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The Italians call it l’arte dell’arrangiarsi, or the “art of making do with what you’ve got.” This centuries-old approach to ingredients and techniques, known as cucina povera, or peasant cooking, reveals the soul of Italian food at its best. It starts with the humblest components—beans and lentils, inexpensive fish and cuts of meat, vegetables from the garden, rice, pasta, leftovers—and through the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the cook, results in unforgettably delicious and satisfying meals. In 100 recipes, Cucina Povera celebrates the best of this tradition, from the author’s favorite, pappa al pomodoro (aka leftover bread and tomato soup), to Florentine Beef Stew, Nettle and Ricotta Gnudi, and Sicilian Watermelon Pudding. Soul satisfying, super healthy, budget-friendly, and easy to make, it’s exactly how so many of us want to eat today.
Cucina povera, Italian peasant cooking, is the way people have been cooking in Italy for centuries, in both the cities and the countryside. Cucina povera is not just a unique approach to cooking and ingredients; it's the highest expression of the Italian arte dell'arrangiarsi, the art of making do with what you've got.
Traditional cucina povera dishes are immediately recognizable from some common traits: the use of humble ingredients, seasonal vegetables, and simple cooking techniques, along with a healthy dose of imagination. This culinary approach may be ancient, but it is still relevant today; it is a way of cooking that transforms simple ingredients into hearty meals that are more than the sum of their parts.
Italian cucina povera relies on basic, affordable ingredients that are available no matter where you live, from a loaf of sturdy bread to different types of dairy and cheese, as well as seasonal vegetables, grown in your garden or obtained from a local market. Leftovers of all sorts, from the remains of a Sunday roast to scraps from homemade fresh pasta, are reinvented to make a second (or even third) meal that is just as tasty and nutritious as the original one. Day-old bread and leftover pasta, rice, and boiled meats are transformed with inventiveness and an innate sense of taste into treats like fried arancine, spaghetti frittata, beef stew with onions, and meatballs. Cucina povera brings excellent value to your cooking, and who doesn't need that?
Meat is eaten only on rare occasions. Rather, the cuisine is centered around dishes with fish or vegetable and plant proteins such as chickpeas and fava beans, along with basic ingredients like chestnuts, potatoes, and pasta. These ingredients may be simple, but when you use them the Italian way, you will never feel like you are missing out. And some of the most popular Italian dishes, those that are some of the best examples of cucina povera, require only a few ingredients. Think of cacio e pepe or polenta.
Cucina povera employs some clever strategies to make the most of what you have in your pantry. Stale bread soaked in water or in a tasty vegetable stock makes soups more filling and nutritious; Tuscany's hearty ribollita and Apulia's pancotto both incorporate this trick. Breadcrumbs become a filling for stuffed vegetables, another layer in a cod and potato bake, or, when fried until golden, a crisp, tasty seasoning for orecchiette. A boiled chicken will give you more than one meal: the next day, toss the shredded meat into a colorful salad with radicchio and pickled vegetables, and then use the golden stock to cook risotto or passatelli, or to make stracciatella. The most important principle of Italian cucina povera is an economical, waste-not approach, which is still practiced today in most Italian households.
There are recipes for weeknight suppers and Sunday gatherings, recipes to celebrate the season with a group of friends, and recipes you'll find yourself making time and time again as they become new favorites. With their short lists of affordable ingredients and simple cooking techniques, cucina povera dishes easily fit into our modern lives, with a traditional yet contemporary attention paid to sustainability, budget, and inclusiveness, with dishes that are naturally gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan.
Cucina Povera in Italian History
Nowadays Italian cooking is often viewed as fragmented into different regional cooking styles, based in part on the local preference for particular ingredients, such as butter rather than olive oil (or vice versa), meat over fish, and pasta rather than polenta. These differences are influenced both by availability and historical political domination: Arab and then Spanish in the South, Austrian and French in the North. There is a common ground, though, that characterizes all Italian cuisine, that makes it unique and recognizable, and that is an allegiance to the principles of cucina povera.
Historically, Italian cucina povera was considered the cuisine of poor people, as opposed to the cuisine of the elite. Throughout time, different cuisines were classified as cucina povera: the cuisine of the countryside, that of poor mountain people, that of nomad shepherds, and that of city dwellers struggling to make ends meet in an impoverished environment. In cucina povera, you can find recipes, ingredients, and techniques that go back to medieval times or even before, as well as more recent recipes that sustained people through the hardship of postwar Italy.
