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.
Mrs. David wrote Italian Food after a year she spent eating her way through every region of Italy, wheedling recipes from the chefs of great restaurants and simple trattorie, cooks in private houses, simple housewives, from any cook, in fact, whose kitchen she could safely invade. Almost every recipe she has chosen is, without a doubt, the best of its kind, yet although it may sound ungrateful, one wishes that Mrs. David had approached them less literarily and more practically. As revealing as are quotations from Norman Douglas on fish soups and Marinetti on pastas, we would be better served had Mrs. David been more explicit about the recipes themselves. Too frequently, measurements are vague, procedural sequences unorthodox, and final results often unpredictable, to say the least. It must be said in all fairness, however, that Mrs. David attempts to justify her methods and even quotes Marcel Boulestan to support her. “The dangerous person in the kitchen,” he says loftily, “is the one who goes rigidly by weights, measurements, thermometers and scales.”
Of course Mrs. David and M. Boulestan are right—to a point. Cooking, if it is to have any vitality at all, can scarcely be considered as set chemical formulations or mathematical equations. There are too many imponderables. But recipes in a cookbook (and most of us do use them to cook from) must work. It is not enough for Mrs. David to tell us flatly to cook home-made pasta for five minutes and dried pasta for fifteen minutes without going into some detail about other pastas like capelli d’angelo, for example, which should be cooked for three seconds, or rigatoni, which requires thirty minutes. And there is little justification, it seems, to describe at length a marinade for mutton, ordering the cook to marinate the meat for three days and then casually disposing of the cooking directions as follows:
Put the mutton in a roasting pan and start it off on good heat in a previously heated oven. Lower the heat after 15 or 20 minutes and finish the cooking in a moderate oven.
Superb cook that she is, Mrs. David surely knows the problems that would perplex the average cook: should the mutton be put on a rack to prevent it from burning? Should it be basted, and if so, with what? Should it be cooked covered or uncovered? And she gives no indication whatever of the approximate cooking time or how to tell when the mutton is done. Lacunae of this kind occur much too often for culinary comfort.
Mrs. David gracefully, if defensively, admits to these shortcomings in the earlier version of her book.
…vague terms did, I am afraid, creep into my recipes. Nowadays, I would probably be more precise, they would fill a volume twice the size of this one; in the transition, I think they would also lose something of their authenticity and spontaneity. So I have left them substantially as I first wrote them, appending here and there a footnote when it seemed necessary for the sake of clarity.
Given Mrs. David’s verbal felicity, one finds it difficult to understand why the addition of more precise measurements and even approximate cooking times would detract from the authenticity and spontaneity of her recipes. Nor does it seem likely that this information would necessarily double the size of her book. The appended footnotes in the new edition of her book, charming, witty, and informative as they are, do not compensate sufficiently for the omissions in her original recipes.
Cookbooks by great chefs—especially articulate ones—fall into another category altogether. They are for the most part ponderous, recondite, and encyclopaedic, and it is not surprising that classical French cooking with its emphasis on structure, method, and procedure is more often than not their subject matter. By its very nature, the cooking of Italy lends itself less easily, if at all, to so didactic an approach. Luigi Carnacina’s La Grande Cucina Internazionale, now issued as Great Italian Cooking by Abrams, underscores the point.
The Italian title of Signor Carnacina’s book is far more accurate than that given it by his sanguine American publishers. Great Italian Cooking is in its essence a panoramic view of classic French cooking as seen by an Italian. As such it is neither better nor worse than others of the genre. Carnacina was a student of Escoffier and evidently learned his lessons well, for page after page of his book explores virtually the same material covered so brilliantly by his master in Le Guide Culinaire. Why Carnacina found it necessary to restate it at such length is difficult to fathom. After all, calling sauce hollandaise “salsa olandese” doesn’t make it any more Italian or worth describing again. It would have been far better had Carnacina extended the purely Italian material in his book. His Italian sauces, meagerly and maddeningly interspersed between sauce espagnol, sauce velouté and the rest, are masterly, and his fine chapters on polenta, risotti, spiedini, pasta, and other simple country dishes are much more interesting than his elaborate dishes of La Grande Cuisine.
