From inception, this was destined to be a classic. Del Conte details – and in 1987 it was the first time anyone ever had – all of Italy’s regions, ingredients, techniques and dishes. The organisation by alphabetical order makes it as perusable and practical as an actual dictionary. If you consider that at that point Italy, as a unifed whole, was a mere centenarian, wrestling the diffuse, intensely regional nature of its geography and its cuisine into something this digestible really took some doing. A herculean effort, lauded as loudly abroad as it was at home.
"Being the cookbook guru around these parts, I am the proud owner of more cookbooks than I can count. The Italian section of my library is home to many, many cookbooks that are near and dear to my heart. So whittling it down to just one is a daunting undertaking to say the least. I could easily choose Domenica Marchetti's The Glorious Pasta of Italy for its comprehensive understanding of all things pasta related and unique Abruzzese dishes, or Mario Batali's latest, Molto Batali, which teaches you how to cook Italian-style (for a gathering of ten plus.) Or if we're going to get into pizza, Jim Lahey's My Pizza is absolutely a must for making awesome pies at home.
"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.
"It's hard to choose a favorite Italian cookbook: as a child, I used to swear I could eat pasta every day and never get tired of it. And my go-to pasta bible, Giuliano Hazan's The Classic Pasta Cookbook, is sadly out of print. (Plus, Erin snagged Urban Italian! Bah!) But the other Italian cookbook I turn to over and over again is Jamie's Italy, which has gorgeous matte-finish pages and so many appealing, unfussy recipes. The pasta e ceci (chickpea soup) is a cold-weather staple for me: it's rich and savory, with lots of rosemary and a fresh, fragrant handful of basil. The dish is best with homemade chicken stock, but you can use canned chickpeas, so it's totally easy to make if you have stock in the freezer."—Maggie Hoffman, Drinks Editor
Perhaps one of the simplest dishes in the book, but the one I revisit the most, is the whipped sheep's milk ricotta. You can make this in your sleep. Just whip up the ricotta with some good whole milk and it becomes ethereally fluffy. Accented with sea salt, fresh herbs, and olive oil, it's ready to be slathered all over crusty bread. I serve this at just about every party I have. Another favorite is this cauliflower with brown butter, pear, sage, and hazelnuts. It has to be one of the best ways to eat cauliflower. "—Erin Zimmer, National Managing Editor
My favorite dish in the book is definitely the pasta carbonara, which taught me that you don't need heavy cream to make a great version. It's slightly more involved that the simplest of recipes with only pancetta or guanciale, cheese, and egg, but the changes are worth it: slivers of caramelized onion for sweetness, a little white wine for a balance of acidity, and parsley for freshness. I've made this recipe more than any other since I learned how to cook."—Blake Royer, Dinner Tonight columnist
"This book by Diane Seed completely changed how I approach pasta. Before, I just assumed that the more ingredients stuffed into a sauce the better it had to be. Also, if you cooked those ingredients for a long, long time, it'd get better after each passing minute. But Diane Seed taught me restraint and economy. It's all about taking a few ingredients, mostly vegetables, and letting them shine. Cook them too long and they lose their essence. I'd always heard that there were hundreds of kinds of pasta, but this book taught me that there are just as many sauces. Favorite recipe: Spaghetti Alla Boscaiola, which you can find on Serious Eats here."—Nick Kindelsperger, Chicago Editor and Dinner Tonight columnist
"Cooking with Italian Grandmothers is so much more than a cookbook. I read it cover to cover, enthralled by the stories of these women; their lives and their food. And the dishes are just what you'd expect: earthy, comforting, delicious. Favorite dish: spaghetti con pomodori scoppiati (spaghetti with burst tomatoes). This recipe pulls off that Italian magic trick where a recipe with almost no ingredients tastes deliciously complex. The key is searing whole and halved cherry tomatoes over high heat until they burst. Their juice, along with pureed sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic, form a simple summer sauce."—Carrie Vasios, Sweets Editor
Each Italian region and town is proud to have its trademark dishes and ingredients. It is important to be aware that the ingredients used by Italians are highly place specific. Everyone in Italy knows to get their balsamic vinegar from Modena, their mozzarella di bufala from Campagnia, their truffles from Piedmont or Umbria, their cannoli from Sicily, their artichokes from Rome, the most delicious pizza from Naples, the best bolognese meat sauce from Bologna, their saffron risotto from Milan, and divine pecorino from Pienza.
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.