on 29 February 2004
This is a fun book if you are already familiar with some of the many cuisines that go together under the name of Italian cooking, as well as with Italian geography and history. For the uninitiated, it is definitely not a beginner's guide to the subject. But if you can tell your salsa verde from your salama da sugo, your casomazzo from your marzolino, your Salento from your Sangiovese, it does detail an interesting background to one of the world's great cuisines. Beside providing answers to historical riddles that have always puzzled me (what DID Italians put on their pasta before tomatoes were imported from the Americas?), it lays to rest a number of annoying myths that have sprung up around Italy's cooking traditions. First among these is that Catherine de' Medici "created" French cooking when she married Henri, son of Francis I of France, in 1533. Not so. French cooking was already well developed and its philosophy differed fundamentally from Italian cooking (there were of course reciprocal influences, but that is a different matter altogether). A second relates to pizza, which many Americans appear to believe was first made in the US. For those who care to know, the first known reference to pizza dates from 1570 in the work of one of Italy's great Renaissance cooks, Bartolomeo Scappi. Even the American juggernaut cannot beat that. A third is that Marco Polo brought noodles from China back to Italy. Again, nonsense.
The book is careful to stress the regional variety of Italian cuisine, and refreshingly extends the Italian label to cooking traditions established by expatriates outside of Italy proper (the picture of the Italian chef in Los Angeles in 1911 is simply too wonderful).
The drawback of the book is that it is not well organised, so that too many ideas are thrown in together and the reader is often lost. Jargon and convoluted sentences make reading it a bit tough at times, though my hat is tipped to the translator who did a wonderful job of sorting out an even worse original text in academic Italian. Last, on a very personal note, I would have liked a few directions for modern cooks to reproduce some of the old recipes.
In sum, a serious book, not for the occasional cook who wants to learn about pasta cacio e pepe (so, THAT's what they used before tomatoes!)