BOOK AND AUTHOR: "The Babbo Cookbook" by Mario Batali (Clarkson Potter, $40). The exuberance that comes flying out of the TV when Mario Batali occupies the screen on the Food Network has infected this book too. Batali who owns and operates Babbo, Esca and Lupa, three New York restaurants, is known for his very own interpretation of "Italian food": In his hands, the food is inspired by the traditions of Italian homes and trattorias but transformed by the exciting and seasonal array of ingredients. "I'm not claiming to be a pioneer here," he admits in the introduction, citing the practitioners of California cuisine (Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Judy Rodgers). But this same sensibility, in Batali's hands, means fresh but sometimes idiosyncratic ingredients (beef cheeks, branzino and cardoons) and an often unfussy slew of inspired Italian dishes (escarole with roasted shallots; penne with onions, anchovies and bread crumbs). To his great credit, he avoids the reduced stocks and demi-glaces so readily available in restaurant kitchens and so rarely accessible to the time-pressed home cook.
FORMAT: Organized by the courses in an Italian meal (Antipasti, Pasta, Mare, Terra E Bosco and Dolci), the book is also larded with relevant sidebars and addenda. For example, a two-page spread of flavored oils marks the Antipasti chapter; Aperitivi and Digestivi are the front and back pages, respectively. Increasingly important to readers these days, each recipe is beautifully and clearly photographed. Batali's headnotes to the recipes are additionally informative, whether describing the background of the recipe or the details of its presentation at Babbo. As a result, there are two ways a reader can emerge, once he has consumed this book. He can feel as if he's eaten at Babbo or as if he's cooked by Batali's side. Both are good places to be.
WHO WOULD USE THIS BOOK: Maybe your Italian grandmother would be horrified by a recipe or two here (the fennel-dusted sweetbreads), but for her there is osso buco or tortellini in brodo. For the rest of us, novice or experienced, there are simple, inventive and challenging recipes, often stunning in their ingenuity and sometimes downright doable in the average kitchen.
-- Jeanne McManus