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There are many thousands of cookbooks on the cuisine of Italy, from single subject pizza and pasta books to deep dives into narrow regional foodways to massive tomes that try and cover it all; how’s a person to choose one from another? As in all moments of indecision or uncertainty, it’s always a good idea to turn to an expert—in this case, the men and women across the United States who have dedicated their lives to spreading the good word about cookbooks.
From their packed shelves these cookbook store owners have chosen the Italian cookbooks they think are the most important: the titles with the greatest impact on the cookbooks that came in their wake, the recipes that have changed the way we think about and cook Italian food, and the prose that transports us from New York and Seattle, Maine and Las Vegas to Sicily and Emilia-Romagna, Calabria and Venice.
Antonia Isola (born May 16, 1876 in New York), is the pseudonym of Mabel Earl McGinnis. She wrote Simple Italian Cookery, published by Harper and Brothers, February, 1912. It was the first Italian cookbook to be published in the U.S. She had lived in Rome for some years, and was well-versed in Italian cooking but the publishers chose the pseudonym to impart "authenticity" to the work. As if ravioli with brains weren't authentic enough.
Italian Regional Cooking by Ada Boni is a large-format book that was published in 1987, fourteen years after Boni's death. Her previously published cookbook, Il Talismano, had been one of the bestselling cookbooks in Italy during the 20th century. Italian Regional Cooking was one of the first to focus on the food specific to each region of Italy, rather than the usual pan-Italian cookbooks that lumped the whole country's food into one volume. There are 600 recipes within!
If somebody comes in and says, “I really want to go deep into Italian cuisine” and they haven’t conceived of a regional focus they want, it would be the Marcella Hazan Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It’s comprehensive, it’s thorough, she’s brilliant. It’s got the scope, it’s got the depth, and if you want to learn recipes for a lot of well known dishes in Italian cuisine—and see some things that are not so well known here in the United States, because that book still has the power to surprise—then it’s a great choice. But it’s an intensive book and you don’t always want to go that deep to get started. Sometimes it can be a little intimidating in the same way that Mastering the Art of French Cooking is, despite the fact that it is a masterful, magical book.
Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman’s Cucina Fresca is an “I want to come home from work and do some quick Italian cooking” book. I own it and refer to it all the time. It couldn’t stand alone as the only Italian cookbook that someone owns but it’s an incredibly inspiring Italian cookbook.
I do a lot of imported books and my personal taste tends to gravitate more towards British-based authors even if they are not English themselves. I’m a big Anna del Conte fan. Of her books that are readily available in the U.S., I love her pasta book, Anna del Conte on Pasta, and also The Gastronomy of Italy. Anna has a personal, sensual way of writing about food that I think is very appealing. I’m someone who likes to read cookbooks, and you can read The Gastronomy of Italy almost like a novel. The way she describes things and her style are really lovely. When you’re going to have a big substantial book in your collection, having something like that that you can get so much pleasure from is a really cool thing.
A popular one that you might not expect: Italian Family Cooking by Edward Giobbi. He’s one of those people you never hear anything bad about (there are few of them in the food business) and people just love this book.
Cucina Rustica by Evan Kleiman and Viana La Place is a perennial, and it’s a book that people buy multiple copies of to give their kids.
Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli is probably my favorite book of the last 30 years. It’s not structured by season or by dish; every chapter is an artistic vision. There’s such a gentle, poetic quality to the writing. There’s a letter in here to his son about the tradition of balsamic vinegar. It’s not about the flavors of balsamic or the recipes you can use it in. Instead, he talks about food as memory, as history, as lineage. And also he’s a really talented chef so every recipe in here is incredibly accurate.
Patience Gray is amazing, and I think Honey from a Weed is the most magical book that’s ever been written. She was a very witty British woman who was married to a sculptor. He was chasing marble and so she went with him to all these incredibly small Italian and Greek islands and started writing about all the tiny places and their small traditions, and brought them to life and made them live forever in this book. She clearly loves to cook but she also clearly loves art and history and aesthetics. She cares about nourishment and she sees everything as nourishment, whether it’s food or theater or music, whatever is nourishing the soul is good for the soul. And she can really write. It feels often like a travelogue or a piece of fiction or a poem. She writes about whatever she wants, there’s no clear narrative structure but it all flows together. There’s wonder in a way that’s not precious or irritating. And I just love the recipes that are in here; they’re really simple—it’s the food of the land, and it’s completely timeless.
The Silver Spoon is a book that I like and think is really important. It came out in 1950 in Italy, published in Milan. What’s interesting about it is that is has no pretensions of being regional; things aren’t divided up into something from Venice and something from Sicily, it’s just recipes divided by categories: Sauces, Pastas, Veal dishes. etc. In a way it’s very easy to use because it’s not trying to keep track of the historical, regional, geographic, social, and cultural aspects of the recipes. I’m generally drawn to books that have a strong element of specificity and, to use a loaded word these days, authenticity to them, as opposed to the generalized books. This is a book that I can very quickly flip through and figure out what I’m going to make for dinner now, without planning, without thinking. Without all that context, in a way, it’s easier to employ in the household on a daily basis.
The book that for me is the most explicit description of Italian cooking technique at a high level is Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy. It’s a big monster of a book. He’s a chef, he’s northern Italian-born, and all his restaurants have been in London. His book tries to do a few things: it has a nod toward the farm-to-table aspect of appreciating your sources, which of course is de rigueur these days, but it has these really lengthy sections that I haven't found explained almost anywhere else. There’s 19 pages on risotto before you get to the first risotto recipe, and that was a huge eye opener. I’m one of those cooks where if I understand why something is supposed to happen then I’m going to remember it and it’ll improve my cooking. If I’m just told “Do this, this, this,” it doesn’t stick with me. And so it’s a chef book, it’s a high technique book, but it’s a book from which I’ve learned a great deal about how these various foodstuffs that need care work better when they're done very specifically.
Any of Marcella Hazan’s books! Her recipes are so easy to follow and they are so authentic. My husband was Italian and he said, “This is better than my mom could make!” Any time I went for Italian I’d pull out one of her books. It didn't matter which one it was because it was always really, really good. And I like Lidia Bastianich’s books. Those are the two authors that I really like; those are about the only two that I really recommend. We’ve all bought cookbooks and there’s one recipe that we really like and then we never try any of the rest of them. What’s great about Marcella’s and Lidia’s books is that there’s not just one recipe in each book that you like—you like all of them! And that’s what I always try to share with my customers.
What’s your favorite Italian cookbook? Let us know in the comments!