Twenty years ago when I left for Italy to study a year at the University of Bologna, my mother snuck a copy of Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cookbook” into my suitcase. While it would seem strange to give a kid flying off to Italy a cookbook in English, it was a lifesaver.
I have found cookbooks that are just as fun to read, and others that are pleasure to browse through, gawking at enticing images of food and Italy. The book, the size of a thick paperback crime novel, was a perfect guidebook for a young american college student as he plunged into a year in city of tortellini and lasagna. She had (and has) a way of translating recipes and cooking philosophy that made them accessible to American supermarkets and minds. So even though her instructions for Spaghetti alla Carbonara call for pancetta or, if that is not accessible, bacon, whereas purists central Italy say only guanciale will do, if you have her books as a guide, you will eat well, which is what really counts in the end.
It is better with guanciale, an unsmoked version of pancetta made from pork jowls (guancia means cheeks in Italian), but even in Abruzzo and bordering regions where it is common it is not easy to find and keep on hand.
She helped me understand that Italian cooking does not have to be complicated. Recipe Zaar publishes her instructions for “the simplest tomato sauce ever” (www.recipezaar.com). The ingredients are canned tomatoes, butter (yes, sometimes butter is better than olive oil in Italian food) and a medium sized yellow onion, cooked slowly for about 45 minutes (the onion is thrown out at the end).
In the end the key is attention to detail, and thinking about what you are doing, that matter most. In the US it was groundbreaking decades ago to build your meals around the vegetables that were in season nearest to you. But when you think about it, it just makes good sense. The huge varieties of foods and dishes and creative variations that make Italy the place the world wants to visit for its food. And in Italy, food is built from the ground up.
(For those of you reading this on Facebook, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com)