For a cuisine with so many rabid fans and iconic dishes, Italian food can also be enigmatic. It's profoundly varied across the country's many regions, infamously rooted in tradition, and often romanticized—a narrative of rich sauces and delicate pastas passed down from one generation to the next, so honed and perfected they needn't ever change. There's an air of mystery, a sense that no one person could ever grasp the true nature and breadth of authentic Italian cookery. But it's a beguiling, seductive inscrutability, the kind that hooks you and keeps you coming back for more.
Many cookbook authors have endeavored to capture the spirit of la bella paese for anglophone readers. In fact, these days, it can feel like every celebrity chef and their mother has published a book about his or her own version of Italian cookery. Some focus on individual techniques, like the skills needed to make pasta, pizza, and salumi; others dive into regional distinctions, from Parma to Sicily. Members of the Italian diaspora reimagine traditional dishes in the contexts of Australia, North America, and elsewhere in Europe. Which only makes it all the more striking that the cuisine was virtually unknown—or at least deeply misrepresented—to American audiences until the latter half of the 20th century.
Since then, only a handful of Italian cookbooks have truly succeeded in transforming our country's culinary landscape. These are the voices and volumes that stand out, the essential, inspiring, reliable texts you want on your bookshelf above all others.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
If you could credit one person with introducing classic Italian food to the American public, it would have to be Marcella Hazan. She has often been referred to as the Julia Child of Italian cuisine, and it's a title she has earned—her 1973 two-volume cookbook The Classic Italian Cookbook: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating provided an entire generation of American cooks with an inspired, accessible, demystifying introduction to the foods of Italy. In 1992, the books were united in a single expansive volume, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
This is the kind of cookbook that's equally at home on a grandparent's bookshelf and a college student's Kindle. It is a foundational text, one that assumes no prior knowledge or technical prowess on the part of the cook, but proves no less instructional for the most experienced chef. It aims to enlighten, instruct, and offer key cultural insights in one fell swoop. It offers everything from basic knife skills and shopping tips to helpful ingredient substitutions. Hazan introduces and contextualizes potentially unfamiliar ingredients like bottarga, mortadella, and radicchio. Then, with rigor, she offers a journey through Italy's most beloved dishes. Chicken cacciatora, fragrant with white wine and aromatics; creamy vittello tonnato with briny capers and fresh parsley; fluffy little ricotta fritters; and smoky, egg-slicked spaghetti carbonara.
Where many of today's cookbooks are orgies of color, photo-heavy and lush, Essentials is a book strictly for cooking, rather than coffee-table admiration. There are no photos, but Karin Kretschmann's line illustrations lend specificity to Hazan's detailed instructions for tasks like preparing artichokes or cleaning squid. Some recipes, like Hazan's iconic recipe for tomato sauce with onion and butter, are dead simple and would easily work for weeknight cooking. Others, like ossobuco, or Milanese-style braised veal shank, could serve as centerpieces for elaborate midwinter dinner parties. For recipes like these, Hazan begins where the home cook would begin, not in the kitchen but at the butcher, explaining exactly which cut of meat to ask for and how to have it prepared. The thing that these dishes have in common is their immediacy: nothing fancy, just humble ingredients elevated into earthy, elemental, immensely appealing plates. Regardless of where you'd like to go in Italy, Hazan has drawn the map to get you there, capably leading the way.
The Silver Spoon
The Silver Spoon is the OG of Italian cookbooks. Originally compiled by Italian design house Domus, this is the supreme reference book of Italian cookery, the kind of text that is gifted to newlyweds and passed down as an heirloom. When it was originally published in 1950, its aim was to be exhaustive, as much an encyclopedia of the foods of Italy as a cookbook—not to mention a design object as well.
It remains no less essential today, and it's a beautiful compendium to boot. With a minimalist design and photos on every other page, no matter where you turn in the nearly 1,500 pages, you'll be faced with the sight of something delicious. Cuttlefish with Spinach might not sound as though it would be your favorite, but the image of the poached seafood, braised in white wine and served with a sticky reduction of tomato, velvety greens, and a scattering of toasty pine nuts, is all it will take for you to try something new.
