Jonathan Waxman does not sound like the name of an Italian chef, and Jonathan Waxman does not look like one, either. He grew up Jewish in Berkeley, and when most people in toque-obsessed circles mention his name, it's followed by hefty praise for one of America's early culinary celebrities, the guy responsible for carrying seasonally conscious California cuisine to the East Coast and stripping the unnecessary formality out of big-city dining.
But Waxman is undoubtedly an Italian chef, if the prolonged success of his New York restaurant Barbuto counts for anything. And his second cookbook, Italian, My Way (Simon & Schuster, April 5), does even more to prove this mettle to the masses, highlighting a collection of home-cook-friendly recipes that capitalize on the chef’s unfussy philosophy. "Jonathan made a reputation early on as a chef who really understood how to make his ingredients stand out," writes Tom Colicchio, who was just starting his career when Waxman was clicking on all cylinders in the mid-'80s, in My Way's foreword. "In this way Jonathan has always been, without talking about it and maybe without realizing it himself, an Italian chef."
It's an accurate insight into the cooking philosophy of Waxman, who on April 25 will join Marc Vetri and Jeff Michaud at Osteria for a charity dinner benefitting Alex's Lemonade Stand (a few seats still remain). With the exception of a few pages — a slow-braised leg of lamb, or the pizza dough that requires several days of planning (gotta let it get nice) — My Way's recipes are incredibly quick, easy for an amateur to follow and yet not dumbed down so much that the result is a bland and uninspired dinner.
Highlights of Waxman's thoughtful style can be found among his pasta recipes, from timeless carbonara (right) to fava- and artichoke-blessed bucatini and a dumb-easy angel hair dish flavored with crab, jalapeño and mint. (It's cake; just put everything in a bowl with butter, cook the pasta al dente, drop it into the bowl and toss with lemon and sea salt.) More ambitious home cooks might want to tangle with Waxman's griddle-popped razor clams (also simple prep; it’s the lengthwise suckers themselves that are unfamiliar to many) or his clever rendition on porchetta, which nixes the intense labor of handling a whole suckling pig in favor of treating hefty butchered pork loins in a similar manner.
What stood out the most during our test cooks? Waxman's amazing cauliflower — "one of the glories of Barbuto" — that was so easy to make spectacular that it was almost inversely frustrating. Oven-roasted to a dizzying crisp with salt and pepper, garlic and olive oil, tossed with a bit of heavy cream near the end, then dumped into a bowl with toasted pine nuts and shaved Reggiano, it's a memorable dish that, like all of Waxman's cooking, relies on the distinct personalities of its ingredients.