`Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking' is Marcella Hazan's fourth book, composed of an edited and updated amalgam of her first two books, both of which were on `classic Italian cooking'. As with all of Ms. Hazan's books except for her latest, `Marcella Says', my main regret is that I have not read them sooner. All, especially this volume, are every bit as good as the blurbs may lead you to believe.
Some reviewers have compared this book to `The Joy of Cooking'. It is much more accurate to compare it to Julia Child's seminal `Mastering the Art of French Cooking' on several counts. First, like Child's book, Hazan's book is devoted exclusively to the techniques, ingredients, and recipes of a single major national cuisine. Second, unlike `The Joy of Cooking', it does not cover absolutely every kitchen technique and issue such as hygiene, nutrition, preserving, and obscure game meats. Third, the book is published and edited by the same people, Knopf and senior editor Judith Jones. This common publishing team means the two books have a very similar look. Both are illustrated by line drawings and both benefit from Knopf's traditional skill in designing the typeface and layout of books in general for easy reading. Fourth, Ms. Hazan arrived at cooking in almost exactly the same manner as Julia Child, in that they found themselves married to men who likes to eat well, and they did not know how to cook at the time.
The 64-dollar question of course is whether this book is equal in quality to Child's book. I think there is little shame in saying that while Hazan's book stands head and shoulders over virtually every other book I have read and reviewed on Italian cuisine, it does not quite match Child et al on the latters' innovations in recipe writing, the great good humor of the writing, and the comprehensive treatment of virtually every aspect of French kitchen equipment and the `cuisine bourgeois' techniques.
This book by Dr. Hazan (she has a Ph.D. in natural sciences and biology) is the exception which proves Tony Bourdain's observation in his excellent new cookbook which claims that cooking professionals are mostly just ordinary blokes who happen to have learned a skill which you the reader do not yet have. This applies as much to most cookbook authors as it does to most chefs. The thing that separates most good cookbook authors (witness Jamie Oliver) from their readers is their passion for the importance of good ingredients, careful observation of technique, and love of achieving a desirable result. Ms. Hazan is one of the very, very few writers who approach their subject as much with the rigor of an academic as with the passion of a good cook. Ms. Hazan's academic voice is much more anthropological and phenomenological than it is scientific a la Shirley Corriher.
Ms. Hazan succeeds in distilling for us the essence of Italian savory cuisine based on the notions of battuto (an Italian trinity of lard, parsley, and onion, chopped fine), soffritto (battuto sautéed until onion is translucent and garlic is pale gold), and insaporire (the technique of preparing ingredient such as the battuto and additions to extract flavor from the primary ingredients and impart that flavor to other ingredients, as when the flavors of the soffritto are imparted to the rice in making a risotto). After introducing these essential concepts, she gives us a very detailed tour of the most important ingredients in Italian cooking. To the casual American reader who may not have been schooled by `Molto Mario', there are some surprises, such as the fact that garlic is not as important an ingredient as you may believe. Another culture shock is the difference between the French stock and the Italian broth, and Ms. Hazan's insistence that using the former is simply not Italian cooking, thank you. That is not to say that there are not at least some things in common between French and Italian cooking. The most prominent is Bechamel sauce (Salsa Balsamella), made in exactly the same manner in Rome as it is in Paris. I am reluctant to steal any thunder from Ms. Hazan, but I must pass on to you her excellent suggestion for cutting your own scallopine from the top round, so that you can be sure of getting it cut against the grain.
If there is any dissonance in Ms. Hazan's presentation, it is in her paean to the regionality of Italian cooking, where, for example, the cuisines of Bologna and Florence, just 60 miles apart, is almost as different from one another as the cuisines of Venice and Naples, which are over 400 miles apart. The geographical origin of most (but not all) recipes is given in the headnotes, yet the general discussion of Italian technique makes no notice of this great geographical variety.
Like Child's book (taking volumes I and II together) and unlike virtually every other book on Italian cooking, this volume deals with so much more than the usual 6 chapters in that it has large, separate chapters on Soups, Pasta, Risotto, Gnocchi, Crespelle (Italian for crepes), Polenta, Frittate, Fish and Shellfish, Fowl and Rabbit, Veal, Beef, Lamb, Pork, Variety Meats, Vegetables (very large chapter), Salads, Desserts, Breads, and typical Italian menus. Also like Child's books and unlike her later books, this volume does deal almost exclusively with traditional dishes. I cannot guarantee that the book is complete, as it is missing any reference to Puttanesca or saltimbocca, two certifiable classics of regional Italian cuisine. But, completeness is not the objective here. The main objective is to teach you how to cook like an Italian.
This book does not replace the dozens of good books on Italian regional cooking and it does not replace good books on Italian specialities, such as Carol Field's book on Italian baking. But, it should be the very first book you buy on Italian cooking to better understand what it is these other books are saying.