The crisp days of fall are the perfect time to resurrect the foods of the Italian countryside -- hearty, homey dishes that warm the soul as well as the body.
Peasant food. Village food. Country food. Cucina Rustica. No one agrees on exactly what to call it.
They do agree it's down-home fare. Nothing fancy. But very fresh. Recipes vary from region to region and rely on what's easily obtainable to anyone who can pick fresh vegetables from the garden or pluck wriggling fish from the sea.
This kind of food has always held a strong place in the hearts of Europeans, but it wasn't until recently that Americans have come home to the roots of good Italian food.
Last December, Julee Rosso, cookbook author and former co-owner of the Silver Palate gourmet shop, said Americans would soon turn away from fussy French cuisine and turn toward the peasant cooking of Italy.
Indeed, during the past year rustica mania has hit major cities around the country -- from Le Madri in New York City to Vine Vidi Vici in Atlanta to Campanile in Los Angeles. There's even a Dallas-based chain of restaurants called Sfuzzi (pronounced FOO-zee), which will have locations in eight major cities, including Washington, by November.
Typically, these restaurants feature a bottle of extra virgin olive oil on the table, hearty breads in the breadbasket and menus filled with simple pastas and grilled meats.
But the rustica movement is not limited to restaurants. Cookbook authors, such as Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, are suddenly bringing the message to the home kitchen. Their "Cucina Rustica: Simple, Irresistible Recipes in the Rustic Italian Style," (William Morrow, $20.95), released this past spring is what the authors call "a celebration of the pleasures of unpretentious cooking."
"It is a highly flavorful, very simple and very satisfying food that relies on fresh ingredients," Viana La Place said in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home.
"There's a wonderful relaxed feeling about this food that's very comforting. It's not pretentious. It is food that you can sit down and eat without worrying."
Indeed, this food is a return to the basic pleasures that got lost in the excesses of the trend-saturated 1980s. The breads are hearty, coarse and chewy. The tomatoes are plump and succulent. And many of the dishes are healthful -- using heart-conscious, no-cholesterol olive oil and plenty of fiber with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ms. La Place says it's the kind of cooking that emphasizes simplicity -- such as finding the perfect, full-flavored fresh peppers to make a roasted pepper appetizer.
"Ninety percent of the Italian food could be defined as peasant," says Edward Giobbi, an artist and Italian cookbook author who is teaching classes at the Walters Art Gallery Cooking School through tomorrow.
"Near the sea it would include the wonderful fish stews. Where oranges are grown it is orange salad. In the north, it is rissoto with vegetables and polenta."
Whether the Italian is a poor farmer or a wealthy person in town, he says, the basics are the same. Those who have more money will merely add a piece of meat or more abundance to the same simple dishes.
And many of the dishes are quick cooking -- a concept compatible with today's busy lifestyles where Americans have shrinking leisure time. In fact, it is common to find sauces that are finished at the same time the pasta is ready to be drained.
"It's a basic method of cooking that is very simple," adds Dorothy Marcucci, a well-known Philadelphia cooking teacher whose recipes will be part of the "Smithsonian Cookbook Sampler: Recipes From the Festival of American Folklife" to be published by the Smithsonian Institution next year.
"You start with some oil and garlic and boil some pasta. Then add cannellini beans, Swiss chard, bitter broccoli or anchovies. It's quick and inexpensive and delicious."
Mrs. Marcucci, a third generation Italian-American, says it's insulting to call this wonderful simple food peasant food. She prefers to call it village cooking because many of the people who cooked the simple dishes were farmers who worked in the fields at the top of the hill during the day and returned to their villages down below at night.
But no matter what this food is called, it is more than sustenance. It brings warm images of the family and love.
"When we eat cucina rustica, we become part of the family, loved and embraced," according to the authors of "Cucina Rustica."
"The food transports us to sunny terraces overlooking the sea or to meadows encircled by olive groves -- places where friends and families gather at the table. It brings images of children playing in the narrow cobblestoned streets, and of mothers and their grandmothers, sitting on small wooden chairs, deftly shaping pasta with nimble fingers, shelling fava beans, or
patting a dusty child on the head."
Bring those feelings to your home in these chilling days of autumn with some classics of simple Italian food.