A 16th-century Italian peasant finds himself caught up in the culinary aspects of palace intrigue in this clever, cheeky debut novel (ostensibly Ugo DiFonte¹s memoir) by screenplay writer Elbling, who begins his first-person narrative when DiFonte is appointed the food taster for a corrupt duke. DiFonte quickly learns the subtleties of his new position and gains influence in the court, until his beautiful daughter, Miranda, comes of age and attracts the attentions of the duke¹s power-hungry cook, Tommaso.

DiFonte is forced to promise Miranda to Tommaso in marriage to keep the cook from slandering his reputation, but all hell breaks loose when the volatile, piggish duke, Federico Basillione DiVincelli, turns his lascivious eye on Miranda and proposes to her after his previous paramour betrays him. Miranda¹s fickle nature keeps her waffling between her love for Tommaso and her desire to be a princess at the side of the duke. After she accepts the duke¹s offer, DiFonte desperately tries to play both ends against the middle (even during the wedding celebration) as Tommaso and Miranda continue their trysts and the food taster is accused of witchcraft by a visiting cardinal.

Elbling overplots at several junctures, but that minor flaw is overshadowed by his entertaining cast of characters, most notably the hapless but charismatic DiFonte, who somehow manages to keep his head above water as he bumbles and stumbles from one palace conspiracy to the next. Throw in some wry, humorous scenes about the pitfalls and perils of his occupation, and the result is a light but enjoyable spin on the usual Renaissance comedy-of-manners formula. (May)

Forecast: With foreign rights sold in 11 countries, paperback rights to Plume and a 10,000-copy first printing, this May/June Book Sense 76 pick is going to be a big book for this small press.

- Publisher's Weekly ***A May/June Book Sense 76 pick

This "memoir" of a 16th century foodtaster in a ducal court is a tour-de-force, a funny and moving tale of a man caught up in matters beyond his control, who makes the best of what could be a bad situation indeed. I look forward to putting this marvelous book in the hands of grateful customers.

- Bob Deloria, Books Inc., San Francisco, CA

Such glorious food, though the duke's taster must have doubts

For a peasant, life in 16th-century Italy was at best pretty tough going. Things weren't all that sweet even for the lower-rung aristocracy.

About the time Charles V was driving the French out of Milan and securing his position in Italy with his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in Bologna, little Ugo DiFonte, a starving Italian peasant, was ripped from his small piece of land, along with his preteen daughter, by Duke Federico Basillione, a fierce, huge man on a frighteningly large black horse, accompanied by snarling dogs and an equally ominous hunting party.

Ugo may have thought his life couldn't get any worse, but he soon finds himself in a position that has him longing for the good old days, when coming across a finch perched on a branch was equivalent to picking up prepared foods at the local gourmet market today.

The duke wants Ugo to be his food taster, replacing the man whose tongue he had cut out for trying to poison the master. Even Ugo understands it's not easy trying to taste food without a tongue.

Ugo's life is etched in meticulous detail in The Food Taster, presented as a rare document "translated" by Peter Elbling, a Brit now living in Los Angeles, who has credits as a writer, actor and director. Elbling created and cowrote the satirical 1979 book The 1980s - A Look Back, and he cowrote the 1992 film Honey, I Blew Up the Kids.

Known as a serious Italophile and a lover of old books and manuscripts, Elbling tells us in the foreword that he came across Ugo DiFonte's manuscript while visiting a friend in Tuscany. He describes how he checked the manuscript with rare-books experts in New York and Los Angeles. Assured that his find was genuine, he says, he declined offers to buy it and decided to translate it himself.

Of course, we know this entire tale is fictitious, but even so, Elbling's uncanny eye for things he has never seen, and his talent for painting detail with prose approaching poetry, can make the reader pause and wonder - for at least a moment, now and then.

The Food Taster is like an opera fashioned from a few bites of Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, and washed down with huge gulps of Pierre Franey's Chef's Tale and Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. Ugo's adventure takes place in the culinary underbelly of the duke's castle, where the life du jour is riddled with poverty, cruelty and incurable disease. But somehow, the evening is always filled with sumptuous dining.

Ugo, poor starving Ugo, surrounded by the food of a lifetime, says in his journal that cooking is a far greater art form than painting or sculpture. "A sculptor's work is eternal, but a cook's greatness is measured by how fast his creations disappear. A true master must produce great works every day. ... If you can imagine a warm doughy base crumbling against the sides of your palate, the sugary pulpiness of a soft brown pear lying on your tongue like a satisfied woman, Eden's succulent juices filling up the canals between your teeth, you would not even be close."

Ugo survives plagues, poisons and plots, and even endures orgies. Despite all the harsh realities The Food Taster depicts, there is a tenderness in it that supports the will to survive, even if only to eat for one more day and gorge on the inner richness of staying alive.

If Ugo lived today, he would probably be writing restaurant reviews. And if The Food Taster is ever made into a film, I'd love to try out for the role of Ugo.

- Reviewed by Gerald Etter
Gerald Etter is the former food editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

© 2001 inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

This raucous faux memoir of sixteenth-century food taster Ugo DiFonte was actually penned by screenwriter Peter Elbling. Elbling, fronting for hapless peasant pressed into service by a reviled duke, records the misadventures of a man victimized by time and circumstance. After being appointed by Duke Federico to be his official food taster, Ugo and his beautiful daughter, Miranda, are forced to move into the palace, where they confront danger and intrigue on a daily basis. Keeping himself alive and keeping the beguiling nubile Miranda out of the clutches of a succession of lechers become his only priorities. Developing a keen sense of self-preservation, he manages to extricate himself from one breathtaking escapade after the other before exacting his own ironic brand of revenge. Loaded with humor and laced with fascinating period detail, this hilarious Renaissance romp also doubles as an enlightening microcosm of sixteenth-century society and customs.

- Margaret Flanagan, Booklist

"The Foodtaster is artful melodrama: sometimes a tall tale with a hero, his exploits and a seemingly endless series of challenges, sometimes a fairy tale with evil villains, narrow escapes and happy endings. Ugo has the hair-trigger passion of Roberto Benigni in "Life is Beautiful" and Elbling oscillates in his presentation between Umberto Eco and "Monty Python". Like Odysseus or the tricksters of folklore, Ugo outwits his enemies, turning peasant cleverness against their power. And sometimes Ugo is just plain lucky, as if blessed by the God he doesn't really believe in. It's an entertaining book, varied, sweet and full of harmless fun, I'd love to see it have fairy-tale success."

- Tom LeClair, BOOK Magazine

How do you do? I am a Japanese girl. Now , I have finished your novel 'The Food Taster'. While I have been reading it (As I cannot stand reading it at once, I have been reading a little by little, being patient.) I had been feeling like staying in the palace of Corsoli reading the diary of Ugo by secret! I have read so many kinds of books so far, my very best one book this year is your 'The Food Taster'. At any rate, it is the most interesting, comparison is wonderful, the town of Corsoli and the scenery of the palace appear in my mind like the scenes of the movie. I feel I were in that place. I am really looking forward to your next novel. I hope and pray your next work will be translated in Japanese as soon as possible! (I am a musician, singing songs. Also I write lyrics like you, Peter. I have published fairly tales, and poetry.)

- Your great fan Arika Takarano (Japan)