Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beyond the Pasta by Mark Leslie


Beyond the Pasta; Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family
by Mark Donovan Leslie
Gemelli Press LLC, 2010
352 pages
source: borrowed from the library

Summary (from goodreads):

Several years ago, on a break between theatrical gigs in Alabama, Mark traveled to Italy and fell in love with the people, food and culture. Armed with just enough courage, minimal Italian language skills, and a certain proficiency in the kitchen, he enrolled in a full-immersion cooking and language program. He would travel to Viterbo, Italy and live with an Italian family. His teachers were beyond his wildest dreams-he learned to cook from the grandmother, or Nonna, of the family, who prepared every meal in a bustling, busy household, as women in her family have done for generations. Her daughter, Alessandra, taught him the language with patience and precision. Besides culinary secrets and prepositions, they opened their lives to him, and made him a real part of their extensive family. Though the book contains authentic, delicious family recipes Nonna shared with Mark, Beyond the Pasta delves into food memoir subject matter not found in a typical cookbook. It was the day-to-day shopping with Nonna, exploring the countryside and le gelaterie, where he truly developed his language skills, and a new, more joyful and uniquely Italian way of looking at the world.

My thoughts:

There's nothing better than a good foodie memoir, except maybe one combined with travel and recipes. And if it happens to involve Italy, all the better.

In Beyond the Pasta, Mark Leslie was looking for a different kind of Italian vacation experience, and found it with the Stefani family. It took the form of a total immersion language and cooking course. Mark stayed with the family for a month, cooking with Nonna (the grandmother) and learning Italian from her daughter, Allessandra. He participated in nearly every aspect of family life - daily trips to the market and food preparation with Nonna, afternoon language lessons, family dinners, and frequent postprandial strolls... invariably involving gelato. Mark also spent several days in Rome and attended social events with the family.

The book is set up in a journal format, with every day a separate chapter. Of course food (planning, shopping, preparation, and eating) plays the most prominent role. Each day/chapter concludes with a recipe or two. The easy, conversational tone makes this memoir immensely readable.

 I enjoyed reading about Mark's trips to the market and detailed scenes from the kitchen... although less description of proper squid cleaning technique would have been fine with me! I cheered his increasing language proficiency, and especially appreciated discussion of the culture, and general philosophy surrounding food and eating - la dolce vita.

Growing up with my very own Italian grandmother, this book made me nostalgic for childhood days spent in her kitchen. Nearly all the recipes are familiar and I look forward to trying several:
  • Pasta e Fagioli alla Veneta (Venetian Pasta and Beans)
  • Minestra di Patate, Piselli e Tubettini (Potato, Pea and Pasta Soup)
  • Cuppa, Cuppa, Cuppa (Yogurt Cake)
I suppose I must mention a couple of downsides, too.  First, the author does not use the oxford comma. I always do and never imagined its absence would bug me so much, but it really did - starting with the title, in fact. Second, the photography could have been better. Granted, pictures aren't the main attraction, but the black and white photos weren't very clear. I also would have appreciated pictures of the food.

Favorite Passages:
With Italian, you always pronounce all of the letters in the word. The only silent letter is "h"; otherwise, each and every letter gets pronounced. For example, ciao - hello and goodbye - is pronounced "chee-ah-ow." It is starting to feel that the way to succeed in speaking Italian is to chew on the words. Every syllable, every bite!  p.25 
The cutlets - le cotolette - were not prepared until after we had finished eating the pasta... I am learning the importance of this type of preparation. First, the food always come sot the table hot and perfectly prepared. Second, it gives you some time between courses to digest your food, drink some wine and feel as if you have eaten a lot when actually, because the portions are smaller, you have eaten less than you would sitting at an American table.  p. 102 
La dolce vita celebrates the fact that life is not only about a paycheck ... Life is about savoring the sunset, taking a rejuvenating nap in the middle go the day, pausing to appreciate the beauty of a rose on the side of the road, having your children's laughter fill your soul - letting those moments inspire your life. That might be more of a romantic perception than the exact truth of the situation, but it is certainly the truth I have come to witness, embrace and appreciate while living in Viterbo.   p.170 
For me, the "Sweet Life" is going into the kitchen, preparing food and serving it to the people I love and cherish. La Dolce Vita is found in those moments of life around a table where stories are told - old memories are relived and new memories are given life. It is where food ultimately unites us through the juxtaposition of laughter, tears, joy, sorrow, happiness, pain, and ecstasy.  p. 311
Bottom line: A very enjoyable read - probably the next best thing to a trip to Viterbo.

My rating:



Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page.

30 comments:

  1. Fun! I wonder if "cuppa, cuppa, cuppa" follows the same idea as the French yogurt cake that uses a yogurt-pot-ful of each ingredient? It has a much nicer name in your book (I would rather eat "cuppa, cuppa, cuppa" than gateau au yaourt. :)

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    Replies
    1. Audrey - It does... and I just love the name, too!

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  2. Great review Jo-Ann, as you know the Viterbo region has a very special place in my heart.

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    1. LindyLou Mac - Thank you! My mother is reading the book now and she's enjoying it just as much as I did.

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  3. Beautiful looking cover! I like the sound of this one.

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  4. I very much like the second to last paragraph - what dolce vita celebrates. I try to remember it every time I feel the world is turning way too fast for my taste...

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    1. Patty - That is my favorite passage!

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  5. Not sure it's the book for me - but what a great idea for a holiday! I'd choose to do it in France though. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

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    1. Carole - This would be an amazing experience in France, too, I'm sure!

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  6. Love the sound of this one, Italy is on my bucket list. La dolce vita ... I agree, enjoying the little things makes my heart happy :)

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    1. Teddyree - Italy is one place I MUST visit!

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  7. Replies
    1. Kathy - I can never get enough of foodie memoirs.

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  8. Just the cover and title are enough to make me want to read this one! Add in your description and the recipes and I'll be stalking my library for this one. Sounds like my kind of book!

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    1. Katherine - Hope your library has a copy!

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  9. I liked it after reading three lines of your review. I went to Netgalley and requested it. I do hope I get it. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Mystica - I didn't know this was on NetGalley. Hope you get a copy!

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  10. Sounds like a super book. I love the idea of the diary form and the recipes. Sounds like a must read for the foodie in me.

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    1. Beth F - The journal format worked very well here... perfect for a trip memoir.

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  11. Thanks for this great review, JoAnn! This sounds yummy - both to read and to eat!

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    1. Debbie - I'm sure I'll enjoy eating from this book just as much as I enjoyed reading it!

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  12. I adore Italian food! This sounds like a fun 'cookbook'.

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    1. Peggy Ann - The best of both worlds... memoir and cookbook!

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  13. Great review. Despite the downsides which you've pointed out, this still sounds like a good enough read to tempt me.

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    1. Couscous & Consciousness - Overall, the downsides are definitely minor. This was a very enjoyable read.

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  14. I loved your comment on the Oxford comma (although I needed Wikipedia to tell me why it's called that).
    When I was at school in England I was told never to place a comma before 'and', then learned as a copywriter that it
    was essential for clarity. It's good to know I'm not the only one still using it.
    Thank you for a great blog.

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    Replies
    1. Nomey - I'll have to check Wikipedia because I'm not sure why it's called Oxford, either. From my perspective, it's still very commonly used. That's probably why I found its absence so irritating!

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  15. Sounds like a wonderful book -- perfect for an armchair traveler like me.

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