The 790 recipes accumulated in successive editions of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well
(never out of print since its first edition in 1891) can't be said to herald the birth of Italian cuisine. That
consists of the cookery of many regions, and Pellegrino Artusi's masterpiece takes too little account of most of them (Sicily and Calabria, to name a pair) and too much of others (his favoured areas, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany). Nonetheless, Artusi's cookbook appeared shortly after the political unification of the country, and its unremitting culinary patriotism in the face of French domination is one of its most endearing qualities.
To explain the title: Artusi's science can be fusty or precious; he frequently lets us know how a dish comforts or afflicts the stomach. But his art, within its gently chauvinistic limits, can't be reproached. The recipes, gathered and codified at the beginning of the modern culinary era, are usually extremely precise, including weights, exact instructions about how to cut things up, tie them together, when and how to combine them, and why. Beyond the utility of his text, Artusi's spirit informs it, on every page. He's funny, garrulous (but never a bore), encouraging, adventurous. He treats his readers as if he were (I quote the foreword to this edition) "a favourite uncle, who happens to be a knowledgeable cook".
It is not necessary to be a bold cook to learn Italian cuisine from Artusi, just a willing one. Though he does not always tell exactly how to mix flour, egg, and water to make pasta dough, he's properly meticulous in calibrating all baked dishes (no mean feat for a time when kitchen ovens were still a novelty). A good Northerner, he relies on butter much more than oil and, perhaps because he didn't come across the variety of products we're familiar with today even in Canada, uses Parmesan and prosciutto at almost every opportunity and in instances we would not readily credit.
Artusi (that's how his book is known in Italy, it's so beloved) is a mix of the odd, the disregarded, and the durable. In these pages are recipes that will survive as long as there's an Italy: many delicate variations on the theme of gnocchi (including an intriguing version with finely ground chicken); plenty of forthright, peasanty dishes; and, best of all for my palate, the various sweets that take up almost one third of the book. Here is God's plenty of desserts, lovingly listed and in gorgeous variety, enough for several lifetimes. Our author is said to have died prematurely from a surfeit of food (likely including plenty of dolci) at the age of 94. Buon appetito! --Ted Whittaker, Amazon.ca