7 Italian Cookbooks for the Serious Cook

Everyone wants to be a great Italian cook. We love pasta. Pizza is a crowd-pleaser. Tiramisu picks us up every time. With all the pleasure and passion of big flavors, wonderful wine pairings, and endless variations on the simplest, freshest ingredients, what’s to keep any of us from achieving greatness all’italiana? The answer to that question is both a lot and a little.

A lot because the techniques and habits that create authentic dishes are not necessarily something the average American cook learns. There were too many tinned or frozen vegetables in our upbringings, not to mention prolonged flirtations with Hamburger Helper and tuna noodle casserole. Our hands, eyes, mouths, noses and tongues were not trained to recognize (and replicate) all the right steps to arrive at a truly great plate of pasta.

A little because sometimes it’s the subtle differences that make a universe of difference. When do you leave the skin of the garlic clove on for just a flirtation with garlic flavor, and when do you take it off and smash, slice or crush it for ever-increasing doses? When do you let something caramelize in the skillet and when do you gently sautée it into tenderness. It turns out that la vera cucina italiana needs some knowledge beyond opening a jar and boiling some Barilla!

Grazie, Signora Elsa

As someone who lived in Rome for a few years and was lucky enough to travel two or three times a year to Italy for work for over 20 years, I wanted to share with TABLE readers a few cookbooks from which I have learned a great deal. They’ve inspired and advanced my pursuit of the flavors that seduced me a long time ago, and have intrigued me ever since.

Confession: I did not learn my first Italian recipes from a book. It was rather Signora Elsa, an elderly neighbor in a rural village where I spent a lot of time, who taught me to make penne with a mushroom sauce, and a handful of other dishes. She could not imagine that a young American in his 20s could possibly know enough to feed himself well. So, she took it upon herself to invite me into her home for a day of lessons. Aside from heating her espresso in an old fashioned torretto di caffe placed on the live embers of her wood oven, a feat I have never succeeded in replicating, what she taught me is still part of my repertoire.

The books I am recommending here have extended the basics taught by Signora Elsa, and have helped me not just make food, but also to understand the culture, the standards, and the DO NOTs of the Italian kitchen. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: A Cookbook

Marcella Hazan, the unpretentious grandmother who presented and explained classic Italian recipes, is pretty much the Julia Child of Italian cooking for us Americans. She patiently explains good techniques and guides us towards delicious, tried and true dishes. This edition joins two of Marcella Hazan’s books into one volume, giving you a serious menu of options, from simple to complex. No matter the level of difficulty, Hazan’s text gives good perspective on how to stay on course to achieve authentic flavor. Many people consider her recipe for Bolognese sauce to be the gold standard, but every recipe she offers is worth trying.

Lidia's Italian Cooking by Lidia Bastianich

Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook: A Cookbook

I will confess that I am always skeptical of celebrity chefs. The person who looks best on TV is not necessarily the person who should be telling you how to cook. But Lidia Bastianich is not just a pretty face. It was her knowledge of great food and how to make it that propelled her to prominence, first through her NYC restaurant, Felidia, and later in books and shows. She’s a straight-talker who gives clear commands. Follow them and you are likely to put some great food on your table.

Italian Food (Penguin Classics)

Not too many people talk about Elizabeth David these days. That’s a shame, because all of her work is sensitive, observant, well-written… and delicious. This book travels through Tuscany, Sicily, Lombardy, and Umbria to discover classic foods and it explains how to make them. She’s a lovely writer, and you will be not be just a better cook but a better traveler after reading her work. (A little note: her book Summer Cooking is also a must-have.)

Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library)

Are you interested in being a sacentino (aka know-it-all) on the subject of Italian food? This book, first printed in 1891, is for you. It is generally recognized as the most important Italian cookbook of modern times and has been reprinted many, many times. Some of its 790 recipes are, honestly, hard to follow for an American. But when one hits home, you can be sure you are following in the footsteps of revered author Pellegrino Artusi and generations of well trained Italian chefs. And you can be proud of what you make. Plus, you will emerge with something hard to describe. The innate understanding of techniques and ingredients that make it possible to excel as an Italian cook will become clearer and clearer to you.

Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli

Cooking by Hand: A Cookbook

This much more contemporary Italian cookbook by Paul Bertolli, an accomplished chef working miracles in California, will also instill an appreciation for the culture of great Italian cooking. The essays that appear throughout the book are tender and insightful. They lead you into an appreciation of time, ripeness, history, no-waste kitchen practices, and much more. Your cooking will become more layered and nuanced. And you’ll enjoy the journey.

La Cucina, the Regional Cooking of Italy

La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy

2,000 recipes were gathered about five decades ago by 7,000 Italian researchers interested in the preservation of Italian food. The Italian Academy of Cuisine searched every region long before Stanley Tucci’s delightful tv program to find essential, classic recipes from every region of Italy. The country’s resistance to fast food can be traced in part to this massive effort to identify and describe (and value) what might have otherwise been labeled as dowdy and old fashioned. Italy’s identity as a globally respected source of food wisdom is arguably a by-product of this project.

The main results, though, can unfold in your kitchen when you make some of this book’s authentic regional recipes. It comes down to using the right ingredients in the right way. Insight into regional variations of a recipe is often given, as is a sense of historical context. Don’t let me make this sound too high falutin’: the vast majority of the recipes here are eminently makeable — and even downright easy.

The Italian Regional Cookbook by Valentina Harris

The Italian Regional Cookbook: A Great Cook’s Culinary Tour of Italy in 325 Recipes and 1500 Color Photographs

Italy wasn’t even ITALY until the unification of the peninsula into a single country in 1861. There is a strong argument that there is no Italian cooking, there is “only” the cooking of Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, Sardinia, Campania, Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and the other regions. Indeed, each region has its own pockets of delicious tradition. A exploration into regional Italian cooking is a real adventure into often under-appreciated places and histories. This book offers 325 recipes and 1500 color photographs, making that adventure both delicious and beautiful. It makes a great gift for a devotee of Italian fare.

Story by Keith Recker / Photo by Alice Pasqual 



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