Italian Cookbooking

A What's Cooking reader who recently returned from a vacation in Italy is champing at the bit for "an authentic, not-too-difficult Italian cookbook" to recreate some of those magical moments at the table.

Ah, Italia.

Seven years have passed since I walked on Italian soil, but that place, it does something to you. Bewitching, magical and even a bit maddening, Italy gets under your skin and never lets you go. Some of us come back to our routines but we're never quite the same - we're constantly day dreaming. And others (who've got the right idea), such as food writers Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Faith Willinger and memoirist Marlena de Blasi return stateside merely to pack up their affairs and start a new life on the other side of the ocean.

Some of you may know that I cut my teeth on Italian cucina, when I took a master course at a cooking school in Costigliole d'Asti, a small village in the Piedmont region, near the well known towns of Alba (truffle territory) and Asti (sparkling wine). The experience of doing nothing but eat, drink and study all things Italian remains deep within me, and it's shaped the way I cook. Because baby, you wanna talk seasonal and local? This is where it's at.

I feel myself falling into a sweet Italian coma, so let's talk i libri pronto.

The good news is that there are many choices; the hard part is wading through the countless titles that cover both specific regions and the country as a whole.

Below, a sampler of possibilities, some of which I own and others which I would like to have in my collection. Hardly a comprehensive list, so I invite you to share your Italian cookbook favorites in the comments area below.

Italy by Region

"A Passion for Piedmont" by Matthew Kramer, who shares the same love for the region where I studied, with lots of stories about local cooks and village characters. Kramer has since published a book on Italian wines; you can find his wine columns in Wine Spectator and The Oregonian.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins who has lived in Italy for 15 years (she sends e-mail greetings from Sicily) is the one who introduced me to the rustic quality of Tuscan cooking in her "Flavors of Tuscany" well before I ever went to Italy. Her latest title, "Cucina del Sole," focuses on Sicily and Italy's southern environs, which I can't wait to dive into.

Mario Batali's "Simple Italian Food" focuses on recipes he learned while cooking in a trattoria in Borgo Capanne, a northern Italian village sort of close to Bologna.

I can't vouch for it personally, but I've heard good things about Mary Ann Esposito's "Ciao Italia in Umbria." Esposito has 10 books to her name, and the focus of her PBS show earlier this year is Rome. She's also got DVDs on certain regions.

Rome, Veneto, Umbria
All three of these areas have been touched on by cookbook writer Julia Della Croce, who's been writing about Italian cucina for the past 20 years. Her book on Umbria, which has somehow disappeared from my shelves, is worth a looksee.

Italian cooking diva Lidia Bastianich, who has the PBS series, seven books and four restaurants, has a new title, "Lidia's Italy," a collection of recipes from around the country but with a particular focus on Istria, the multicultural, overlapping geographical region that encompasses Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, where Bastianich grew up.

All Around Italia
American ex-pat Faith Willinger is the queen of eating through Italy; her new "Adventures of An Italian Food Lover" is even more comprehensive than her "Eating in Italy" which proved to be indispensable during my sojourns seven years ago. The new title includes recipes, but I would consider this less of a cookbook and more of a whet your whistle for your trip kind of book.

Michele Scicolone's "Italian Holiday Cooking" encompasses traditional dishes from various regions, and although I don't have a copy, I'd like to get my hands on her "A Fresh Taste of Italy,' which was published in the mid-1990s. She and her husband Charles, a wine writer, came out with "Pizza" earlier this year, which I suspect is worth a peek.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Marcella Hazan and her "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking," which is more like a reference book, with tons of background, history and great anecdotes. Indeed, this is a classic. Hazan is the author of many more titles, but I really like this one; I remember boning up on my risotto technique with her book after forgetting a few things I had learned in Italy. Don't forget the work by her son, Guilio, whose writing is lively and soulful.

The cookbook to get during the 2005 holiday shopping season was "The Silver Spoon," (Il Cucchiaio d'Argento), the Italian cooking bible translated into English for the first time. A tome of 1, 200 pages, "Silver" remains a hot number on the bookshelves, covering every little nook and cranny of Italian cucina, similar in detailed fashion as "Joy of Cooking."

By Kim ODonnel |  September 20, 2007; 10:55 AM ET Cook's Library
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Hi Kim,

Thanks for the suggestions! Would it be possible for you to tell us what each of those regions are known for in their cooking?

Posted by: love italy | September 20, 2007 1:05 PM

I really have enjoyed "How to Cook Italian" by Guiliano Hazan. It is easy to follow and the cooking is simple and delicious.

Posted by: lca | September 20, 2007 5:47 PM

I have Faith Willinger's "Red, White, and Green: The Italian Way with Vegetables" which is a great resource for when I pick up a bounty of veggies at the farmers market. Many of the recipes are Tuscan because that's where her husband is from. It's also a good read on food history. When I got Mario Batali's "Molto Italiano" for Christmas a couple of years ago, I literally read the thing almost cover to cover. I'd just started going to the Dupont Farmers Market and couldn't wait to get my hands on some of the ingredients he wrote about. Watching his show on Food Network I learned so much not just about Itailian cooking, but cooking techniques in general, that much of my cooking is not about the recipe but the ingredients and the technique. Mille Grazie!

Posted by: Sean | September 24, 2007 4:34 AM

I received The Silver Spoon for Christmas last year. I love it. My in-laws lived in Italy for 2 years and each time they say I wish I had a recipe for ... I find it in The Silver Spoon. I need to set some time aside to work through more of the recipes.

Posted by: late to the party | September 24, 2007 12:54 PM

Does anybody have good recommendations for a vegetarian Italian cookbook? I own a copy of the one by Jack Bishop. Are there any others I should check out?

Posted by: Little Red | September 24, 2007 1:03 PM

Check out the charming and very useful "Cooking Up an Italian Life," by longtime food writer Sharon Sanders. (full disclosure: she is a friend and I worked on the book.) Its recipes are the essence of simple, straightforward Italian seasonal cooking, with suggestons and brief, lucid discussions of accompanying wines. And her essays about adventures in Italy are delightful!

Posted by: Susan Figliulo | September 27, 2007 12:34 PM

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