Being comprehensive in nature, The Silver Spoon of course includes recipes for the heavy-hitters of Italian cookery like Bistecca alla Fiorentina (the massive t-bone steak of Tuscany), but for the most part, dishes are relatively straightforward, combining a few ingredients to make simple dishes with rustic appeal. Fennel breaded with egg and cheese, fried in a style not unlike that of savory French toast; a basic recipe for the famous Ligurian pancake, farinata, made with nothing more than chickpea flour, olive oil, and salt; countless simple vegetable and pasta dishes. Many could be served as simple suppers, like Eggs with Eggplant, which calls for little more than sliced eggplant dusted with a little flour and fried in olive oil, dotted with tomato paste and baked with eggs cracked on top. It's the kind of dish that, though wholly ordinary and inexpensive to make, nonetheless sings.
The benefit of these recipes' simplicity is that many can be combined or tweaked at will. Most offer minimal instruction phrased in truncated sentences. Impeccably organized into into detailed categories, this book simultaneously contains this evening's dinner and your tableside entertainment.
Cooking By Hand
Some cookbooks are exhaustive encyclopedias; others seem more devoted to photography and styling. And then there are the books that eschew either category for something more expansive, books that serve to wake up the imagination and capture a cuisine in both recipes and prose. Paul Bertolli's Cooking By Hand is one such seminal text.
By no means an exhaustive compendium, Cooking By Hand is as much a collection of essays as it is a cookbook. In place of a traditional line-up of fish, poultry, salads, and desserts, Bertolli's table of contents reads conceptually—a chapter of vegetables is titled "Cleaning the Fresco." Then there's "Twelve Ways of Looking at Tomatoes," and eventually "The Whole Hog," featuring detailed salumi-making instructions.
The focus here is on the heart and soul of Italian cooking as much as its technical execution. Bertolli's chapter "Aceto Balsamico" begins not with a scholarly description of the decades-long process of making balsamic vinegar, but rather a moving letter to his newborn son, deftly situating the vinegar's long aging period in the context of human life. Similarly, the chapter "Ripeness" reflects on the brevity of our most poignant moments. "Ripeness," he says, "is the point upon which living things poise...Tomatoes, cheese, and the new vintage ripen, but so do the moon, careers, and stock markets...We choose the ripe moment to act; we grow to a ripe old age. In many large and small ways life swells and recedes."
This romance extends to the food itself. Reading about ripeness whets the appetite, and the dishes you'll find in this book lean into the Italian ethos of rustic simplicity, but with the refinement you'd expect from a celebrated chef. Yes, there's a recipe for strawberry sorbet that calls for just three ingredients (including water), but you'll also find one for Sformatino di Gorgonzola, delicate little puddings of egg and cheese, meant to be served with a fresh tomato sauce, and extremely detailed instructions for making one's own mortadella, perfumed with cayenne, mace, and coriander.
Like his essays, the recipes appear in paragraph form, some even dispensing with a list of ingredients altogether, instead talking the reader through the quantities of the ingredients within the instructions themselves. Want to make Bertolli's Ragu alla Bolognese? Prepare to read through the five paragraph introduction and then more than a page of instructions in order to come up with a complete shopping list. While this might sound intimidating or even frustrating to some, those already comfortable in the kitchen will appreciate this book for its intimate, conversational tone. These are recipes that read as though you happened to have emailed your friend, Paul Bertolli, and he took the time to email you back describing how to make that Warm Yeasted Apple Pudding he made at his last dinner party.
Part of what makes Cooking by Hand a book to page through when you're hungry for inspiration is that Bertolli himself is there on every page, bridging the gap from Italy to your home kitchen. Bertolli was the executive chef at Oliveto, in Oakland, at the time of the book's writing, but despite regular mentions, the book's focus is not on the restaurant itself—the ethos of Cooking By Hand is far more present and personal. And honestly, who wouldn't like to email their friend Paul Bertolli for a recipe?
