At this point, most of us have progressed past the Ragu / neighborhood pizza level of understanding of what "Italian" food is.
For at least a few generations, most Americans have only known Italy's culinary heritage in the context of Italian-American food -- overwhelmingly southern / Sicilian dishes that have been simplified and adapted to put an emphasis on sweet tomato sauce, lots of melted cheese, and massive dumps of carbs -- pasta, pizza crust, cheesy bread sticks, and so forth.
And while at this point even well-known Italian chain restaurants have started to get people thinking about "Tuscan" food, there aren't many -- if any -- reliable guides to truly eating your way around the peninsula that's home to one of the world's greatest cuisines.
Enter The Silver Spoon. It's a compendium of 2,000 classic Italian recipes, ably translated from Italian to English. (Please note: anything that's been the best-selling cookbook in Italy for 50 years is worthy of some sustained attention, if not open worship.)
Its first edition came out in 1950, entitled Il cucciaio d'argento (the silver spoon.) It was the work of experts commissioned by the design and architecture magazine Domus, who were tasked with collecting hundreds of recipes from throughout Italy's 20 regions, highlighting every region's special dishes.
The beauty of the recipes is their brevity -- each page of The Silver Spoon contains as many as three or four recipes, organized by course of meal and ingredient. They range from the exotic (Fusilli in Cuttlefish Ink, Veal Ribbons, Guinea Fowl with Truffles Baked in a Packet) to the comforting (Risotto with Sausages, Potato Gnocchi Filled With Fondue, Spare Ribs with Polenta) to the indulgent (Bacon Fritters, Date and Walnut Bonbons, Fruits of the Forest Ice Cream) to the bizarre (Calf's Feet With Onions, Sweet-and-Sour Tongue, Omelet With Snails).
While straightforward, the recipes require some advance cooking knowledge -- the brevity of the recipe means that you sometimes need to fill in the blanks with your own experience in the kitchen. This all makes the recipes extremely adaptable -- they're almost more like Mark Bittman-style guidelines than hyper-precise guides to every step of a recipe -- the end result is that reading the massive book is the equivalent to brainstorming for 48 hours straight with the world's most brilliant Italian chef.
I was able to adapt the book's spectacular mushroom/walnut pie (pictured above) without too much trouble, incorporating frozen puff pastry and local cheese -- this is typical for the book's creative but flexible offerings.
If cooking fuels your imagination, The Silver Spoon is like striking oil in Texas. Flipping through it for the first time, I took notes on about forty recipes I knew I wanted to try... three down, 37 to go...