The Best Italian Cookbooks
Italy's cuisine is as varied as its regions. Before purchasing an Italian cookbook, decide whether you are looking for a basic primer on Italian cuisine, or whether you would prefer to focus on some of its regional fare. Take your skill level into account, as well as your past experience cooking Italian cuisine.
Since it can be difficult to get some of the authentic ingredients called for in traditional Italian cooking recipes, many of the Italian cookbooks available today have been adapted for the American kitchen. So if you are looking for truly authentic recipes calling for traditional Italian ingredients, make sure you select a cookbook that has not been totally adapted to the American kitchen.
"Il Talismano" was first published in 1950 and is sometimes called 'Italy's Best-Selling Cookbook'. It is a staple in most Italian kitchens, and sits next to The Joy of Cooking in thousands of American kitchens. The recipes included in this cookbook are authentic recipes that are eaten every day in homes throughout Italy, so be prepared to be faced with ingredients slightly foreign to us, such as brains. Be that as it may, this is the cookbook you want to have in your kitchen when Nonna is coming over for dinner.
PROS: The cookbook covers both Northern and Southern Italian cuisines and covers most of the basics from Antipasto through to Desserts and Beverages. In fact, the book details over 500 recipes.
CONS: Although most of the recipes in the cookbook are quick, some may be difficult for the novice cook. And because it has not been updated, you could be missing out on some wonderfully authentic Italian ingredients that are available to us today.
The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
Consider this cookbook an updated version of The Talisman. The author, Marcella Hazan, took her two previous classics -- The Classic Italian Cookbook and More Classic Italian Cooking -- and combined the best of both to create this fabulous Italian cookbook. Be aware that these recipes are not necessarily authentic. Marcella has taken great pains to update the recipes so that they contain lower fat content, etc.
PROS: It expands on the recipes by giving advice that some authors take for granted, such as salting the pasta water. Any Italian grandmother will tell you that the water the pasta is boiled in should taste "like the sea" or the pasta tastes bland. Marcella has done a very good job of including that 'straight from the kitchen' advice. The book also details quite a bit on the fundamentals about Italian herbs, spices and cheeses in addition to the recipes.
CONS: Some basic recipes, like Pasta Puttanesca, are not included. And quite a few of the recipes are extremely involved.
The Silver Spoon
Part cookbook and part reference manual, The Silver Spoon weighs in at over 1,200 pages and more than 2,000 recipes. Originally published over 50 years ago, The Silver Spoon lays out its information in sections such as equipment, vegetables, pasta, seafood, etc., and also includes a section that has detailed menus of some of Italy's top chefs.
PROS: Each section of the cookbook is color-coded to make cross-referencing of ingredients and methods simple. While its sheer size makes it an obvious choice for the serious cook, even newbies will benefit from some of the methods and terminology that are included.
CONS: This cookbook has been adapted to suit international kitchens, and some of the translation was lacking. You may encounter recipes calling for ingredients that are not available in the United States with no substitutions being suggested, or cake recipes that do not stipulate pan size or yield.
The New Regional Italian Cuisine Cookbook
This cookbook will take you on a spectacular tour through Italy's eight regions from northern Piedmont to southern Sicily. Each of the chapters begins with a two-page landscape photo of the region and is followed by an introduction to the region's people, culture and traditions before delving into the recipes.
PROS: When new methods or techniques are introduced, they walk you through it step-by-step, sometimes even including illustrations. Regional Italian wines are also suggested to pair with each of the dishes.
CONS: Each of the three authors of this book are German rather than Italian, although they have done a wonderful job of bringing an authentic Italian feel to the book. The New Regional Italian Cuisine Cookbook is designed to give you a feel for each region rather than an in-depth view, as each regional section only contains approximately two dozen recipes.
Lidia's Italy: 140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most
The author, Lidia Bastianich, takes you on a gastronomic tour of her favorite areas in Italy: Istria, Trieste, Friuli, Padova and Treviso, Piedmont, Maremma, Rome, Naples, Sicily and Puglia. Her daughter, Tanya, has added quite a bit of information on each locale making this seem almost part-travel guide.
