The Wiseguy Cookbook
by Henry Hill
Many years ago I got a review copy of The Wiseguy Cookbook by famous mobster Henry Hill (the movie Goodfellas was based on his life story). But I soon dismissed it as a cheap ploy to make money when I saw the recipe for Pasta e Fagiole (Pasta & Beans). Its the most basic of Italian, Sicilian and even peasant food. When I read the ingredients (salted pork or bacon), I shook my head. No, no, NO! Most peasant dishes are vegetarian, and I can promise you that old school Italians, or even convicted mafia are not going to be using any sort of bacon or “salt pork” in something as basic as pasta and bean soup. Even if they had plenty of it, they would be using it for breakfast meat not soup.
Some other recipes as well made me wonder. Grilled endive? Salmon with bowtie pasta? Stuffed Calamari? Really? No, you would never see these outside of a fancy Italian restaurant. Maybe, maybe at Christmas time, but that would be rare.
But, this book is very worthwhile. He opens talking about what life was like for Italians and Sicilians in the mid-century, and how Manhattan was a dirty crime-ridden city and the “suburbs” of Queens and Brooklyn was where there were still farms, fresh chickens, eggs and milk delivered daily. Here, he manages to capture and stimulate my imagination of what life was like for my parents in “the old days” until I see another recipe which calls for shallots, fresh and dried parsley in “basic tomato sauce”. No, and no again. You used one or the other, maybe using both would add to a “depth” of flavor, but no, you won’t see that on any common household table. Perhaps in a fancy modern Italian restaurant in search of a James Beard Award, but no, not ever in an Italian household. Even I would not attempt that. Why would I? Sure I will add fresh basil or parsley, but if I had dried oregano I would add it in, but fresh and dried parsley into the same pot? For what reason?
But alright, I will try to get away from this. And, if you buy the book, I hope you will too. This is more about the story and the recipes and a man in search of the food he has loved that he has known since a child. We all get that. and for that reason, this is a great book to have on hand. If not for entertainment purposes on your coffee table, for sure to have as a guide to what this particular wiseguy gangster really loved. He does give helpful tips and rational for his methods, and that is a good thing. Somehow with his reference to “taste testers” and advanced cooking techniques, I can’t help but wonder if its really him or if a team of professionals developed these recipes and he simply inserted his fond childhood memories into the book.
Again, no matter how you approach or analyze this book, its all good. The stories, the nostalgia, the recipes, its a very worthwhile read. You can even download a sample free on iTunes. He is right about one thing: “you can put to Italians in a kitchen together, and before it takes a pot of water to boil there can be an all out fight, and both in the end would be correct”. Its true, there are no right or wrongs in cooking, only preferences, however, the proof is in the tasting. I really like this book in spite of certain aspects.