Book review: Mezzogiorno: Recipes from Southern Italy by Francesco Mazzei

Book review: Mezzogiorno: Recipes from Southern Italy by Francesco Mazzei

by Tom Wildman 1 December 2015

Recipes from Southern Italy is a collection of recipes by Calabrian-born chef Francesco Mazzei. This, his first book, is a beautiful journey through the many delights of southern Italian cooking.

A Cordon Bleu graduate from Tante Marie Culinary Academy, Tom shares his food passions both in the kitchen and by writing about his favourite dishes.

Although a history graduate, Tom soon realised his call for the culinary arts and trained for a Cordon Bleu qualification at Tante Marie Culinary Academy. He loves sharing his equal passions for food and travel, with Mexican and Vietnamese foods being top of his hit list. When not in the kitchen, he can be found out on a foraging trip or perhaps playing ultimate frisbee.

Francesco Mazzei never wanted to be a chef. Growing up in Calabria, southwest Italy, he cared more about his football than his food. Having worked in his uncle's ice cream shop from an early age, Francesco had been exposed to the harsh realities of working in a kitchen and was determined to pursue a better life for himself. A chance encounter with a well-known chef, however, led him to reconsider a life in the culinary world. Impressed by his eye for detail, the chef was disappointed to learn of Francesco's ambitions to become a hotel manager, telling him: ‘Shame, you can see you’ve got the touch’. Since then, Francesco has never looked back, forging an impressive and varied career that has culminated in his first book Mezzogiorno: Recipes from Southern Italy.

Francesco has worked in restaurants all over the world, yet it’s the food from his home region of Calabria that he values the most. The book is very much a celebration of how southern Italians approach cooking. In the opening chapter, Francesco explains how the economic hardships faced by the south helped shape a cuisine that shuns waste and uses ingredients thriftily. ‘Cucina povera tradition’ meaning ‘cooking of the poor’, is at the root of southern culture and is embraced throughout the book.

Flicking through the attractive, colourful book is a journey through the southern Italian regions, with Francesco acting as the perfect guide to navigate you through the unique culinary characteristics of each region. His vibrant food is vividly brought to life by stunning full page photos that showcase his rustic, unassuming style of cooking (provoking a hungry trip to the fridge on more than one occasion!). While the recipes are based on traditional southern dishes, many have been updated to reflect the way Francesco likes to eat today and his years of restaurant experience – or as he puts it, ‘mamma cooking with chef’s hands’.

Mezzogiorno is easy to follow, with many useful tips accompanying the recipe steps. What I like most about the book is its unashamed reliance on core regional ingredients, proving that less truly is more when it comes to southern Italian cooking. Though current cookery books often cover a wide range of cuisines and cooking styles, which is interesting, it can limit a home cook's ability to produce more than one recipe from the same ingredients. In Mezzogiorno, the same core Italian ingredients are used in a majority of the recipes and always in new and creative ways. Francesco’s basic tomato sauce recipe, for example, is used to make Stuffed calamari, Whole roast chicken stuffed with bucatini and Pasta alla norma (aubergine and tomato pasta). I made Linguine with prawns, lemon and parsley, a classic southern Italian pasta, which, excluding the pasta and olive oil, is made with just five key ingredients. The recipe was clear and concise and had the perfect balance of chili, citrus and shellfish. Best of all, it was on the table within twenty minutes – and finished in even less time!

Although Francesco covers a number of well-known Italian dishes, I was pleased to find quite a few recipes and intriguing flavour combinations that were new to me. This is especially true in the book’s dessert section, which features Calabrian mince pies, Aubergine and chocolate cake and Blood orange and campari sorbet. Francesco also uses this section to reveal the secret to making perfect Italian ice cream and sorbet – clearly the years Francesco’s spent working at his uncle's ice cream shop were worth it after all.

Buy this book:

Mezzogiorno: Recipes from Southern Italy by Francesco Mazzei (Penguin Random House, November 2015)