Every Italian region has its own traditional ingredients and foods: polenta and rice are the staples of the cucina povera in the North of Italy, where dishes such as risi e bisi and polenta concia are a source of pride and identity. Tuscany has its pane sciocco, a bread made without salt, used to create quintessential Tuscan recipes such as pappa al pomodoro, panzanella, and ribollita. Dried pasta, legumes, and vegetables are staples in the Southern diet: for example, pasta e fagioli in Naples and lagane e ceci in Basilicata. In big cities where butchering traditions have always had a significant role, the cucina povera revolves around the "quinto quarto," the affordable cuts of meat left after the slaughtering, including heads, tails, and all the innards. So in traditional trattorias, you still find hearty, gutsy dishes such as rigatoni alla vaccinara in Rome, along with trippa—a fixture also in Milan and in Florence—and liver stewed with onions in Venice.
My Tuscan Roots
Tuscany's cucina povera is in my blood. I was born in the Tuscan countryside and raised in a traditional tight-knit family, with a mother and a grandmother who applied the principles of the cuisine to our everyday meals. My mother, Anna, and my grandmother Marcella informed the way I now cook for my family.
My grandma, who was also born and raised in the Tuscan countryside and grew up during World War II, taught me that a well-stocked pantry is not only the starting point of almost every meal but also a source of pride and security. In her home, any leftover pieces of stale bread were religiously collected in a cotton bag that hung behind the kitchen door, to become the basis of a stuffing for green peppers, a topping for roasted vegetables, or, in summer, panzanella.
My mom, who worked outside the home, taught me not how to cook (that was Grandma) but how to feed and nurture your loved ones with food. She can assemble a satisfying meal in less than half an hour, with humble, affordable ingredients. The sound of a fork beating an egg in a ceramic bowl to make a frittata for dinner is the sound of home to me, as is the hiss of frozen garden vegetables (preserved in summer) thrown into a hot pot with sautéed onions as the foundation of a quick minestrone.
I also inherited my mom and grandma's love of canning. When I was growing up, late-summer afternoons were devoted to preserving the abundant seasonal produce: there were bottles of tomato puree that could be turned into a quick sauce for pasta or a topping for my mom's pizza, jars of blackberry or plum jam to spread on bread for breakfast or use in a crostata on Sundays, and pickled vegetables that could stretch a meal on a weeknight. My mother and grandmother didn't set out to instill a passion for food in me, nor did they push me to pursue a career in cooking. That happened quite naturally, the result of witnessing daily their respect for honest, uncomplicated fare and realizing that my happiest place has always been the kitchen.
I love writing as much as I love food. After getting a degree in communications, I spent a few years working in marketing and event planning. In 2009, I started a food blog, JulsKitchen.com, as an outlet for these two passions. It started as a personal project and soon turned into a journey of discovery into my culinary roots. I began looking at my family's foodways, something I had almost taken for granted, with a fresh, new appreciation. I realized that the recipes I had always thought of as quite commonplace were in fact special and important, and the foods of my heritage became an ongoing source of curiosity and inspiration for me. That is when I started connecting the dots between cucina povera and its traditional but contemporary approach to food and life.
I began teaching cooking classes, where I slowly developed a personal culinary repertoire based on my family traditions, with that cucina povera approach. I start each class with a market tour, and the students and I decide on the lunch menu based on what looks good at the market that day. These meals revolve around vegetables and homemade fresh pasta. Just a handful of fresh ingredients from the market and some pantry staples like stale bread, flour, eggs, and homemade preserves, along with a couple of hours of convivial cooking, result in a seasonal Tuscan feast that we enjoy together in the garden. What I want to pass on to my students is not just a set of recipes but also a deep respect for seasonality, a new consideration for humble pantry staples, clever ideas for repurposing leftovers, and the belief that everyone can be an excellent cook, especially when provided with the right ingredients.
My best travel memories are, unsurprisingly, related to food (after all, I'm Italian): feasting on cicchetti in a Venetian bacaro, indulging myself with saffron risotto and ossobuco made by the book in an old-school trattoria in a hot Milanese August, devouring arancine in Sicily as a midafternoon snack after a day spent at the beach, or smiling with joy at the sight of a platter of the local salumi in Umbria. Most of our family weekend trips and holidays are planned with a precise goal: learning new recipes, discovering unfamiliar regional ingredients, or reconnecting with our roots through food. Baking pizza and talking about the local bread and salami with my grandfather's family in Basilicata, or spending an afternoon shaping orecchiette with my husband's aunt in Salento, create memories that will last and reinforce family traditions I can pass on to my daughter, Livia.
