The last time I talked with author Toni Lydecker about a cookbook she had written was over the phone. She was in her New York office doing interviews for Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks and I was cradling the phone in the newsroom here.
That was more than 10 years ago. To discuss her latest cookbook, Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal (Lake Isle Press), we got together in her condominium with the wide verandah that looks out on the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and a bit of the glinting blue water of Tampa Bay.
What a difference a decade makes. When Lydecker's husband, Kent, became the director of the Museum of Fine Arts last year, the couple moved south. Kent Lydecker, the retired associate director of education at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is now lucky enough to be able to go home for lunch — on foot. The Beach Drive condo is across the street from the museum.
And when there's something as delicious as Taglierini With Shrimp, Leeks and Prosciutto being tossed together, the temptation is great. Did I mention Spinach Salad With Pear, Pecorino and Whole-Grain Croutons? She made that, too, on the day I visited, both recipes from Piatto Unico, a book that mines a different style of Italian cooking than most we are used to. The idea of a one-course Italian meal is novel. She does hope that the Italian title doesn't stop buyers. It speaks to the unique contents better than something like One-Pot Italian Meals or Italian Comfort Food, suggested names that were quickly abandoned because they were too generic.
Lydecker will be one of the featured authors at the 19th Annual Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will talk about her career as a cookbook author and the periods she and her husband, whose specialty is Italian Renaissance art, spent in Italy's Tuscany region. Besides her cookbooks, her work as a food journalist has been published in Cooking Light, Wine Enthusiast, the Washington Post and Fine Cooking.
Toni Lydecker is a foodie; there's really no other way to describe her passion for cooking and food. Interesting olive oils are stowed on her counters along with a food scale that she uses to measure dry ingredients, always more accurate than measuring cups. A large, colorful painting by a daughter on the wall of the eating nook proclaims "Toni's Chop Shop." In Ghana, where her daughter spent a semester studying arts and culture, restaurants are called chop shops.
In Lydecker's short time in Tampa Bay, she has found the specialty store gems, such as La Casa Del Pane on St. Pete Beach, a favorite stop for bread, and joined a group of women who meet monthly to keep their Italian language skills sharp. She's still getting used to the flip-flopped growing season here. Strawberries and tomatoes are winter/spring crops, and there's not much sprouting in the wet and humid summer. Seems odd, she says, not to have big, juicy local tomatoes in September and August.
The idea of the one-pot Italian dish should appeal to the way Americans cook and eat today. It uses fewer dishes and yields quick results. Plus, our love affair with Italian cuisine never wanes, be it home-cooked meals or restaurant fare. Some dishes — such as spaghetti and meatballs — are so ubiquitous that they almost seem American.
Italians, Lydecker says, deal with some of the same modern challenges as Americans do. They want to prepare food quickly for their families, and they are eating lighter.
"It's a bit fashionable in Italy right now to eat this way," she says.
"Eating this way" means making a pot of minestrone and accompanying it with a lusty hunk of bread or serving a hearty risotto as the meal's sole offering.
While the recipes in Piatto Unico are not difficult, the difference between success and failure is likely to be ingredients. Like Italian cooks, Lydecker advocates fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables and splurges on high-quality pastas, grating cheeses and canned tomatoes.
Each year, there are a generous handful of Italian cookbooks published. In fact, Chronicle Books has just released Colman Andrews' comprehensive The Country Cooking of Italy, sure to draw attention when cookbook awards are handed out next year. It's a coffee-table cookbook, for sure.
Lydecker's Piatto Unico is more of a kitchen counter book, because that's where it'll be propped much of the time.
There's plenty to inspire a home cook, with or without Italian roots.