We take Italian food for granted. Surrounded as we are by cookbooks, cooking shows, and restaurants, both fancy and humble, featuring the cuisine of everyone’s favorite footwear-shaped country, we often fail to wonder how this wonderful food was passed down to us. So much of French, English, and American food was preserved in cookbooks from an early date — France and England both have unbroken runs of recipe books starting in the 17th century, but Italy was a little different.
Italy got off to a fast start, publishing the very first printed cookbook, “De Honesta Voluptate Valetudine” (“On Right Pleasure and Good Health,” Rome, 1474), itself cribbed from a slightly earlier cookbook by Martino da Como, a chef from the Milan area who traveled to Rome and became the most celebrated chef of the 15th century. Europe’s greatest Renaissance recipe book is also Italian, Bartolomeo Scappi’s “Opera” (“Works,” Rome and Venice, 1570), which introduced countless still-recognizable recipes for fine Mediterranean cuisine and featured the first image of a new invention that transformed eating forever: the fork. From this high point, Italian cuisine seems like it should have swept across Europe, but it didn’t. For more than two centuries, Italy fell under the spell of French cuisine, only starting to awaken with Vincenzo Corrado’s “Il Cuoco Galante” (“The Gallant Cook,” Naples, 1773), which detailed the great Mediterranean cuisine around that area. Most of the Italian food that we can’t imagine the world without had to survive in handwritten recipe books and passed down by instruction and tradition from generation to generation. When Italian cooks say that they are cooking the food of their grandparents, they often fail to mention that it is also the food of their grandparents’ grandparents, and their grandparents, and so on.
All of which is to say that when I heard sisters Carla and Christine Pallotta of Nebo Cucina & Enoteca had acquired a rare complete set of the famously offbeat regional Italian cookbooks “In Bocca,” and were planning on cooking out of them, I was very excited. Each month, the restaurant is featuring a recipe from a different region.
Published by Il Vespro from 1976 to 1979 in 20 volumes corresponding roughly to the 20 regions of Italy (“Toscana in Bocca,” “Roma in Bocca,” etc.), they are bound up in thick cardboard with vivid painted covers and printed on thick, unbleached paper called carta paglia that might be more at home wrapping sausages than housing sausage recipes. Most of the books feature each recipe written in the local dialect, translated into Italian and then translated, sometimes clumsily (and often charmingly literally, e.g. “Troublesome Omelette”), into English.
The covers and interior art (also in vivid color and featuring gnocchi clowns, streetscapes, and cherubs firing arrows into steaming bowls of macaroni) borrow much from street and outsider art and the do-it-yourself aesthetic of the 1970s, but are intermixed with 19th-century engravings and documents. The seeming haphazard arrangement of materials — recipes mixed up with caricature, poetry, astrology, old broadside posters, weird anecdotes, obscure aphorisms, and regional micro history — speaks both to the DIY aesthetic at their core, and to a tradition of Italian cookbooks that mix food with the other stuff of life. The suggestion, in “Veneto in Bocca,” that you can dry cuttlefish in the sun and keep them for a year and that “this method was followed by the Americans in order to dry and hydrate astronauts food (with some variants)” exemplifies this unique mashup of old and new. “With some variants”!
The first real pan-Italian cookbook, Pellegrino Artusi’s “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” Florence, 1891), was also brimming with anecdotes and asides, most famously a story about eating minestrone in Livorno in 1855 during the beginnings of a cholera epidemic and spending a sick and fitful night at a lodging house run by a Mr. Domenici while shaking his fist at the minestrone. “Damned Minestrone! You will never fool me again!” The next morning, feeling drained and weak, Artusi caught a train to Florence and awakened the following morning much revived. A few days later, news came of a cholera outbreak in Livorno that had claimed no other than Mr. Domenici. He then unapologetically gives a recipe for minestrone: Buon appetito!
The exuberant variety in presenting these regional recipes makes sense when we remember that Italy is a modern creation — the country was “unified” from a group of city states and kingdoms in 1861 — and that many individual regions have only rarely been allowed to shine on the world culinary stage. So we see a recipe for bagna cauda — a typical and robust Piedmontese dip — but also an ode to bagna cauda in Piedmontese, songs about parsley in Logudorese Sardinian, and recipes that can only be made with the unusually large carp from Trasimeno lake in Perugia. In Boccaccio’s “Decameron” (circa 1351), it tells of a land called Cockaigne where the vines are tied up with sausages and people live by a mountain of Parmesan cheese making ravioli and macaroni all day long — such are dreams in Italy.
In contrast to Artusi, whose project, after all, was trying to bring science into the kitchen, and to most current recipes, the “In Bocca” recipes are informal, more like 18th- and early-19th-century recipes (or directions from your grandmother), and feature very few measurements. Directions are a pinch of this, a handful of that, moisten with stock, cook until done or until brown in a medium-hot oven — they assume a comfort with the recipes and ingredients and tacitly acknowledge that learning to cook Italian food is a process, and a space where cook and cooked can meet and talk it out. A recipe with precise measurements might have the advantage of coming out the same every time, but it’s never really ours, and when we pass it along, there’s no part of us that goes with it.
When Carla and Christine Pallotta began cooking out of the “In Bocca” books — a gift from their brother, investor Jim Pallotta — they turned first, naturally, to recipes from their mother’s region of Puglia. (The current menu features braciole from “Puglia in Bocca,” along with other dishes of the region, such as a preparation of grilled octopus.) Puglia is, even for Italy, linguistically and historically complicated, with regions speaking four dialects of Italian, one of Sicilian (in the Southern portion, the heel of Italy’s boot), and even scattered towns that speak dialects of Greek, Franco-Provençal, and Albanian.
As the sisters well know, the recipes aren’t so much recipes as memories passed down to be cooked but also interpreted, so that the old is made, at least a little bit, new.
Tom Nealon, a rare-book seller and author of the forthcoming “Food Fights and Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste,” can be reached at email@example.com.