Just when you thought there was no room left for a really fresh and discovery-making Italian cookbook--ecco! Middione, a Sicilian-descended, American-born chef who knows something about meetings of culinary milieux, thoughtfully traverses Campania, Naples, Abruzzi, Sicily, and other southern regions to come up with the most vivid gastronomic picture of these parts since Waverley Root's 1971 The Food of Italy (an armchair tour with no recipes). From the opening selection of pizzas through his final chapter of wonderfully unexpected desserts (little fried pastry ""wheels,"" Easter pie with a filling of soaked wheat berries), he never commits a clichÃ‰. Whether the dish is as familiar as an old sock--linguine with clams--or novel to American audiences, it has the ting of reality. Among the more unusual things here are Sicilian ""parchment bread"" (thin cracker-like rounds), cold chicken left to absorb the fragrance of a solid covering of bay leaves, and a casserole of trout and mushrooms. Middione makes a striking attempt to use recipes as flexible ""guidelines, not scientific formulas."" His conversational style, with its complete absence of fluff, deserves to be heeded by other writers. But there are small glitches in the editorial product: general recommendations like weighing ingredients are often at variance with individual recipe-details, and the color photographs jar by comparison with the lovely simplicity of the food or the insights of Angelo Pellegrini's introduction. The author's guide to southern Italian wines, and his splendid introductory essay on Italian culinary backgrounds, are welcome lagniappe. Minor imperfections or no, this is a joy.