Italian Living Is in the Details By Russ Parsons Los Angeles Times Over the last several years we have seen the development of a category of books encouraging us to live like the Italians. Presumably, these do not refer to our driving, pop music or choice of governments, but only to our cooking and eating. In these books, Italy is no longer a nation, or even the home of a cuisine. It has ascended to the realm of philosophy, where it represents Paradise Before the Fall (much as the American West did for centuries previous). At the heart of these books is the encouragement to live more simply, or rather to cook and eat more simply. The idea is that with a few well-chosen ingredients, prepared carefully (or maybe, the books would say, "mindfully"), we can achieve some sort of blissful state of cuisine where all is delicious, yet unfettered by complication. I certainly would not want to disagree with this, at least as a philosophy of cooking. After all, that's what drew me to California in the first place. And in reading Viana La Place's new "La Bella Cucina: How to Cook, Eat and Live Like an Italian" (Clarkson Potter, $2, one of the first things that struck me was how very Californian it all sounded. Or, at least, California before traffic, riots and recessions. This is certainly not coincidental, since La Place, who now lives in the Bay Area and in Italy, is a Californian born and bred. Cookbook fans will know her from the books she wrote with Evan Kleiman in the 1980s--"Pasta Fresca," et al.--which were pioneering works in what became known as Cal-Ital cuisine. "La Bella Cucina" shows how La Place has grown in the intervening years, both as a writer and as a cook. Just glancing through the book, you might miss some of its charms. She has an unfortunate fondness for the exclamation point, and the recipes probably aren't the kind to send you running to the cashier. (How many times have you already seen a recipe along the lines of "Mustard Greens With Olive Oil and Red Wine Vinegar"?) It's only in reading it closely that you appreciate what La Place is up to. The introductory note, delivered in what seems to be a roundabout fashion, is actually a rather pointed discussion of vinegars ("balsamic vinegar," she writes, "is used inappropriately most of the time, splashed on everything, including the tenderest salad greens"--she does like it on roasted red peppers). Even with the simplest things, it's the details that make the difference.