August 24, 2011
Never mind your choice of desert island food. Tell me, who’s your desert island foodie?
We probably can all name the one food we couldn’t live without if we ever got stranded on one of those little plots of land with a single palm tree that exist only in New Yorker cartoons.
But here’s an even harder question: What one kind of food lover could you live with if you had to be stuck alone with just one for the rest of your life?
Would you be able to spend your days with one of those foodies who’ve eaten at all the great restaurants, but who approach each meal like a coroner, picking apart the ingredients of every dish not because they love whatever is on the slab, but because their greatest pleasure is not being fed, but being right.
Or would you prefer the more Falstaffian foodie, whose deep knowledge never gets in the way of the sheer joy that good food and great company bring?
I guess you know which way I swing.
That’s why Judy Zeidler is high on my list. She knows food. But, more important, she never lets her joy of a great meal or her decades of experience as a cook, restaurant owner and cookbook author turn her into a pedant.
Judy’s newest cookbook, “Italy Cooks,” is for people who like to drink Barbaresco at noon and drive two hours for a risotto with fresh peas, porcini and pesto. It’s also for people who just plain love to share meals with friends and family. Each time I’ve eaten with Judy and her husband, Marvin, it felt like we were celebrating something, even if it was just lunch.
Once, just before I was to travel to Italy myself, Judy and Marvin gave me all their recommendations for her favorite restaurants in Rome, Florence and Venice. In many cases, Judy told me to mention their names, as the owners consider them like family.
I thought she was exaggerating. Then I met one of their “family,” the now famous Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini. When he realized I was a friend of Judy and “Marvino,” he hugged me like a brother.
Every restaurant on Judy’s list resembled Judy. The food was authentic but not stodgy. The place was usually family-run. The owner was often the chef, or at least a chef. Even without dropping their names, I felt welcome.
“Italy Cooks” offers everyone what Judy and Marvin offered me: the names, addresses and stories behind their favorite places to eat in Italy, plus recipes for their best dishes. The Zeidlers spend several months each year traveling the country (they have a second home in Tuscany), and Judy shares what she has grown to love, making the book read like a family album. Judy and Marvin both know a great deal about food and wine, but they don’t let that stop them from just flat out enjoying it.
Judy’s network extends from Italy to the Westside, where she and Marvin also co-founded the restaurants Capo, Cora’s, The Broadway Deli and Zeidler’s Café in the Skirball Cultural Center, and they’re part of the lives of the people who make food. To them, meals aren’t just for family, they create family. She writes about the time that great Florentine butcher, Dario, discovered American pastrami, and a magical wedding they attended for the remarkable Santini family, owners of the Michelin-starred dal Pescatore near Cremona.
Judy is the author of several kosher cookbooks and is a regular food columnist for The Journal; and it’s not just friends she collects, but recipes. The ones in this book are all kosher.
Some of them I’ve never seen elsewhere, like the famous Foccacia col Formaggio from Recco. It is a bubbling layer of melted, slightly tangy stracchino cheese between two crisp, oily layers of extra-thin pizza dough. At the Salone del Gusto in Turin, the authentic version of this dish was the hands-down favorite of the 6,000 foodies there. In a just world, every fro-yo emporium would be transformed overnight into a Foccacia Recco bakery. How did Judy get the original recipe? She and the makers of the world’s best foccacia became fast friends, over food.
The recipes I tried worked well. In fact, two weeks ago, I cooked most of a Shabbat meal using “Italy Cooks.” Grilled Chicken With a Salsa Verde of garlic, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil. Watermelon and Tomato Salad with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar. Dario’s Olive Oil Cake — a perfect nondairy dessert that avoids margarine and all that other kosher fakery. It was an Italian meal channeling Judy Ziedler’s joy for all foods Italian. It was a celebration.
Find recipes from “Italy Cooks” and food photos at jewishjournal.com/foodaism.