How often do we pre-order books these days? Hardly ever, as the book market is so flooded with new and “gently used” copies today we aren't exactly worried that Italy Dish By Dish: A Comprehensive Guide To Eating in Italy is going to sell out as quickly as LudoBites reservations when it is released in a little less than two weeks. No, we are pre-ordering this book simply because it is so much better than the standard guidebook title and pocket-friendly size suggests.
This is the first English translation of Monica Sartoni Cesari's Mangia Italiano (an infinitely more appropriate title), a book that covers the more than 3,000 dishes found in various regions of Italy. Susan Simon's translation is the sort of guidebook – more of a mini food encyclopedia, really – that you pull out when you are in a tiny trattoria in Lombardy, just settling in for lunch (lucky you). But you have no idea what timballo di piccione might be, nor does your waiter have any idea how to explain in English that the Renaissance-era dish is made, according to Cesari, “with rigatoni or a similar pasta shape, mixed with boned, stewed pigeon, then wrapped and baked in short crust.”
The book is organized into sixteen regions, including Sicily and Sardinia, with appropriate foods and beverages, although there is a handy Index in back should you be in Rome and just happen upon crispeddi, ricotta fritters from the city of Catania, Sicily. Each chapter includes one to two token recipes for a signature regional dish, such as maccheroni alla chitarra “a typically Abruzzese pasta made with an egg dough kneaded at great length… a relatively new [pasta] shape – well, for Italy. It dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century.” The receipt — as these are truly historic regional recipes, not fancy updated versions — instructs you to simply “make the pasta dough,” then advises that you will need the special chitarra frame (a wood loom strung with metal wires that make rectangular shaped spaghetti when the pasta dough is pressed through it). It is the sort of recipe you read more for sheer interest than to actually make it.
Nor is this meant to be a cookbook. This is the compact little source book that you pull out in Umbria — your iPhone will be just fine all by itself in your pocket, promise — when passing a butcher shop with a sign for mazzafegati in the window (“Mild, somewhat sweet sausages made with pork liver, lardo, sugar raisins and pine nuts.”). Or when you are in Lazio and wondering what Capena means on the wine list (“A slightly bitter wine that is straw yellow with a lightly fruity aroma.”). Or like us, simply pretending you will soon be on a vacation in Tuscany and snacking on cenci (“Crumbly fried pastry ribbons covered with powdered sugar and typically served during the Carnival celebration.”).
Flip through Italy Dish by Dish enough times, and we might even remember the days when traveling abroad with only an extensive food reference book and an English/Whatever Language dictionary was so much more fun than pouring through dozens of Yelp (or in Italy, Qype) reviewer recommendations ever can be. Because when you suddenly decide you must go on an impromptu quest for muneghete (“the Venetian version of popcorn”) after simply reading those five printed words, actually talking to locals rather than just your Twitter friends really is worth the extra salt.