Umbrian pate that I'd never been able to identify. Even how to make the herbal liqueurs that follow just about any great Umbrian meal.
There are many more recipes I'm impatient to try. It's been too long since I've had stringozzi, torta al testo, and bacio gelato. Plus, there are all those recipes for foods influenced, rather than lifted, from classic Umbrian restaurant fare—limoncello melon panna cotta, stuffed roast beef, and pumpkin and saffron soup.
The recipes in A Kitchen with a View are separated by seasons. Unlike many cookbooks where this is a gimmick, the division fits the Umbrian way of cooking, which is reliant on what is locally available and therefore what is seasonal. Moreover, it makes celebrating the season a joy. After all, who wouldn't want to usher in spring with "berry-misu" or exalt the arrival of cooler days with "stringozzi pasta in a red wine and porcini sauce"?
A Kitchen with a View is a worthy cookbook to add to the collection of Umbria-lovers and those enamored with Italian regional cooking. It showcases the beauty of Italian food, and what makes Umbrian cuisine both distinctive and delicious.