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Customer Review

`The Silver Spoon', the very first translation of an Italian cookbook in its eighth edition, published since 1950. This 2005 translation is based on the 1997 Italian edition published by Editoriale Domus. While there are credits for drawings, photography, and provisions of props, there is no credit for either author or editor in clear sight.

The blurbs on the book's cover tout the volume as `the bible of authentic Italian cooking'. I believe this can mislead some buyers in thinking that the book is devoted exclusively to Italian techniques or that the book has the very best and most definitive demonstrations of Italian cooking techniques. It would be much more accurate to compare this to either `The Joy of Cooking' or `James Beard's American Cookery' in that its emphasis is more on completeness rather than depth or excellence in pedagogical presentation. At 2000 recipes, this volume easily trumps some recent big Italian cookbooks, such as Michele Scicolone's `1000 Italian Recipes' or Mario Batali's `Molto Italiano'. If broad range is what you want, this is exactly the book for you.

What it does not have is any but the slimmest anecdotal information on regionality of dishes or exceptionally well explained techniques for such mysteries as fresh pasta making, bread baking, sausage making, or homemade mozzarella. You may also be surprised to find a large selection of terms and recipes from French, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Japanese cuisines. This is all in keeping with a book devoted to be a reference for Italian home cooking. Italian bourgeois amateur cooks, it seems, are just as likely to use the French name for many dishes such as souffle or crepe as the Italian name. This belies the statement I read recently that it is only in America where one finds the fascination with world cuisines, as if all Italians spent all their time eating just the foods of their local province.

The introduction to this volume states that in the course of translating the book, care was taken to convert names of ingredients to designate provisions familiar to the American home. Unfortunately, they were not entirely successful in doing this, as I found multiple references to `Caesar mushrooms' with no explanation of what species of mushroom may be similar in the American megamart. What's doubly odd is that according to `Larousse Gastronomique', Caesar's mushroom is rare today and remarkably similar to a poisonous variety of mushroom. I also found the recipe directions still relatively sparse in detail and not entirely up to date to the latest in American culinary technique. One example is that for the recipe for veal saltimbocca, it calls for salting the meat after the saute. Modern practice recommends salting meat before sauteeing. Similarly, the recipes for fresh pasta or pizza dough are just a bit terse, with no good tips on the finer points of various equipment for kneading, rolling out, and cutting fresh pasta.

All this means is that this is not necessarily a good first book on Italian cooking. Marcella Hazan's books, especially `Marcella Cucina', are far better introductions to classic Italian technique, with Carol Field's `The Italian Baker' being a far superior introduction to Italian breads. But that doesn't say there is not a whole lot to like about this book, whose great strength lies in the great number of variations it gives on common dishes and the coverage it gives to dishes which many Italian cookbooks don't even bother to mention.

This book includes several great chapters on subjects that are almost entirely ignored by modern cookbook writers and Food Network faves. Anyone who has dabbled in Italian cuisine knows a little about timbales, mostly as a dish that is very complicated and done only for major celebrations. All treatments of the dish I have seen up to now reinforce this notion. It was featured as a celebratory dish in Stanley Tucci's movie `Big Night' and as a `tour de force' recipe in an episode of `Mario Eats Italy'. The best recipes I have seen for it are in excellent books on regional cooking and are all very long. This book gives us a whole chapter on timbales with twelve (12) recipes, none of which take more than one page. Another `lost' culinary subject is covered in the chapter on eggs. You expect and get lots of frittata recipes, but you also get ten recipes for shirred (baked) eggs plus recipes for eggs en cocotte, medium cooked eggs, and hard cooked eggs. And, while frittatas are a darling of the Food Network set, I have never seen them do a filled frittata or a frittata cake. You get them here!

One of the most useful items in the book may be the comparison of Italian versus American cuts of beef and the appropriate cooking techniques for each cut.

The chapter on baking and desserts is surprising in its size (about 120 pages) and by the heavy presence of both French and Austrian pastry techniques. Like every other chapter, I would not use this book as a primer on baking and pastry. I would first master my Sherry Yard (`The Secrets of Baking') or Nick Malgieri (`Perfect Pastry') or even the new `Martha Stewart Baking Handbook' before tackling these recipes, but if you really want to know what Nonna in Naples is really cooking, this is where you want to go!

The book is exceptionally well laid out, with color-coded pages by chapter and subchapter, a full index, plus a separate list of recipes. The glossary of culinary terms in the beginning is great, even if the translation is a bit quirky. This is not as definitive a coverage of ITALIAN cooking as the older `Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well' by Pellegrino Artusi, but it is a very, very good source of recipes cooked in Italy today.

Very highly recommended.
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