Italian

The 19th-Century Cookbook That Taught Me About Italian Cooking

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April  5, 2016

My go-to cookbook for traditional Italian cuisine was written 125 years ago.

Except for a few diagrams, there are no pictures. Many of the directions are not written out explicitly (the assumption is that you are already familiar with an Italian kitchen and basic preparations—you know what “enough” means when the instruction is to add "enough" rice to the minestrone); measurements are not always given; heat temperatures and times are a rarity (ovens and stovetops in the late nineteenth century were likely wood-fired and vastly different from ours anyway); and some instructions for beating mixtures for cakes may tell you to whip for 30 minutes—by hand, naturally (no mixers here).

But while many of the ingredients and techniques described are so different from those today, Pelligrino Artusi's Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiare Bene or Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (which most Italians refer to simply, and affectionately, as "Artusi") is still so wonderfully current—it's as if the recipes have been unaffected by time.

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One of the things that fascinates me most about Italian cuisine in general is that it is so unchanged—and Artusi is perfect proof. His recipes, all 790 and of them, are still the sort of recipes you find being cooked in homes and traditional trattorias, and for a good reason. And along with his witty anecdotes that often verge on the hilarious, and his chatty but practical tips, the cookbook makes for a very good read, too.

Photo by Emiko Davies

I was introduced to Artusi before I started my blog; he was, you could say, a reason I began writing about food. It was a tattered copy belonging to my husband's nonna Lina, and then passed on to his mother. The splattered cover was falling off, notes were stuck in randomly here and there, and the book opened instantly to the most well-used pages. The three shortcrust pastry recipes were the first to jump out at me, along with the notes in nonna Lina's writing pointing to pastry “recipe B."

But my relationship with Artusi really began when my blog was only a month old, in January 2011, when I began a series where I wrote about one of his recipes each month. I got to know Artusi very well in that first year, choosing recipes from his seasonal menus or letting fate pick a page for me. I kept the book by my bedside table and carried in my handbag; it went everywhere with me. Having lived in Florence since 2005, I loved that so many of his recipes were familiar to me—he himself moved to Florence from his native Emilia-Romagna in the early 1850s and lived there until his death in 1910.

The cookbook has a charming introduction entitled, “The story of a book that is a bit like the story of Cinderella.” And, indeed, the story behind his cookbook, a labor of love, is inspiring. The seventy-one-year-old Artusi, a businessman with an enormous passion for cooking, could not find anyone to publish his book. He decided to self-publish it, initially printing only 1000 copies. But before long, it was one of the books that every Italian household had a copy of, up there with Italian classics like I Promessi Sposi and Pinocchio.

Today, Artusi is considered one of the most important icons of Italian culture and he is a household name. His book is on the shelves of everyone's kitchen—it's the Joy of Cooking for Italians—but even more.

See, at the time of the book's publication, Italy had been unified as a nation for only a couple of decades—many Italians didn't even consider themselves Italians yet. Yet Artusi's book was the first to include recipes from all over the country—carefully named so as not to use descriptions rather than dialect (Tuscany's famous ribollita, for example, is simply called “a lean Tuscan peasant soup")—and this is why he's often called the great-grandfather of Italian cuisine. Some even credit Artusi's book for bringing the newly unified country together in one of the most important ways possible—through language. And in this case, it was the language of food.

One of the reasons for the undying popularity of Artusi's book is because it's such a good read. He opens his recipe for minestrone, which he says “recalls memories of a year of public anguish and my own singular case,” with possibly my favorite anecdote in the entire book: It's 1885. Artusi is staying in Livorno, a Tuscan port city not too far from Pisa, at a time when a deadly cholera outbreak was snaking its way through the peninsula. Poking his head into a trattoria, he asks, “What’s the soup?” “Minestrone” is the reply. “Ben venga il minestrone,” says Artusi: "Welcome the minestrone."

That night, sleeping in his hotel in Piazza del Voltone in a white palazzo kept by a certain Signor Domenici, he begins to feel what he amusingly describes as a “revolution” in his body, and spends the night going back and forth to the bathroom, cursing the maledetto minestrone. He cuts his trip short, escaping to Florence the next day only to discover the news that the epidemic had reached Livorno and that Domenici, his host, had been the city's first cholera victim. Not every cookbook recipe begins with a story like that!

I'm constantly fascinated at how these 125-year-old recipes are still perfectly useful in today's kitchen. A good, trustworthy classic doesn’t need any alterations, variations, or remakes—when a good thing works well, there’s integrity in passing it down as is and upholding traditions. As Italians say in true Italian fashion, "La squadra che vince non si cambia": Don’t change a winning team.

In many cases, I also find that the older recipes are simpler, more essential. I am all for simplifying anything in my life, and a recipe with a short list of ingredients—like torta margheria, a simple, three-ingredient sponge cake—is always appealing to me.

Some of Artusi's recipes have become constants in my repertoire. Like jam. Almost any jam I make is inspired by one of Artusi's. His rose petal jam is exquisite, and his tomato jam is unique and surprising, treating tomatoes like the fruit they truly are.

Photo by Lauren Bamford

But it's his apricot jam that I will continue to make for the rest of my life. He himself says that it's the best one of them all. I like it so much that there's nothing I would do to change it. Some like to add lemon juice to their apricot jam, some add vanilla. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall even throws in some butter. But if you have delicious, sweet, ripe apricots to begin with (Artusi points out in this recipe that jam should be made with good fruit and that it is erroneous to think you can get the same results with second-rate fruit), then these are unnecessary.

