When Francis I married Catherine de Medici in the sixteenth century, she moved to Paris and brought with her a coterie of chefs. Much of the best of great French Continental cooking descends from knowledge imported at this time; for Italy had been the European center of culture and arts for three hundred years. Italy had been absorbing the best culinary practices of the Mediterranean, the mid-east, eastern Europe, western Europe, and even China via Marco Polo. The distant afterglow of all that was Rome a millenium earlier still was part of the Italian cooking mystique. Point is, Italians have been melding cooking ingredients and methods from around the Mediterranean and around the world for over two millenia. They take cooking seriously. And they get a lot of things right.
The tradition of Italian cooking is to cook fresh, seasonal, local foods simply. Get good ingredients. Combine them in a way that creates a unique but compelling flavor, and present them simply. For all but the fanciest occasions, this flavorful, nutritional, simple fare is as good as food gets.
Few cuisines come close to matching Italian cooking in their ability to deliver this combination of qualities. Few have adopted ingredients and adapted techniques from more parts of the globe than Italian cuisine. And few have an older and richer history.
In the north, dairy farming is a way of life. Butter crops up in recipes more often than it does in southern cooking. But it is a mistake to imagine that all northern food swims in butter or cream sauces. Except for simple integral sauces, sauce is frequently not part of a dish. Vegetables grow well for much of the year in the north. Much of the land lies close to the sea which yeilds plenty of fish and shellfish. All of these foods appear in dishes.
In the south there is little dairy farming. Buffalo, sheep, or goats will provide some cheese. Oils are derived from olives. And tomatoes grow extremely well. Much of the south is close to the sea. So dishes tend to make much use of seafood along with tomatoes, pasta, olives and olive oil, garlic. Sauces exist, but they are simple matters to prepare.
There are a lot of excellent Italian cooking books, but the first one on any serious cook's shelf should probably be Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking. Hazan loves food. She understands how to coax flavor out of food. She understands how food should smell and tastes. And she knows instinctively how to convey all of this complex understanding in her recipes. This is a rare skill and it has made her cookbooks the reference standards for Italian cooking. Know everything in Hazan's books and you can probably fake your way through everything else.
There will be some who find that Hazan's approach is more representative of northern Italy than of the half south of Rome. South of Rome there is a bit more freshness and spontenaity to cooking. If there is an American chef who understands the regional variations of food throughout Italy, it is probably Mario Batali who operates New York City's famous Babbo restaurant.
Watch his show a few times and you will see that the focus is on flavor - pure and simple. Dishes are prepared quickly and with a minimum of finicky steps. But Babbo is a showplace and his cookbook by that name will help you prepare more formal (vertical presentation) dishes.
Lidia Bastianich also operates a famous New York restaurant and has her own cooking show. The show is on PBS and she is true to form. Serious, and focused, she makes for a meticulous and determined instructor. If television is to entertain, perhaps this is not the best show; but if it is to learn about Italian cooking, then perhaps it is. There is every reason to believe that her earnest approach infuses her books as well.
Rogers and Gray operate a famous cafe in London that prepares Italian style dishes. We don't know how authentic this food is, but we know that for more than a decade it has been all the rave in London.
Cooks Illustrated makes a practice of taking classic dishes - dishes with good bones - and giving them a makeover. The makeover simplifies the preparation methods and refines the flavors to be the best possible. The process generally requires that a dish be cooked over and over dozens of times using subtle variations of technique and ingredient. Word is that this tome is a complete success on par with their other classics.
Finally, was it Lord Byron who said "To understand Italy you must first understand Sicily?" I wonder to what extent the same thing is true for Italian cooking. La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio is about the cooking of a famous and exclusive Sicilian resort. Perhaps this resort employs all of Sicily's good cooks; for I once spent three weeks in Sicily and what impressed me most was how hard it was to find any food that was half as good as a quarter pounder with cheese. Is Sicilian cooking really bad? Perhaps I had a run of bad luck for sixty some meals straight.
Eat well and prosper
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.