“Practical” isn’t the first word that leaps to mind to describe most coffee-table cookbooks. Yet the editors at National Geographic and America’s Test Kitchen have managed to pack an extraordinary amount of truly useful information for both the home cook and traveler into this stunning tome.
The two media powerhouses appear to have spared no expense in its production. Each chapter represents a different Italian region (20 in all), which are broken down in three parts: Northern Italy, Central Italy, and Southern Italy and the Islands. Captivating photographs of majestic landscapes and architecture, lively cafe and market scenes, farmers and artisans toiling at their crafts, and drool-worthy close-ups of prepared dishes keep you flipping the pages.
But slow down to read the evocative essays by James Beard Award nominee Eugenia Bone and prolific Italian cookbook author Julia della Croce. Take time to study the beautifully illustrated maps and spotlights on local ingredients, wines and food-related festivals. You’ll better understand the book’s premise laid out in Jack Bishop’s introduction: that “the real Italy is so much more multi-faceted, and so much more remarkable, than the Italy that lives on in popular imagination.” And your appetite should be whetted to dive into the recipes curated and fine-tuned by the expert test kitchen team Bishop has helmed for decades.
You’ll find few surprises among the straightforward titles, which cover the well-known classics of each region — from Warm Anchovy and Garlic Dipping Sauce (Bagna cauda) to Fried Risotto Balls (Arancini). The revelations are the tips and tricks embedded within the lengthy notes preceding the ingredient lists called “Why This Recipe Works.” Here is where you’ll learn why toasting bread in the oven rather than letting it dry out on the counter for Bread Salad (Panzanella) yields a better texture, and how a little corn syrup makes for a smoother custard base for Pistachio Gelato. The editors take pains to make the recipes accessible to anyone, offering substitutions for native ingredients that can be hard to find.
It’s easy to see how this book could become a popular collector’s item and, I hope, the beginning of a long-term franchise.
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.
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