Cookbook Review: 'Downtown Italian' Delivers the Goods From a NYC Icon We Love

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Restaurants are only as successful as the team behind them, which accounts for the sustained popularity of New York's dell'anima, L'Artusi, Anfora, and L'Apicio (read our restaurant review here). The powerhouse trio behind these West Village destinations—Beverage Director Joe Campanale, Chef Gabriel Thompson, and Pastry Chef Katherine Thompson—have joined forces again to bring their modern take on Italian dining out of lower Manhattan and into your kitchen with their new cookbook, Downtown Italian: Recipes Inspired by Italy, Created in New York's West Village.

It, too, is a success—a book filled with recipes that deliver the subtly novel and full-flavored dishes the trio is known for—simple Italian cooking that revels in New York sass.

In their restaurants, Joe, Gabriel, and Katherine work as a team, and drawing on the strengths and collaborative energy of their staffs. The cookbook mirrors this approach, with each author offering chapters full of recipes straight from their menus, capturing the teamwork and attention to detail that has made their restaurants stand out in a city full of Italian dining.

Drinks

Joe Campanale, tapped as one of the Sommeliers of the Year 2013 by Food & Wine and a Forbes 30 Under 30, contributes the opening chapter of Apertivi, cocktails designed to whet the appetite, that customarily begin every big meal in Italy. (Joe fell in love with the food culture of that country when he lived there for a time in college, and it was he who spearheaded the idea of opening a casual, stylish resto like those he frequented in Florence.)

His cocktails are meant to go down easy, to prime you for the meal ahead, to stand on their own but not ruin you for dinner. He has a knack for twisting the classics, like his Roasted-Orange Negroni Sbagliato, in which a charred orange wedge adds smoky depth to the traditional mix of red vermouth, Campari, and sparkling wine, and Blame it on the Aperol, like an Aperol Spritz, but with gin (must...try...now...). He gets kooky with a dirty martini by adding juice from a jar of hot pickled peppers (which show up now and then in Gabriel's recipes) instead of olives. And let's not forget the Blueberry Bourbon Smash, which is pretty much what it sounds like, and is beautiful. He also gives helpful general information on Italian wines, and chooses a thoughtful pairing for every savory recipe in the book (excepting the sides).

Savory

Then come Gabe Thompson's chapters—Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, and Contorni—the meat of the matter. Before opening dell'anima, he was cooking at Mario Batali's Del Posto, and had developed a solid handle on Italian cuisine. But his style strays from the strictly traditional, wherein a delicate or sparing approach to seasoning and saucing is often preferred. He appreciates the Italian focus on freshness and simplicity, but his flavors tend toward American intensity. Raised in Texas (and with a thing for B&G pickled peppers), he says in the intro, "I like to break the rules. I like pasta served with a little too much sauce. I like bold flavors: acid, salt, spice. I like taking an Italian idea and pushing it in an American direction."

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Roasted mushrooms with bacon and eggs.

This heavier hand is in full effect in his recipe for Roasted Mushrooms with Bacon and Eggs, which sounds innocent enough, but comes at you guns blazing, all garlicky, salty, and wild. First, mushrooms (shiitake or any other variety that looks good to you) are pan-roasted in butter and olive oil until deeply browned all over. I loved the specificity of the directions to cook them in three batches, which perfectly allowed the pound of mushrooms to thoroughly caramelize all over without steaming. Many recipes simply say to "cook in batches," which has enough wiggle room to allow the impatient—like myself—to crowd the pan, so I appreciate the clear directive.

Just as they were, cooked so carefully and seasoned as instructed, the mushrooms were irresistible; they drove me crazy to try to keep my hands off them, and I will make a plateful just to nibble on very soon. But then Mr. Thompson brings the heat. He cooks down some chopped bacon, adds garlic to fry in the fat, then mixes in strips of those hot pickled peppers and some torn basil. Tossed with this fierce mixture and finished with a glug of lemon juice, the mushrooms are transformed into an unruly, umami smack in the face. Runny-yolked fried eggs, started stovetop and finished gently in the oven, and shavings of mild ricotta salata diffuse the situation a bit, but the mushrooms will still leave you reeling. While this recipe is in the Antipasti chapter and could make for a knock-'em-dead first course, I'd recommend serving it as a brunch main (with twice the amount per serving)—it's certain to wake everyone right up.

