PERSONAL: Born in Palermo, Italy; married Vincenzo Tornabene (a farmer); children: Giovanna, Paolo.
ADDRESSES: Home—Gangivecchio, Sicily, Italy. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Knopf, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Restaurateur and writer. Coowner of restaurant run out of the thirteenth-century abbey Gangivecchio, Sicily, Italy, 1978–.
AWARDS, HONORS: James Beard Foundation Award, 1997, for La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio.
(With daughter, Giovanna Tornabene, and Michele Evans) La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio: Gangivecchio's Sicilian Kitchen, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
(With Giovanna Tornabene and Evans) La cucina Siciliana della casa (Sicilian Home Cooking): Sicilian Home Family Recipes from Gangivecchio, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Giovanna Tornabene and Carolynn Carreno) 100 Ways to Be Pasta: Perfect Pasta Recipes from Gangivecchio, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Wanda Tornabene has, with the help of her daughter Giovanna, run her famous restaurant in Gangivecchio, Sicily, since 1978. She has also cowritten several successful cookbooks, featuring recipes used in the restaurant and at home.
Gangivecchio, a small town in the Madonie Mountains, had been the estate of the aristocratic Tornabene family. In the 1970s, with the family's fortunes on the wane, Wanda moved from Tuscany to marry Vincenzo Tornabene. She discovered that the peasants on the estate were living abysmally. Her husband had been making ends meet by selling off the family's property bit by bit. Wanda turned things around; following a visiting priest's advice, she opened a restaurant in the family's thirteenth-century abbey. With Giovanna, she prepared and served recipes her mother and mother-in-law had handed down. The cooking featured locally grown produce. Despite its remote location, the restaurant earned international renown; Britain's Prince Charles even came for lunch one day. Tornabene's son and daughter-in-law later opened up a nine-room inn in the former stable to draw even more tourists.
In the 1990s, the family was again suffering financially. Though Tornabene initially was quite reluctant to share her treasured recipes, she and Giovanna decided to write a cookbook: La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio: Gangivecchio's Sicilian Kitchen. The Tornabenes enlisted the help of American coauthor Michele Evans, an experienced food and travel writer who lives in the Virgin Islands.
The recipes are quite accessible to American cooks. They include dishes such as Sicilian potato croquettes, gemelli with aromatic herbs, and peasant-style artichokes. The authors included personal history and illustrated it with old family photographs. Michael Schrader, writing in the Nation's Restaurant News, noted that the strong mother-daughter bond punctuates the narrative.
La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio won an award from the James Beard Foundation. Mark Knoblauch of Booklist wrote that "this intriguing cookbook allows the American cook to reproduce authentic Sicilian dishes rarely tasted and certainly underappreciated in this country." A Publishers Weeklycontributor enjoyed the personal details as much as the recipes: "The company is as spirited as the food." The restaurant in Gangivecchio prospered again, thanks to American food tourists.
In their sequel, La cucina Siciliana della casa (Sicilian Home Cooking): Sicilian Home Family Recipes from Gangivecchio, the Tornabenes and Evans concentrated on recipes they and their Sicilian friends prepare at home for ordinary meals. Dishes included Granny Elena's bean and pasta soup, summer couscous with herbs, hot eggplant sandwiches, eggs poached in fresh tomato sauces, and veal roast with mushrooms. They devote an entire chapter to couscous, popular on the western part of the island; they also included sections on egg dishes, pizza and focaccia, and homemade wines and liqueurs. New York Times Book Review contributor Thomas McNamee wrote: "Some of the recipes are hard work, but the Tornabenes' food exemplifies what's best about contemporary Italian cooking—its easygoing synthesis of parochial tradition and cosmopolitan spontaneity."
In 100 Ways to Be Pasta: Perfect Pasta Recipes from Gangivecchio, Tronabene, along with coauthors Giovanna Tronabene and Carolynn Carreno, provides numerous recipes that encompass the variety of Sicilian approaches to cooking with pasta. The authors divide the recipes into different types, such as soup with pasta or one-dish pasta. Incorporating both traditional and newer recipes, the cookbook includes pasta with nut meats, lobster, potatoes, eggplant, and other foods. "Cooks everywhere will find inspiring ideas here to feed both families and guests," wrote Mark Knoblauch in Booklist. Referring to the book as "another potential champion," a Publishers Weekly contributor also commented: "To coauthor Carreno's credit, the voices of these two women [Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene] … remain genuine and convincing throughout" the cookbook.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 15, 1996, Mark Knoblauch, review of La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio: Gangivecchio's Sicilian Kitchen, p. 122; May 15, 2001, Mark Knoblauch, "Wild in the Kitchen: Recipes for Wild Fruits, Weeds, and Seeds," p. 1720; July, 2005, Mark Knoblauch, review of 100 Ways to Be Pasta: Perfect Pasta Recipes from Gangivecchio, p. 1886.
Library Journal, November 15, 1996, Judith C. Sutton, review of La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio, p. 83; May 15, 2001, Judith C. Sutton, review of Sicilian Home Cooking, p. 154.
Nation's Restaurant News, November 18, 1996, Michael Schrader, review of La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio, p. 49.
New York Times, December 18, 1996, Florence Fabricant, review of La cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio, p. C1.
New York Times Book Review, June 3, 2001, Thomas McNamee, "Cooking," p. 21.
Publishers Weekly, April 16, 2001, review of La cucina Siciliana della Casa (Sicilian Home Cooking): Sicilian Home Family Recipes from Gangivecchio, p. 56; May 9, 2005, review of 100 Ways to Be Pasta, p. 65.
January Magazine, http://www.janmag.com/ (May 31, 2006), Adrian Marks, "Simply Italian."
Random House Web site, http:www.randomhouse.com/ (May 31, 2006), "Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (May 31, 2006), "A Bittersweet Saga in Italy."