Behind the best-sellers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 January, 2003, 12:00am

It was interesting to note the difference between the cookbook listings either side of the Atlantic in the run-up to the lucrative Christmas season. The British best-sellers lists were filled with the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson striving to recreate authentic national cuisines from around the world. But the American list has been revisited about three times by a book that happily wallows in its food's absolute lack of faithfulness to its source nation.

The Sopranos Family Cookbook is the 200,000-plus-selling encyclopaedia of everything the brutish characters of the successful HBO mafia drama would want to see on their villainous tables. Full of the sort of lardy 'Italian' concoctions served at the worst of Little Italy's lamentable family restaurants, it was first published in autumn to capitalise on the premiere of the show's most recent series.

Mindful of the two pillars of Christmas marketing success - rehash and rerun proven winners and pitch it to a family audience - Warner Brothers continues to wring success from this most unlikely of kitchen ingredients. The food featured is as sophisticated as the wardrobes of Uncle Junior or Tony Soprano himself, and as authentic to Italy as sweet and sour pork balls are to China.

What sets the book apart from the other family cookbooks that dominate the genre in America is its self-deprecating tone. Characters from The Sopranos, not the actors, provide their favourite recipes, sending up the show and the stereotype of the Italian-American in the process. That its jacket proclaims the recipes were compiled by Artie Bucco, patriarch Tony Soprano's restaurant-owning friend, adds to its mischievousness.

The Sopranos franchise is the kind of power-name brand that could persuade even the Italians to buy driver-safety manuals. The show is the most watched TV drama in the United States, with the most recent series, which ended this winter, notching up an average of 14 million viewers each episode. As well as the obligatory Sopranos T-shirts and mugs, merchandisers have sold Sopranos cars and even Sopranos holidays, in which thousands of fans visit the normally overlooked back streets of northern New Jersey around which the show is based. With marketing clout like that, it's no wonder the book has sold so well.

It has also benefited enormously from its creators' showbiz links, enabling the real-life author of its recipes, Michele Scicolone, to win lucrative spots on high-profile TV chat shows.

However, not all Italians or Americans have been taken in by the book or its recipes. While the Italian Institute of Foreign Trade is yet to launch an attack, the recipes are likely to get its dander up.

Irritated by the perpetuation of bastardised Italian food throughout the world, the international Italian trade promotion agency has begun a campaign to ban the likes of meatballs and ziti from the menus of so-called Italian restaurants. It has just brought the campaign to the US, where it is issuing stamps of approval or otherwise to restaurants and supermarkets that pass or fail its authenticity test.

And the book has won no prizes from consumer watchdogs, who placed it on one of the many annual lists of dangerous Christmas gifts. Unlike other entrants on such danger lists, this book doesn't feature removable or sharp parts that children could easily swallow. It does, however, contain some seriously life-threatening recipes. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) says the book's meals contain so much fat and cholesterol it should be viewed as a ticking time bomb.

Aptly, the PCRM placed it on the list with ageing rocker and fellow New Jerseyan Ted Nugent's hardback guide to hunting and outdoor cooking called Kill It And Grill It.

The Sopranos Family Cookbook:

As Compiled By Artie Bucco

by Allen Rucker and Michele Scicolone

Warner Books $215