Everything I've learned from cooking with my mom and grandmother, exploring Italy and its variegated food scene, teaching cooking classes for more than ten years, and feeding my own family has now come together in this book.
How to Use This Book
You don't need to be an accomplished cook to make the recipes of cucina povera. Start with excellent ingredients, and your food is almost guaranteed to turn out well. Whenever possible, shop seasonally and locally—that way, you will be buying ingredients that are at their peak, have a better flavor, and are a better value.
With cucina povera, you want to keep things uncomplicated and let each ingredient shine: a simple garlicky tomato sauce is often the best way to dress a bowl of fresh pasta.
The recipes in this book are ones that I love to make with my cooking students and that I rely on to feed my family and to serve at gatherings for friends. All of these have been tested in American kitchens using American ingredients, as well as Italian ingredients. You'll also find ideas and tips on how to make substitutions if needed, along with variations for many of the recipes.
The recipes come from all the regions of Italy. Some are common to the entire peninsula, such as fresh pasta, bread soups, tripe stews, and chicken cacciatora. Others embody the unique spirit of a single region, such as cassoeula and ossobuco from Lombardy, orecchiette with broccoli rabe and pancotto from Apulia, and agnello cacio e ova from Abruzzo. You will see how cooks from different regions of Italy draw on the same basic cucina povera principles of creativity and resourcefulness: cacio e pepe and supplì in Rome, ribollita and pappa al pomodoro in Tuscany, calf's liver and sarde in saor in Veneto, and spaghetti frittata and pasta e fagioli in Naples.
Here you will find an authentic and sustainable approach to food, along with recipes to make the most of less-expensive cuts of meat and ideas for cooking simple ingredients and seasonal produce with Italian flair. You will discover the cucina povera approach to cheese, which is often paired with bread or vegetables to make a hearty meal, as in zuppa valpellinese, the Savoy cabbage, rye bread, and Fontina casserole from Val d'Aosta. The book will also guide you to a new appreciation of local, environmentally friendly fish, as even the small, bony catch of the day can give you a comforting soup like brodetto, the fish stew from Marche.
And here you will find new ways with staples such as potatoes, corn, and chestnuts: the first will give you not only pillowy gnocchi but also a delicious crispy frico from Friuli–Venezia Giulia, while chestnuts and chestnut flour may become your new favorite ingredients for gnocchi, soups, fresh pasta, or cakes. You'll learn about endless variations on polenta, from cheesy polenta concia to irresistible fried polenta wedges. And because of traditions ranging from the Florentine reliance on beans to the use of chickpea flour in Liguria and dried fava beans in the South of Italy, many of cucina povera's traditional recipes are naturally gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian or vegan, making them suitable for everyone around your dinner table.
And the basic principles of cucina povera can also be applied to baking: respect for local and seasonal ingredients, the use of leftovers—every breadcrumb counts—and an inventiveness that leads to celebratory though simple desserts.
Cucina povera doesn't rely on complicated techniques: imagine instead slow, forgiving stews; easy baked casseroles and other dishes; breads based on a long, slow unattended rise thanks to an overnight pre-fermented dough; and fresh pasta dough, the making of which is one of my favorite stress-reducing activities.
Learning about Italian cucina povera is a timeless and delicious way to inform your own way of cooking, adding simple and nutritious recipes to your cooking repertoire.
Cooking from the Garden
Involtini di peperoni alla piemontese
Roasted Pepper Rolls Stuffed with Tuna and Capers
Minestrone di verdure
Onion Soup from Calabria
Risi e bisi
Rice and Pea Soup
Risotto alla zucca
Roasted Squash Risotto
Orecchiette con le cime di rapa
Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe
Pansoti con salsa di noci
Foraged-Herb Tortelli with Walnut Pesto
Pomodori ripieni di riso alla romana
Zucchini ripieni alla ligure
Melanzane ripiene alla calabrese
Peperoni ripieni alla lucana
Bread-and-Anchovy–Stuffed Sweet Green Peppers
Artichoke, Fava Bean, Pea, and Lettuce Stew
Summer Vegetable Stew
Long before the farm-to-table movement became trendy on restaurant menus, it was the only way Italian peasants and farmers ate. Seasonal vegetables have always had a central role in cucina povera. Having a small patch to grow vegetables was a blessing and a lifesaving asset. The garden bounty, supplemented with ingredients gathered by foraging, could sustain people during meager times. Anything edible, whether grown in a vegetable garden or in the wild, would be artfully used. Even today, when it's possible to get any ingredient you desire in a grocery store, focusing on seasonal vegetables and making them the main part of your meal is the most sustainable way of eating.
