How America Ate: Leone's Italian Cookbook

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[Photograph: Stephanie Butler]

Italian cooking in America in the mid-twentieth century was an arid desert of dried basil flakes, enlivened by the occasional tumbleweed of meatball and oasis of canned red sauce. Recipes from the time period invariably boil the pasta into mush, substitute freeze-dried minced onion for the real thing, and inform you that "garlic is optional" in case you don't want to offend guests with more delicate sensibilities. Americans were eating bastardized versions of Italian classics devoid of all flavor and passion years before The Olive Garden brought them to a mall near you. Except those who were lucky enough to be working with Leone's Italian Cookbook, however. Those folks were years ahead of their time.

Mother Leone opened her first twenty-seat restaurant in her New York City living room in 1906 at the request of Enrico Caruso himself, who so loved her ravioli that he regularly brought the entire cast of the Metropolitan Opera to Mother's house for dinner. In 1917, she moved the restaurant to the heart of Manhattan's Theatre District, where it drew hundreds of people a night for outstanding Italian-American food until it was sold to the mega-chain Restaurant Associates in 1959. Her cookbook was written in 1967 by her son, Gene, using scaled-down versions of her restaurant favorites, and features a foreword by none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Like many other cookbooks of the time, Leone's Italian Cookbook begins with a list of pantry staples. Essentials of the Leone kitchen are downright modern for 1967: extra virgin olive oil, salted capers, whole marjoram, four kinds of vinegar. He recommends sardines, anchovies, and Italian tuna, all canned in oil, and fresh herbs instead of dried. There's none of the bland "salad oil" frequently used in contemporary cookbooks, but many mentions of "fresh creamery butter."

Let's compare a Leone recipe with one from a book that was on many kitchen shelves in the 1960s: The Good Housekeeping Cookbook. First published in 1963, this 700-plus page encyclopedia covers American home cooking from Corn and Frankfurter Soup to Nut Burgers.

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[Photograph: experiencela on Flickr]

A good way to really determine the staying power of a vintage cookbook is to check out the vegetable section. With enough gravy it's easy to camouflage poorly cooked pork chops or pot roast, but it's difficult to pass off sub-par green beans or mushy carrots. Artichokes were just coming into vogue in America during the '60s, going from a special occasion treat to a canned pantry staple. But Leone's Baked Artichokes are fresh chokes, parboiled and then stuffed with a mixture of herbs, bread crumbs, and butter. They're laid down in a baking dish with olive oil, then steamed on the stovetop for 20 minutes before getting some color in a hot oven. It's a simple, classic preparation that highlights the artichokes and wouldn't be out of place in a mixologist-employing, poorly-lit trattoria in the hip part of town.

The Good Housekeeping recipe for Artichokes Italian is more at home at your cat-loving aunt's church potluck. Bacon, onions, tomato paste, white wine: clearly the (two packages of frozen) artichokes are an afterthought here. I'm not saying it wouldn't be delicious; on the contrary, I think more artichokes should be browned in margarine and topped with an outrageous tomato-wine bacon sauce. But it's dated, and the only thing Italian about it is the name.

The book that Leone's Italian Kitchen most resembles isn't another from the 60s, but the recent release The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual. These books are companion pieces, both preaching the gospel of quality ingredients, no shortcuts, and the importance of learning over mom's (or grandma's) shoulder. Frankies has an artichoke recipe, too, but updated for the Jerusalem variety. Roasted simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper, it's the kind of recipe Mother would love.

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