Please Pass the Parmesan

Italian Food

by Elizabeth David
Penguin Handbooks, 364 pp., 5s

Great Italian Cooking

by Luigi Carnacina, translated and edited by Michael Sanino
Abrams, 825 pp., $25.00

The Complete Book of Pasta

by Jack Denton Scott, photographs by Samuel Chamberlain, drawings by Melvin Klapholz
Morrow, 410 pp., $15.00

Of the enormous number of cook-books published each year, few are seriously engaged with the cooking of Italy. To be sure, so-called Italian cookbooks compiled by aggressive restaurateurs, weary professional cook-book writers, or gourmandising tourists appear more frequently than one would wish. To view them as anything but the shoddy publishing ventures they so often are is to affront a noble, misunderstood cuisine which has, as it were, given the Latin countries of Europe—and notably, France—their present culinary profiles.

Much has been made by culinary historians of Catherine de Medici’s marriage in 1533 to the Dauphin of France. And, indeed, her Florentine cooks, then the most sophisticated in Europe, left a profound and lasting impression on a France culinarily still in the Middle Ages. Yet it has not been sufficiently stressed that Italian cooking has remained largely unchanged since the Renaissance. The dishes most Americans regard as Italian have about as much relation to the true cooking of Italy as chop suey and chow mein have to the cooking of China.

Elizabeth David, the great English food writer, is under no such illusion. In her by now classic Italian Cooking, first published in 1954, and recently reissued in a revised edition, she makes clear from the outset that the cooking of Italy has been for centuries localized and traditional, and that, even today, Italian cooking as such means little to most Italians. They think of their cuisine in essentially regional terms. For them there is Florentine cooking, Venetian cooking; there are the dishes of Genoa, Piedmont, Romagna; of Rome, Naples, and the Abruzzi; of Sardinia and Sicily; of Lombardy, Umbria, and the Adriatic coast. What glorious creations they are, and how lucidly, elegantly, and poetically Mrs. David writes of them! There is probably no other culinary writer today who can so vividly evoke the sight, smells, and tastes of a particular ingredient or dish, whatever its origin. Even the colors of food fascinate her.

The vivid scarlet dishes of the south, the tomato sauce and the pimentos, the oranges and pinks of fish soups, the red and white Neopolitan pizza, contrast strikingly with the unique green food of central and Northern Italy; the spinach gnocchi of Tuscany, the lasagna verdi of Bologna, the green pesto of Genoa, the green peas and rice of the Veneto, the green artichokes in pies, in omelets and salads; the green and yellow marbled stuffings of rolled beef and veal dishes….

And how persuasively she leads us on to unfamiliar foods:

Enormous quantities of squid and cuttlefish are eaten in Italy…. The very small variety with eight tentacles called pelipetto or moscardini, or fragolini di mare, found both in the Genoese and Adriatic coasts, are exquisitely tender and have a delicious flavor. There is a way of cooking them in Genoa, in wine and oil, with their tentacles turned back so that they look like open flowers of a deep pink color, which would surely tempt even the most nervous or prejudiced …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.