PROS: Lidia's writing style makes her recipes extremely to understand and follow, even for a novice cook. Most ingredients used are basic pantry items or easy to find ingredients. However, for those ingredients and equipment that are a bit harder to find, the book contains an extensive index of websites and stores where they can be purchased.
CONS: While Lidia's Italy contains a lot of travel photographs, it could certainly use more photos of the completed recipes. Recipes are all categorized by Region rather than by meal type (eg antipasti, salads, desserts, etc.).
On Top of Spaghetti
If you love pasta, this is a must-have for your kitchen. Written by the owners of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant, Al Forno, this cookbook explores some traditional and some new pasta dishes (George's Spaghetti with Raw Cucumber and Basil) while still covering much of Italy's culinary time-honored traditions.
PROS: There are a lot of helpful tidbits included in the cookbook, such as how to heat the serving bowls or never to drop the pasta into the boiling water until your guests are seated. And each recipe includes suggestions for rounding out the meal as well as using up the leftovers. The first chapter, the "Pasta Pantry", will surprise you with its depth and breadth of information including how to make your own ricotta cheese.
CONS: If you're only looking to purchase one Italian cookbook, this probably isn't the one. They purposely have ommitted the most classic pasta recipes, such as puttanesca, Bolognese, carbonara, etc., that many other Italian cookbooks do cover.
This is Giada DeLaurentis' third entry into the cookbook market, and it does not disappoint. Everyday Pasta takes classic pasta dishes and combines them with new flavors. In true Giada style, many of her recipes call for basic pantry and refrigerator items and little more. The cookbook combines spectacular photography with easy-to-follow recipes and instructions to create a fabulous addition to anyone's cookbook collection.
PROS: The book includes a wealth of information such as Giada's "Top 10 Pasta-Cooking Tips" and "Matching Pasta Shapes to Sauces". And while most of the recipes are one-dish meals, she does include some antipasti and salads to round everything out. The book includes a section on "Hearty Pastas" as well as "On the Lighter Side" for those watching their waistlines. And most of the recipes are designed to be prepared in 30 minutes or less.
CONS: If you are very experienced with Italian cooking, you may find the recipes in this cookbook to be a little too simple and basic.
In Italian Grill, Mario Batali brings Italian cuisine to your backyard grill.You might call this 'Batali fusion' as the recipes are all shaped and perfected through his culinary tastes and skill and consist of fresh, simple ingredients put together in the Italian way.
PROS: All of the recipes are simply put together and easy for a novice cook to follow, and the book is filled throughout with helpful hints and tricks.
CONS: For many of the grill and rotisserie recipes, times and temperatures do not adapt well for the average backyard grill. These recipes should be tested first. To get the piastra recipes to cook properly, you will need to invest in a piastra (Italian grill).
Rao's Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking
Rao's is a small ten-table restaurant in New York City that is steeped in history and cloaked in mystery. The tables are shared condominium-style, and all seatings have been spoken for some time making it impossible for a local or passerby to gain access to its famed dining room. The rich and famous are staples at Rao's with names like Woody Allen, Rob Reiner and Brenda Vaccaro showing up regularly.
Frank Pellegrino has brought Rao's cooking to the masses with this cookbook. The dishes are simple, authentic and delicious, and cover appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, meat, fish, poultry and desserts. Recipes include veal saltimbocca, tiramisu, shrimp scampi and chicken scarpiello.Great care has been taken with the recipes in Rao's, and they are all consistent, easy to make and equisite.
First published in 1998, Pellegrino followed up in 2004 with "Rao's Recipes From the Neighborhood: Frank Pellegrino Cooks Italian with Family and Friends," covering Italian favorites from Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood.
PROS: This cookbook is perfect for both novice and advanced home cooks. Rao's doesn't assume the reader has previous cooking knowledge, and goes into detail about issues like dried vs. fresh pasta, why you should use San Marzano tomatoes and how to make a basic sauce, known as "Sunday gravy".
CONS: The recipes included are delicious, but sticks to traditional Italian and Italian-American fare. If you are looking for new and creative twists on Italian, this is not the cookbook for you.
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