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The Oxford Companion to Italian Food Hardcover – November 1, 2007
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Admitting that no one book can adequately cover Italian food, Riley, a British author and food historian, promises to “convey the delights and excitement of the pursuit.” She certainly does this in a scholarly yet entertaining volume. The more than 900 entries, arranged in dictionary format, read like essays. There are no recipes as such, but many dishes describe the ingredients and methods of cooking. All aspects of food are mentioned—ingredients, implements and methods of cooking, chefs, regions of the country, etc. Convenience foods, Cookbooks, and Coriander are all described in entries of 2 pages. Chickpeas and Parmesan each merit 3 pages. Pig has 5 pages, followed by separate entries for the fat, head, offal, and other pig parts. Various aspects of pasta are discussed in 11 entries over 13 pages. Riley quotes excerpts from literature (some only in Italian) to illustrate the use of a food. One of her favorite writers is Andrea Camilleri. In the entry for Sand smelt, there is a half-page description of Montalbano (Camilleri’s fictional detective) eating fritters made with the tiny fish. A few small but artful black-and-white photographs accompany the text. A detailed bibliography and a comprehensive index add to the usefulness of this volume as a research tool. Recommended for all culinary reference collections, but those who love Italy or Italian food will enjoy reading it for pleasure. --Christine Bulson
"Italian Food shouldn't remain on the shelf; instead, it should be savored."--Chicago Tribune
"Exhaustive."--Saveur Top Ten Reads
"Italian food buffs on your list may welcome a mini-encyclopedia that turns out to be almost an anti-encyclopedia: Gillian Riley's determinedly personal, quirky, wide-ranging The Oxford Companion to Italian Food".--Anne Mendelson, The New York Times
"Food historian and gastronome Gillian Riley's witty, expansive compendium deftly deconstructs everything from antipasto ("benign titillation of the palate with only a few delicacies") to zeppole ("overkill can be achieved with a filling of custard")."--Bon Appetit
"A magisterial (recipe-less) book that anyone even mildly interested in the subject must own....encourages you to read entry after entry for the pleasure of learning marvelous oddments about the obscure and the familiar."--The Atlantic
"[Riley is] a good, spunky writer who really knows what she's talking about...a master of the pithy observation."--Russ Parsons, The LA Times Blog
"Erudite, witty, and stuffed with gems"--The Telegraph
"She writes in [a] characteristically colloquial but never too casual tone, a lovely, rare style...laden...with humor, sly political commentary, and a general sense of the author's total immersion in and great passion for Italian cuisine and its connection to all other aspects of Italy."--Bookforum
"A scholarly yet entertaining volume. Recommended for all culinary reference collections, but those who love Italy or Italian food will enjoy reading it for pleasure."--Booklist
"A grand buffet of curious delights. Riley writes to entertain as well as to inform, and never holds back when there is a choice anecdote to relate....essential browsing for the serious Italo-foodlie."--John Dickie, The Guardian
"Authoritative, erudite, and unexpectedly entertaining."--The Independent
"For anyone who takes these styles of cooking seriously, these books are essential....First is Gillian Riley's The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, a fascinating encyclopedia of the Italian food world. Though it contains no recipes, it is a wonderful resource for understanding Italian recipes and how to cook them."--Associated Press
"WORTH READING: [This] new book will do more than spruce up your coffee table...The Oxford Companion to Italian Food reads like a literary dictionary, with entries covering all aspects of Italian cuisine paired with striking illustrations."--La Cucina Italiana
"Gillian Riley has assembled between the covers of this volume more useful information about the foods of Italy than is available in any other form, or in any other language, Italian included. Anyone with more than a passing interest in this seminal cuisine should be grateful to her, as I am."--Marcella Hazan
"Erudite, engaging, and captivating: an indispensable guide for Italophiles, food lovers, and the greedily curious."--Nigella Lawson
"A great tribute to a rich and complex culinary culture: the Italian. It contains all the essential information and more, from the earth to the table, within a historical, artisanal and cultural context. This is a must-have reference book for any serious lover of Italian food."--Lidia Bastianich
"Gillian Riley has written an instant classic on Italy and its fascinating food. Dive in at any entry and I challenge you not to find yourself turning pages to be drawn more and more deeply in. Along the way you'll find botanists and bakers, a food obsessed Sicilian detective, bay leaf consuming Maenads, as well as dishes and ingredients from millennia of chefs, cooks, painters and writers; Italy in the full splendor of its food-rich history."--Carol Field
"I didn't know Gillian Riley when I first learned of the project, but as I read her manuscript I quickly saw that she wrote with passion, knowledge, and an ever-important pinch of humor. Consult this book for answers to questions great and small about Italy's rich culinary history, but do so also to remind yourself that the best food is most often prepared in a simple fashion, with readily available ingredients. It defines who we are. So if the best food is what makes us healthiest, and happiest, then let us follow Gillian in hot pursuit."--from the foreword by Mario Batali
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* But lots of stuff like him has found its way into the main body of the work, making the - inadequate - index largely into a pale simulacrum of the whole. Then, to take a couple of examples, under Digestivi eight terms are highlighted (including the title itself!) but if one refers to them one is disappointingly referred back to the original article (except for anti-colerici, which is not cross-indexed, though Sambuca, not highlighted, is). Under Lazio seventeen terms are similarly highlighted (some not cross-indexed - pollo alla romana, pagliai, vaccinari, susianello..), the first of which, garofolato, a hearty beef stew, which ACTUALLY HAS AN ENTRY ATTACHED, is given as garofanato (smelling of carnations). You get the picture. All cross-references relating to a single article should have been confined to the index in back except for the purely clarificatory eg latterini, see sand smelt - and maybe even these; it would have avoided so many decisions and freed up so much space, maybe enough (note the sarcasm) for all those references to people, places and so on at present left unindexed, Augustus Hare for one (preferring Turin to Rome as capital, as I recall - but where?); conversely, of Nigella Lawson on page 141 (so the index i forms us) there is no trace. Clearly 'the design skills of Rachel Perkins' needed to be supplemented by other, more practical skills. Eccentricity of contents is one thing, retrievability something else. For all but the casual browser - and even then! - this is an unqualified cobblers (rhyming slang for disaster). But only think how good the second edition will be.. that fifth star is being held in readiness
One gets the impression that the author loves Italy and travels there on vacation, but doesn't know any Italians. There is no information about current chefs in Italy, there is nothing about 20th (or 21st) century food trends, etc. The entry on cookbooks only lists Italian cookbooks written by English speaking authors. Where is the information about Italian cookbooks written by Italian speaking authors? My guess is that the author gets all her information from the British Library in London.
The style is similar to Davidson's "Oxford Companion to Food", but that is a much more fascinating book because it covers such a broad spectrum. I wish the current author would have teamed up with an Italian who knows ingredients and what has happened in Italy during the last 50 years. That would have created a very interesting book. The current book can not be recommended to people who just like Italian food, but if you are crazy about Italian food, please check it out.