Your food will be fresher, tastier, and more nutritious, and a better value too. Buying locally also means supporting the local economy and knowing where your food comes from.
Eating seasonally results in a deeper connection with nature and a profound sense of expectation for the seasons. After a long, cold winter, the bounty of spring tastes green and fresh. Tender peas, a triumph of spring firstlings, can be used in Venetian risi e bisi or Roman vignarola.
Summer is the season when cooking from the vegetable garden is the most satisfying and effortless, and when shopping at your local farmers' market is more affordable. Sliced sun-kissed tomatoes can become a meal with a drizzle of olive oil and some crusty bread. And when you have more tomatoes than you know what to do with, try stuffing them with cheese, rice, and breadcrumbs or stew them for ciambotta. Knowing that eggplants will soon be out of season will make you enjoy them more lavishly, frying them, grilling them, or stuffing them with cheese and breadcrumbs.
When autumn squashes and pumpkins arrive in the market, it's time to make creamy risotto alla zucca. Winter is the time for bitter green leaves and sturdy brassicas, perfect for making orecchiette con le cime di rapa.
And just when you feel that you cannot eat yet another broccoli floret, you realize that spring is just around the corner, and the never-ending carousel of seasons, fruit, and vegetables is about to start anew.
Follow the seasonal, local approach to guide your ingredient pairings. Ingredients that grow together go together: think delicate spring peas and asparagus in a fresh salad with a shower of pungent pecorino, or grilled zucchini and eggplant with goat cheese in a summery tart.
Whether you are tending your own vegetable garden or shopping at the weekend farmers' market, if you choose to cook seasonally, you'll be following the cucina povera approach, with pleasure in the sense of expectation that every season brings.
Involtini di peperoni alla piemontese
Roasted Pepper Rolls Stuffed with Tuna and Capers
These Piedmontese involtini made with seasonal vegetables and pantry staples show off a perfect balance of flavors: on one hand, the smoky sweetness of roasted bell peppers, and on the other, briny tuna, blended with capers and anchovies into a smooth, velvety filling.
These are an ideal starter to serve at a summer garden party, as you can prepare them in advance and also easily scale up the recipe to make enough to fill a large platter. Or double the recipe to make a main course for two.
Serves 4 as a starter
4 red bell peppers or 4 jarred roasted red peppers (see Note)
Two 5-ounce/142 g cans tuna packed in olive oil, drained
2 tablespoons brined capers, rinsed
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets
¼ cup/60 ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
If using fresh peppers, preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C.
Wash the peppers and place on a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and roast the peppers, turning them frequently, until the skin is charred all over, about 25 minutes. If you want to further blacken the skin, pop them under the broiler for 5 more minutes.
Remove the peppers from the oven and, using tongs, carefully transfer them to a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the peppers cool completely. The steam trapped in the bowl will make it easy to peel the peppers.
Peel the peppers, remove the cores and seeds, and cut each pepper into 4 wide strips. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Prepare the pepper rolls: In a food processor, combine the tuna, capers, anchovies, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and process until smooth.
If using jarred roasted peppers, drain well and cut each one into 4 wide strips.
Arrange the pepper strips on a work surface. Spoon some of the filling across the bottom of each strip and press it down gently, then roll up the pepper and place on a serving plate. Drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the vinegar, sprinkle with the parsley, and season with salt and black pepper.
Serve the involtini at room temperature. Any leftovers can be stored in the fridge for 2 days.
Note: If you don't have time to make roasted peppers, check your pantry for a jar of good-quality roasted red peppers in oil. You'll have a tasty starter made with cupboard staples in no time.
Minestrone di verdure
Minestrone is not just any vegetable soup. The endless variations throughout Italy all have in common an array of seasonal vegetables that are slowly simmered in water or stock. After long, patient cooking, the vegetables become soft and release all their flavors into the broth but still retain their shape. Depending on where you are in Italy, beans (fresh or dried), pasta or rice, or even boiled and mashed potatoes are added to the pot to make a thicker, creamier, more fortifying soup. In Liguria, minestrone is typically finished with basil pesto.
In Italy, you can often find bags of already cut vegetables at the market; these are a shortcut to preparing a minestrone and encourage customers to avoid buying frozen or canned soup. When you have time, though, nothing beats a minestrone made with vegetables that are in season, picked at the right moment, and bursting with flavor. In time, you will develop your own favorite combination of vegetables. Use the following recipe as an inspiration, but change it up as you like: add fresh peas in spring, for example, or strips of kale in winter.