Carnacina is fortunate to have had Michael Sonino, hitherto an unknown name in the food world, as his translator and editor. It is obvious that Mr. Sonino has faithfully tested, tasted, and thoughtfully considered each of Carnacina’s recipes and has amended and adapted them to the American kitchen with impressive accuracy. In the face of this formidable achievement, it is impossible to believe that Mr. Sonino approved the appalling color photographs scattered so lavishly throughout the book. Except for a few pastries, the food in the pictures appears to have been cooked by the most inept of amateur cooks and photographed by a mercifully unnamed, but scarcely less inept photographer. There isn’t a dish which doesn’t look undercooked, overcooked, or burned; the garnitures are uniformly crude and the color reproduction poor. No illustrated cookbook in recent memory has managed to make food look so repellent.
Jack Denton Scott should be grateful to his publishers for not having saddled him with so large a liability. They have wisely chosen to adorn his first cookbook, The Complete Book of Pasta, with the serene photographs of Samuel Chamberlain and the sensitive line drawings of Melvin Klapholz. Mr. Scott, a journalist of some repute, is an amateur who doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, yet he has written a cookbook which professional cookbook writers might well envy. Clearly, Mr. Scott is obsessed with pasta. If for some tastes this may be making too much of a good thing, the information he so passionately presents is not easily found elsewhere. Neither Elizabeth David nor Luigi Carnacina copes with the subject in comparable depth. In fact, Mrs. David’s startling statement in Italian Cooking: “The Italians have brought the manufacture of pasta to such a fine art that it is often very difficult to tell the difference between a dish of home made and a dish of dried pasta,” if it has to be disproved at all, is utterly demolished when one follows Mr. Scott’s clear and concise directions for making them both. “Of course,” he says, “the prince of all pastas is that made at home. Once you’ve eaten it, I believe you’ll feel that the extra effort is very much worthwhile. It is simple, the taste is supremely different, lifting pasta to its highest plane.”
It is regrettable that Mr. Scott has chosen to write his book in so informal and chatty a style. His anecdotal material is neither interesting, important, nor well enough written to justify the numerous pages allotted to it. His book would have been far better without it. The remembered or, more likely, invented dialogue he persists in using to make his points seems more an embarrassing journalistic tic than an expository necessity. It constantly gets in the way of his consistently interesting culinary material. But once he has left the allusions to his Italian wife, his Italian mother-in-law, his Italian chef friends, his talkative CIT travel agency friend, and the numerous other characters in his cast and concentrates on the subject he evidently now knows as well as they do, he is on more solid terrain.
He explores pasta in all its varied, multitudinous, and magical shapes, listing them alphabetically from acini di pepi or tiny peppercorns, to zitoni, translated obscurely and provocatively as “husky bridegrooms.” And in chapter after chapter he tells you exactly how long to cook them, how to sauce and serve them, omitting not a single detail to make certain each dish turns out precisely as he conceived it. The shellfish, poultry, game, and vegetable sauces he describes with such gusto are especially attractive; they are simple and original as good Italian cooking always is. If along the way Mr. Denton makes insignificant culinary errors, inconsistently extols that most malevolent of culinary instruments, the garlic press, and then in his recipes quite properly minces or smashes the garlic instead; if, more royal than the king, he deliberately underseasons his sauces and misguidedly includes in his last chapter some dreadful original recipes of his friends, well, why not? From a larger view, Mr. Scott’s palate is truly Italianate, his recipes almost infallible, and his enthusiasm unquenchable. Even at fifteen dollars a throw (a princely sum, as he might say), The Complete Book of Pasta is worth it.
December 19, 1968