There are two kinds of really good books: those that satisfy a hunger and those that make you hungry. Here are two that do both: Carla Capalbo’s Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-East (Pallas Athene, London: 2009; 256 pages, many photos, all by the author) and her The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, London: 2005; 473 pages, many photos, all also by the author).
Uncountable numbers of guidebooks to Italy exist, but in English at least there are very few that treat the wine and food culture of the country seriously. Capalbo does – and in her hands, “serious” stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from ponderous, from elitist, from precious. These two books are about artisan gastronomy. The people Capalbo writes about work the fields, tend the vines, make the cheeses, and want to keep on doing those things because they believe in the worth of what they do. Most of us – at least here in New York – live in a world of designer rip-offs and this week’s theme restaurant. Reading these two books moves you into another world, one with different values and a different pace. I won’t say it’s more authentic, because for those who live in New York, this world is about as authentic as it gets, but that other world is clearer, cleaner, and more immediately satisfying than ours. Maybe we hardened old urbanites couldn’t live there, but we know we would enjoy a visit.
Capalbo’s books serve as both that visit and a guide to a visit. The most recent volume, her Collio book, exhaustively explores that northeasternmost chunk of Friuli, the opening end of a parenthesis wrapped around a bulge of Slovenia. The area for centuries belonged to the Austrian empire, until it was returned to Italy after WW I. Its culture and foodways thoroughly blend Italian, Germanic, and Slavic strands to make some of the most unusual dishes and some of the finest white wines to be found in Italy. If you’re looking for a good place in Gorizia to snack on a slice of prosciutto and a glass of Tocai or Ribolla gialla, or maybe nibble a warm frico, the information is in this book.
If you’re anywhere near Cormons, Capalbo can direct you to one of the very best prosciutto makers in Italy, Lorenzo D’Osvaldo. Josko Sirk’s great restaurant, Trattoria al Cacciatore de la Subida, is given the detailed attention it deserves for its fabulous menu and wine cellar. But smaller and lesser-known eating establishments and food sources are respectfully treated as well, so the gastronomic traveler can find just about any local specialty desired.
The book’s coverage of Collio wineries is a special treat: Everybody is here, from the unique Josko Gravner and the incomparable Silvio Jermann down to the smallest artisan winemaker, and everything one could want to know is covered, from grape varieties to methods of vinification – both a lot more varied than one would expect – and aging potential of the wines.
Focused on the other end of Italy, Capalbo’s Campanian book is commensurately larger, as is the territory she covers. It’s hard in a brief notice to do justice to how thoroughly this book explores the foods, cooking, and wines of this most varied of Italian regions. From seacoast to mountaintop, however, it’s all here: the artichokes of Paestum, the bottarga and colatura di alici of the seacoast, the pizza of Naples, the Aglianico and Piedirosso wines of the volcanic hills. You can learn about melannurca apples, the great selection of cheese to be had at La Tradizione near Vico Equense, the mysteries covered by the word friarelli (there are at least three different vegetables meant by it, depending on just where you are in Campania).
Once again, the coverage of grape varieties, wines, and wineries is excellent: they’re all here, from the historic Mastroberardino to the young Feudi di San Gregorio, and all the ages and sizes in between – a literal cornucopia for the Italian winelover. Appropriately, she gives the bulk of her attention to the major varieties – the reds Aglianico and Piedirosso, the whites Fiano, Greco, and Falanghina – but less well-known varieties such as Coda di Volpe and Biancolella also get their share of attention.
Capalbo covers this large and diverse territory province by province, with a chapter devoted to each, from Caserta in the north; through Napoli, Vesuvio, and Avellino; to the Cilento, south of Paestum. I particularly relish her exploration of the Sorrento peninsula (ancestral home of my clan: The Marescas emigrated from Sant’ Agnello di Sorrento a hundred years ago). She discusses everything, from the colatura and fantastic fresh fish of the colorful fishing village Cetara to the pastas of Gragnano, whose namesake wine may be the ideal accompaniment to pizza, to the altogether more important wines of Furore (by all means, seek out those of Marisa Cuomo), through the ubiquitous lemons and olives, cheeses and gelato, and all the places to taste them, right down to the ceramics of Vietri at the foot of the peninsula. This is one of the sections of these books that really made me hungry – and thirsty too.
You could do a lot worse for your wine-loving friends than to give them either or both of these books this Christmas.
Full disclosure: I’ve met Carla Capalbo several times in Italy and once here in the US (she was here promoting the Campania book – which I received as a review copy, though I bought the Collio one for myself). I like her as a person, and I thoroughly respect her as a researcher and writer.
For more about Carla Capalbo and her writings, go to her website, www.carlacapalbo.com.