"The books that guide you in your very first steps of learning to cook, that help you overcome fears and fall in love with the process, always earn a special place on the shelf. So it is with Cucina Rustica, the book that taught me that a recipe called Spaghetti with Oil and Garlic (the very first Dinner Tonight column I wrote) could be the most delicious thing in the world, and that most recipes would probably improve if you took out a few ingredients. This is a general lesson of Italian cooking that has informed the way I choose recipes. Yet while Cucina Rustica's recipes suggest simplicity, they are pitched perfectly between approachable and challenging. So I've never been bored cooking from it.
The only cuisine that deserves to be called Italian cooking, writes Hazan by way of introduction to this celebrated 1992 title, is la cucina di casa: “there are no high or low roads in Italian cuisine. All roads lead to the home.” And it is how she then proceeds to unpick the fundamentals – to map out the way home, if you will – that sets the book apart. Starting with the triumvirate of Italian technique – battuto, soffritto and insaporire, which build flavour from the bottom up – she goes on to list the contents of the Italian pantry, before taking you through the various stages on a menu. Her chapter on soups, for example, opens with the idea that “A vegetable soup can tell you where you are in Italy, almost as precisely as a map.” Through eloquent prose and piercing insight, Hazan manages to unlock her country’s soul.
The thesaurus to Del Conte’s dictionary. At 2,000 recipes and counting, it is the enduring bestseller that lists every variant of baked sea-bass, every way with a shoulder of lamb, 17 different types of pastry and 14 distinct courgette sides … which is to say, it is comprehensive. The book started out in 1931 as a slim Milanese publication, and expanded with each new edition to incorporate ever more regions and ever more recipes. If David, in Italian Food, had to discard most of the material she’d collated, for sheer want of space, the Silver Spoon takes the opposite tack. Published in English in 2005, it is as heavy as a book subtitled Eating Is A Serious Matter ought to be, and bound only to get heavier.
Clams vary in brininess and the amount of liquid they’ll release during cooking, so you’ll need to adjust the salt and add pasta water accordingly. To prevent the sauce from getting too salty, we recommend a measured amount of salt for the pasta water. If possible, look for an artisanal dried pasta for this recipe—the rougher surface texture will catch the slippery sauce better.