John Lanzafame – the essence of Italian family cooking

An award-winning chef shares his mother's simple, authentic dishes and traditions

By Kerry Scambler
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Family Italian by John Lanzafame

Family Italian by John Lanzafame


Family Italian the title evokes simple, flavoursome meals to be shared, along with hearty discussion and with laughter, by families around the table.

Award-winning pizza chef John Lanzafame shares his mother's recipes, and reminds us that the best flavours can often be the simplest, that hard times meant creative ways to use every morsel and making them delicious, and just how important family is.

My partner and I always enjoyed so-called Italian food in Australia (pasta, pizza, etc), but it wasn’t until a recent holiday in Italy that we fell in love with the real thing. It opened our eyes to how great, flavoursome food can be created from just a few simple ingredients.

The pinnacle of our dining experiences in Italy was in Polignano a Mare at Antiche Mura when we celebrated a friend's birthday. Our host Fabio gave us a very warm welcome and seeing us reach for the phrasebook to interpret the menu, he quickly offered to take us on a journey through the local cuisine if we would place our trust in him.

Naturally we did, and soon had a mix of generous sized entrees each showcasing a local speciality – all simple and delicious.

Fabio recommended the wine(s) which even the seasoned beer drinkers in our group enjoyed, and we continued into the evening. By the end of the night and after a complimentary liqueur (local of course), we felt like part of Fabio’s family, especially when his gorgeous daughter played around his feet and gave us all huge smiles. This was the real Italy food, family and friends mixed with laughter.

We learned that a magnificent meal didn't need a long list of ingredients, a shopping budget to match and three hours in the kitchen, so Family Italian has been lovingly welcomed to our family kitchen. It sits with the pasta maker that's still getting a great workout, long after the travel photos have been sighed over and filed.

Author of Pizza modo mio ('pizza my way') and owner of Trattoria Lanzafame in Sydney, John Lanzafame was inspired by his parents who have simply cooked the traditional foods from their southern Italian roots.

He has made his career in cooking with his own restaurants, television appearances and participation in the 'Culinary Olympics’, in which he won the Best Pizza in the World award, the first Australian to do so.

Married to another chef and with a top sommelier for a brother-in-law food, wine are family are core of his life and very obviously the great loves of his life as well.

Lanzafame describes the recipes from his mother as ‘simple, gutsy and phenomenal meals she’s cooked for many, many years’. He’s made them slightly more modern but they remain true to style, nourishing and of course, seasonal.

Family Italian covers all possible courses:

  • Starting snacks or assaggini: the Italian version of real fast food  and great for entertaining. Favourites are fried anchovy dumplings and prosciutto croquettes; stuffed sardines are on the to-do list.
  • Small plates to share: to start a meal or to graze on throughout the meal, try carpaccio of beef, octopus or salmon or an old favourite with an Italian flavour, garlic prawns.  Perhaps be more adventurous with stuffed pig trotters or duck liver with pear compote and cavolo nero.
  • Salads (insalate): for any time of year, not just summer.  John’s mother says ‘the more interesting the salad, the more it’s eaten’ and this section will be getting a big workout in our kitchen.  
  • Italian comfort food (a favourite section): the food that solves any household problem broths of all types to warm the heart and soul, polenta with chicken, veal and fish plus the golden rules for risotto.
  • Meals for all occasions: pasta part of the Italian way of life. An important chapter now the afore-mentioned pasta maker is in residence. From chunky, slurpy pasta dishes like malfatti with lamb shanks and peas to the simple mix of traditional flavours like crab, basil and tomato, pasta will never be the same!
  • One pan wonders: who doesn’t want to save on washing up from time to time? John says this chapter is all about concentrating the flavours, respecting the ingredients and letting them shine. A far cry from one-pan dishes of old.
  • Smoking and grilling: with instructions on how to build you own backyard grill with a spade, bricks and grill plate, you’ll soon spend weekends dishing up slow smoked pork belly, quail or chicken skewers, whole snapper in 'crazy water' (sparkling mineral water!), spatchcock with tomato and chilli, or Sicilian fillet steak.
  • And of course, the sweet things in life: simple and irresistible desserts like a delicious cheesecake, tiramisu, panna cotta and rum baba.

The recipes are easy to follow, and the photography has your mouth watering from the start. Add to that extra information on ingredients, why and how-to pages, quotes from family and easy to use format and you have a great cookbook and slice of Italian family life.

But it’s more than a simple cookbook for me, it’s a memorable return to the Italian cooking we loved on our trip and the wonderful people we met along the journey. Grazie John.

Family Italian is published by Murdoch Books (2010). RRP A$45.

Subscribers of and Winepros Archive can purchase this book at 12.5% discount from our book partners Seekbooks (postage extra)



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March 31st, 2011
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