It’s the perfect jam to turn into a dessert, even a humble one like crostata di marmellata, that jam tart that you can find in bakeries and cafés all around Florence, a recipe that I reproduced in my cookbook Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence. Just glide it onto a quickly made pasta frolla, a sweet, short crust pastry—Artusi's “recipe B” and my go-to whenever I need a pie crust or basic cut out cookies—and you have the perfect Florentine treat.

12 Comments

Qdrake April 19, 2016
Now this is synchronicity. I have never heard of this cookbook or author, till I saw a brief blurb about him in another article about bread soup, where it was noted his book was also considered a unifying force for Italian language, as well as cuisine. I have a real love for old cookbooks, and I now MUST possess this! <br /><br />I took Italian in college (some 30+ years ago) but don't remember enough to read it in the original language, sadly. I've never forgotten one of the early classes I had with my Italian instructor, who was a somewhat "Mr. Chips"-ish kind of professor, mild mannered and a wonderful intructor. He was trying to teach us some names of different foods and in particular, vegetables. Without thinking, I asked him, what was the name, in Italian, of broccoli. He stared at me in utter stupefaction for a good couple of seconds, before announcing with a flourish, "Brrrrrrooccccoli!"! I've rarely been so embarrassed in my adult life! But he was a nice man and later in the semester, the class(quite small) met he and his (Italian born) wife at their home, for an "Italian pot luck" dinner, where only Italian was spoken. I provided one of my very early home-made loaves of hand kneaded Italian "country style" bread, which came out quite well. His wife commented she would probably make a panade with the left-over bread, and I was too shy to mention that (at that time) I had no idea what that was. I went home and began trying to find out, which led me down various delightful literary alleys, but somehow missed Signore Artusi. What a shame; I am so looking forward to getting his book now, but wish I had come across it long ago!<br /><br />Congratulations on your own cookbook being published! I will also be looking for that, as I have recently been on an "Italian cooking" kick. I don't really consider most "Italian" food in the US to be anything like the food actually prepared in Italy, unless the recipe comes from a family "nonna" born and raised there...<br />(Sorry for the novella length post, my fingers ran away with me...)
 
bittersweet April 13, 2016
I got your book this weekend and have been reading it cover to cover. It's fabulous. Congratulations!
 
Author Comment
Emiko April 13, 2016
Thank you so much!
 
Carol G. April 7, 2016
IS IT AT ALL POSSIBLE TO BUY A COPY OF THIS COOKBOOK??? I LOVED YOUR BLOG!!!!<br />CAROL (MARTUCCI) GILLESPIE
 
Author Comment
Emiko April 7, 2016
Thank you Carol! If you mean Artusi's book, there's is this one which has been translated into English (you can also search for it in Italian): http://amzn.to/1Na8jj3 If you mean my book, it's available right here on Food52 too! https://food52.com/shop/products/2881-florentine-the-true-cuisine-of-florence-signed-copy
 
pierino April 7, 2016
Random House published an English Translation, THE ART OF EATING WELL in 1996. I looked it up at Powell's where it's out of stock. You might check used bookstores or contact Random House directly to find out if it's still in print. It might be an e-book also. The translator, Kyle Phillips, was an acquaintance of mine. Big Fiorintina fan. Personally, I don't order books from Amazon because they are trying to destroy retail culture in America, but unfortunately somethings you can't find anywhere else.
 
Author Comment
Emiko April 7, 2016
Thanks Pierino, Although I always use the Italian one, I'd love to see that translated copy. I never met Kyle, but we had many mutual friends. I've seen the Penguin one (the small version, with a tiny extract of the whole volume) that I mention below but nothing is like reading Artusi in his original language!
 
Lindsay-Jean H. April 6, 2016
This is fascinating, thank you for sharing. I love the idea of a tome of a cookbook that assumes you are competent enough to figure out somewhat vague instructions.
 
pierino April 5, 2016
In some ways Artusi is the Italian equivalent of The Joy of Cooking. It's still given as a wedding present. But like most Italian cookbooks from the early part of the century it doesn't speak much to Italian cuisine today. And it doe's have a bias toward Florentine cooking, although he does cite regional variations. For example, the recipe for risotto with porcini has more to do with the way it would be cooked in Firenze as opposed to its birthplace in the Veneto where they wouldn't think of adding tomatoes.
 
Author Comment
Emiko April 6, 2016
I beg to differ (on that it doesn't speak to Italian cuisine today), though I am writing from Florence, where I live (and where Artusi lived for most of his life). I cook often from Artusi and the recipes (in particular the Tuscan recipes, but then again even things like his Sicilian biancomangiare is wonderful) are just as valid today as I think they ever were. The flavours and textures are just the same as what you would find in a Florentine trattoria today, which is one of the things that has always fascinated me about Florentine cuisine!
 
Colleen M. April 6, 2016
Can you still purchase this today? It's obviously not as amazing as an original, but...
 
Author Comment
Emiko April 7, 2016
You can! And you can buy it translated into English too. This is the full one: http://amzn.to/1Na8jj3 And Penguin books even did a small version (a tiny fraction of the 790 recipes in a slim paperback), which is nice for a small 'taste' of Artusi. It's called 'Exciting Food for Southern Types'.