La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy
Italy is composed of 20 regions, each with its own treasured traditional dishes and countless sub-regional specialties. So the idea of cataloguing the country's entire culinary canon is an ambitious project, to say the least. And yet La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy endeavors to do precisely that. Curated by the Milan-based Italian Academy of Cuisine, the collection draws together recipes directly traceable not only to particular regions, but specific towns, villages, and even families.
The resulting book is formidable, a 928-page volume that will especially appeal if you're the kind of Italophile who makes pasta from scratch on the regular and can easily rattle off the names of a dozen different kinds of salumi. Go foraging with friends and make Minestra di Erbe di Prato, a rustic wild herb soup from Valle D'Aosta that combines stalwart rice and potato with the spice of wild greens like sorrel and yarrow. Seek out pungent baby anchovies called neonata to make a Sicilian dish of Maccheroni di Casa col Sugo di Neonata, an unusual preparation that combines nuggets of fried anchovy batter with pasta in a sauce of red wine, tomato, and bread crumbs.
If you're already comfortable with the basics and principles of Italian cooking, the sheer breadth of La Cucina ensures that you can tackle dishes that you've probably never seen on a menu; the superb organization and structure of the book ensures that you can find it—and any other specialty of your choosing—anytime you please. Antipasti, pizza, soups, polenta, rice, pasta, meat, poultry, vegetables, cheese, and desserts: La Cucina comprises an onslaught of 2,000 recipes, and it wastes very little time on a preamble.
Each recipe has been labeled, tagged and categorized, though visual learners should beware: there is nary a photo in sight. So while it isn't the volume that you'll page through over a coffee, the thing that it does brilliantly is house an incredibly diverse array of Italy's regional recipes in a way that no other volume has been crazy enough to attempt. While countless Italian and Italian-inspired cookbooks will tell you how to make a Bolognese or a Bagna Cauda, it's a rare book that will tell you how to make both of those along with San Quirino snails, Calabrian wild onion fritters, stuffed cuttlefish from Puglia, spicy goat from Campania, and also more than five different regional recipes for bread soup.
The Glorious Vegetables of Italy
While Domenica Marchetti has written a whole canon of gorgeous Italian cookbooks, it's The Glorious Vegetables of Italy that you should add to your collection first. Don't be deceived by the title, though: it's vegetable-focused without being vegetarian. While she keeps vegetables at the forefront, Marchetti still divides the book into chapters based on usage and occasion, with soups in one section, and pastas and main courses in another.
The resulting recipes are inspired by traditional dishes and flavor combinations, some of which, like Summer Risotto with Zucchini Blossoms, are downright classic in their approach. But Marchetti also plays with the rules, reimagining classic flavors into new combinations, the way she does for a sandwich of fried zucchini blossoms with tomato, basil, and mozzarella. Even where she plays with form, though, the flavors are resolutely Italian: eggplant, cauliflower, artichokes, shelling beans, peppers, rapini, and no shortage of garlic and extra virgin olive oil.
The Glorious Vegetables of Italy is a place where imagination reigns: the fragrance of warm olives and citrus zest, lightly roasted with rosemary and served with snow white ricotta salata cheese, or capricci pasta boiling away on the stove, about to be sauced with a rose-colored slump of cherry tomatoes stewed with thyme and cream. Cannelloni with Italian sausage are nice, but Marchetti's version, delicate crepes nestled against one another, napped with balsamella and barely containing a filling of porcini and zucchini, are even more appealing.
What's more, this approach to keeping vegetables at the center of the plate is, in a way, deeply, authentically Italian. It wasn't until after World War II that meat was consistently and inexpensively available in many parts of Italy, and out of necessity vegetables, grains, and legumes have anchored the Italian diet. It just so happens that these Earth-bound foods, la cucina povera, the cuisine of the poor, happen to be extremely healthy and flavorful. Though The Glorious Vegetables of Italy easily stands on its own merit as an excellent book, it's this heritage that makes it a classic.