I was fairly skeptical when my mom gave me a copy of Capalbo's THE ULTIMATE ITALIAN COOKBOOK. For starters, I'm suspicious of anything that bills itself as "the ultimate" of anything, and besides, there are so many types of cocina italiana that it would be hard to imagine that one book could do them all justice.
However, I found that Ms. Capalbo serves up a really useful book with this offering. THE ULTIMATE ITALIAN COOKBOOK is a nice survey of the various regional styles of italian cooking, and I've found it has continued to be helpful to me even though I've progressed from a novice to more of a journeyman in the kitchen. When I first received the book, it inspired me to try new things (making frittatas, making small, traditional pizzas from scratch with toppings I'd never heard of, like carmelized onions with olives). Over the years several of Capalbo's recipes have become old friends, and now serve as starting points for my own interpretations. This book is as helpful to me now (though in a different way) as it was when Mom gave it to me seven years ago.
THE ULTIMATE ITALIAN COOKBOOK is well-organized. The author presents sections on ingredients, appetizers, salads, soups, pastas, pizzas, main courses, desserts and specialties. Amanda Heywood's delicious photographs perfectly complement Capalbo's simple step-by-step instructions, which I've found really helps in a couple of ways. First, flipping through the book helps provide inspiration when I just can't think of what to cook. (I have to stress how wonderfully Heywood's masterful photography conveys *exactly* how the food will end up looking - I swear you can almost smell it while looking at the pictures. I realize now that Ms. Heywood's delightful photos are the standard by which I judge all cookbook photography nowadays.) Second, the incremental photographs of the various cooking steps really take away a novice's fear of failure. Between Capalbo's simple instructions and Heywood's excellent photographs, the recipes wind up being relatively idiot-proof. (Capalbo assumes you know some basics about cooking with the ingredients - like what type of oil to use and how hot to make the oil when cooking the garlic, but even if you don't know these basics you'll soon figure them out.)
So THE ULTIMATE ITALIAN COOKBOOK is not *really* the ultimate italian cookbook (not sure if there is such a thing - it would have to be a whole lot bigger than this), but it's a darn good resource. It's a great jumping-off point, and it remains handy and inspiring as one's skills improve. This is THE cookbook I give to friends who know nothing about italian cooking and want to learn . . . and more experienced visitors always spend a lot of time turning the pages of my copy. It's hard to go wrong with this one.