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Branzino with fregola.

The other dish from Gabriel that we're sharing this week is only slightly subtler. Branzino fillets are laid over what is essentially a fregola (tiny, toasted balls of semolina pasta) and tomato salad, doused with olive oil, wrapped in parchment packets, and baked. The fregola mixture, which is fresh and vibrant and makes for terrific eating even before it's cooked, includes tomatoes, scallions, olives, hot chili pepper, and lemon juice and zest. Nothing bashful about it. The flavors soften and meld in the oven, soaking up the essence of the fish and the generous splash of olive oil, but the final effect is inarguably assertive. Splitting open the packets to release the waft of lemon juice and olive brine, fresh seafood, and the single thyme sprig that adorns the fish is a pleasure that's only rivaled by the first harmonious bite.

Desserts

Then on to the Dolci section, Katherine Thompson's domain. Her desserts are sophisticated, but they're more approachable than fancy. The sophistication comes from the care that goes into achieving what she calls, "a playful balance between temperatures (hot and cold), textures (soft and crunchy), and taste (sweet and salty)." And while sometimes that means that a dessert might have a few contrasting components, they're never very complicated to execute. Like her husband, she pulls no punches when it comes to flavor; she learned from him, she says, to not be shy with the acid and salt, even when it comes to sweets. She uses booze quite liberally as well.

She likewise strays from the conventional Italian preparations, picking and choosing the elements and ingredients that best incorporate with her taste, such as making the classic Italian panna cotta with crème fraîche, and serving it with strawberries, semolina shortbread, and saba, a vinegary, syrupy Italian condiment. She offers some pastry-cheffy insights that I found totally enlightening, like when she explains that adding a splash of vodka to her gelato prevents it from freezing solid, keeping it creamy even after long a long stay in the freezer. While dessert is rarely the star of an old-world Italian meal, Katherine is out to shift that balance, and she makes sure her desserts are worth forgoing that extra serving of pasta.

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Impromptu tiramusu.

Though I have her chocolate budino and her olive oil cake with raisin marmellata and crème fraîche mousse square in my sights, I opted to try the quick-and-easy, down-and-dirty Impromptu Tiramisu. Let me say right off, you'll have to make a separate dessert for the kids' table, because this one is strictly 21 and over. She soaks store-bought ladyfingers in espresso and rum, then layers them with an eggless coffee liqueur- and rum-spiked mascarpone mousse. Each layer gets a sprinkle of crushed chocolate wafers, for crunch and a hit of cocoa. The tiramisu is only vaguely sweet and is recklessly boozy, like dessert and digestivo in one fail swoop. Much of the alcohol is in the soak for the ladyfingers, which could be reduced if you don't like to get tipsy on tiramisu (which, as it turns out, I do). This comes together in a blink and requires no à la minute prep (but needs an hour or two of freezer time), making it perfect for whipping up well before your guests arrive.

Bench Notes

All of the recipes struck me as being well-written and, more importantly, well-tested. Throughout the recipes I tried, seasoning was spot-on and the amounts and procedures were accurate. A couple of times, I wanted a little more detail from the ingredient list (should the branzino fillets be skin-on, as in the photo? What is the weight of the ladyfingers, because mine seem really small?), but overall I was impressed by the obvious time and thought that went into developing every recipe. Not only are they uncomplicated and dependable, they also have the big flavor and finesse that sometimes don't translate to recipes for the home cook. The resulting dishes seem like they could truly be coming out of a charming downtown restaurant's kitchen, and I see myself becoming a regular.

Recipes excerpted from Downtown Italian: Recipes Inspired by Italy, Created in New York's West Village by Joe Campanale, Gabriel Thompson, and Katherine Thompson, Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC.

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