You can cook the minestrone in advance and refrigerate it for a day or so, then reheat before serving, or even serve it at room temperature during summer.
Serves 8 as a first course
For the Croutons
¼ cup/60 ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
4 slices day-old bread, such as Tuscan Bread or Semolina Bread, cut into ½-inch/1.5 cm cubes
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Soup
¼ cup/60 ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
½ red onion, thinly sliced
Fine sea salt
2 medium zucchini, diced
4 ounces/115 g green beans, trimmed and cut into ¾-inch/2 cm lengths
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 cups/130 g thinly sliced Savoy cabbage
4 ounces/115 g baby spinach (about 4 cups), rinsed
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
½ leek, trimmed and thinly sliced
3 cups/600 g cooked or canned cannellini beans
3 cups/720 ml reserved bean cooking water or hot water, or as needed
A handful of fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup/110 g prepared basil pesto
Make the croutons: Pour the olive oil into a large frying pan set over low heat, add the crushed garlic, and cook until fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the bread cubes, tossing them with the oil, then increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until crisp and golden, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Make the soup: Pour the olive oil into a large pot set over low heat, add the onion, and season with a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, for 5 to 8 minutes, until the onions are soft and translucent.
Add the remaining vegetables and stir them into the onions, then increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables start to soften.
Put 1 cup/200 g of the beans into a bowl and, with a potato masher or the back of a fork, mash with 1 cup/240 ml of the reserved cooking water (or hot water). Pour into the pot, add the remaining whole beans, along with the remaining bean cooking liquid (or hot water), and stir well. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding the basil leaves halfway through the cooking time. You can cook the soup for a bit longer if you like your minestrone thicker, or add some more bean liquid (or hot water) if you prefer a soup on the brothier side. Taste and season with additional salt as necessary and with pepper.
Add the pesto to the minestrone and stir to dissolve. Ladle into warmed bowls, scatter the croutons on top, and drizzle each serving with olive oil.
Minestrone con la pasta: Omit the croutons. Add about 1½ cups/12 ounces/340 g short pasta, like tubettini, to the minestrone about 10 minutes before it is ready and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is done. You may need more cooking liquid, so consider adding more hot water along with the pasta.
Passato di verdure con il riso: Once the minestrone is ready, blend it with an immersion blender or pass it through a food mill and return it to the pot. Return it to the heat, add ¾ cup/115 g cooked rice per person, and simmer for 5 minutes before serving. You may need more cooking liquid, so consider adding more hot water along with the rice. Top each serving with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and finish with a drizzle of olive oil.
How to Prep Minestrone for Winter
If you want to make a stash of soup for winter, toward the end of summer, when vegetables are abundant, fresh, and more affordable, scale up the recipe for minestrone and buy large quantities of everything you want to include. Then spend a few hours rinsing, chopping, slicing, and bagging a supply of vegetables for winter.
Transfer the vegetables to zip-top freezer bags, about 1 pound/455 g of mixed vegetables in each one, enough for one batch of soup. Press out the air from the bags, seal, and lay flat on a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to the freezer and freeze until the vegetables are solid, then stack the bags in the freezer.
- “For resourceful home cooks who prefer a farm-to-table approach and Italian flair, this book is a must.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Italian cooks are known for their ability to turn humble ingredients into delicious food. But in the hands (and kitchen) of Tuscan food writer Giulia Scarpaleggia, the art of la cucina povera shines with new allure. Giulia’s deep knowledge of and respect for her native country’s culinary traditions come through in every recipe of this beautifully photographed book.”—Domenica Marchetti, author of Preserving Italy
- “I rarely open a cookbook and want to make several recipes immediately. But it happened! Here is a creative yet practical book with stunning photos. The produce-forward dishes remind me of Cal-Ital cooking in upscale restaurants, yet the ingredients are humble. It’s a cookbook worth adding to your stack.”—Dianne Jacob, author of Will Write for Food
- “Cucina Povera invites you into the heart of Italian home cooking with open arms, and reminds you that good food is—and always has been—simple, sustainable, and cheap. Giulia’s writing is as beautiful and warm as the dishes she makes; this book is an essential resource for any Italian-food lover, but it’ll also make you want to run to the kitchen and cook.”—Meryl Feinstein, founder of Pasta Social Club
- On Sale
- Apr 4, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages