Italian-inspired with twist

Jonathan Waxman wasn’t trying to channel Frank Sinatra with the title of his new cookbook, “Italian, My Way” (Simon & Schuster, $32).

“That was my editor’s idea,” Waxman said, “even though I love Frank Sinatra.”

But he insisted on writing the book himself, without relying on an experienced author as chef usually do.

“There was a co-writer for my first book who kept putting in stuff that wasn’t me,” he said on a recent sunny afternoon after the lunch crowd had cleared out at Barbuto, his restaurant in the West Village. “I looked at those little blocks of text and I said to myself, ‘I can do that kind of thing.”’

His refreshingly offhand, often irreverent voice is certainly there. Here’s how he introduces his recipe for gnocchi with spring vegetables and basil: “I’ve never liked the renditions of gnocchi that I’ve eaten in Italy and America. They were always gummy, covered with bechamel or another yucky sauce.”

Opinions like that back up the “My Way.” But how Italian food became his own, how he put aside beurre blanc for olive oil, that’s a longer story.

Waxman, a California native who recently turned 60, studied to be a chef at La Varenne in France after realizing he was unlikely to play the trombone professionally. He dreamed of working at Lutece, but before he could knock on Andre Soltner’s door, he was sidetracked and became a standard-bearer for the new California cuisine. There were stints at Chez Panisse and Michael’s in Santa Monica, California, his first important showcase.

The turning point came in 1984 when he opened Jams in New York. It was a vividly memorable restaurant with Frank Stella graphics on the walls, California vintages on the wine list, waiters in chinos and a menu that made New Yorkers pay attention to salad and chicken worth eating. With the demise of Jams in 1990, though, Waxman entered a culinary wilderness for a decade, with brief involvements here and there.

Then he heard the siren call of spaghetti. His friend Tom Colicchio notes in the foreword to the book that in the way Waxman handled ingredients, “Jonathan has always been, without talking about it and maybe without realizing it himself, an Italian chef.”

The literal transformation began one evening about 10 years ago. He invited a neighbour, Fabrizio Ferri, a fashion photographer, and his wife, Alessandra Ferri, who was a principal with American Ballet Theatre, to come to his apartment for a bite to eat. Waxman made Italian food.

“Ferri told me I cooked like his Roman grandmother, simply and with spontaneity,” Waxman said.

Finally, in 2003, after insistent coaxing, Ferri persuaded Waxman to open Barbuto in what had been the garage of his Industria Superstudio building on Washington Street. Ferri is a partner. (The name is Italian for “bearded,” which describes Waxman and Ferri.)

The restaurant has given him an oasis after years of flitting between Northern California and New York, being a chef here and a consultant there.

“It made me realize that I could have a successful restaurant without doing the chef thing, going out, hanging out day and night,” he said. “That life can be self-destructive, and it’s something that not all chefs realize.”

The cookbook, which will go on sale in about two weeks, reflects the food of Barbuto; Italian, flavoured by unmistakably Californian elements. Cooking your way through all the simple, fresh, dynamically seasoned dishes is an appealing idea, and one that would not be hugely challenging providing you pay attention to what Waxman has to say about choosing your ingredients.

Consider warm dandelion greens with scrambled eggs and chives; whole-wheat pasta with walnut-garlic pesto; a salad of broiled sardines on spinach, their bitterness mellowed by browned pine nuts; or cauliflower roasted with pine nuts and cream, a favourite in the restaurant. Several salads are tossed with shaved raw vegetables, something you may want to do soon.

Striped bass baked on a bed of potatoes and olives is perfect for a dinner party. The excellent pizza dough takes time (mainly unattended), but the payoff is plenty of it to spread with roasted radicchio and fontina cheese, for example, and more to save in the freezer.

The book includes a recipe for Barbuto’s iconic chicken, based on the famous one at Jams, halved and roasted and basted every 10 minutes. “Basting is your best friend,” Waxman insists. The bright salsa verde it comes with is a good chum, too.

You may need rubber gloves to help clean the greens for nettle soup, but you can always retreat to the simpler yet richer asparagus soup.

His lush spaghetti carbonara is glossed with egg yolks, not whole eggs. And he loves breaded, golden Milanese-style dishes. The photos illustrating the collection of 150 or so recipes, by Christopher Hirsheimer, are artful, but in black and white, as simple as the food.

As for those gnocchi, the recipe was a happy accident. Justin Smiley, one of his chefs, froze a batch of gnocchi. But Waxman needed some right away, so he threw the frozen gnocchi into a pan with butter and oil, browned them and tossed them with vegetables. Bingo!

“You have to be brave to cook,” Waxman said.