The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: "How Italian Food Conquered the World" by John F. Mariani

I have long believed that Italian cuisine is the most popular on the planet, supplanting even its stuffy French cousin. Now comes noted author and food and wine correspondent John F. Mariani with the facts to back up my belief.

“How Italian Food Conquered the World” is a fact-filled romp through Italian culinary history from Apicius to Mario Batali. Among its 270 pages you will find fascinating and informative anecdotes detailing Italian food's rise from the relative obscurity of the Italian peninsula to its current position of global dominance. If this sounds like hype, consider this; can you think of a place in the world where pizza has not carved out a culinary niche? Or pasta? From a position as a reviled and ignoble peasant food, pasta can now be found on the menu of nearly every upscale restaurant in the world – including the fancy French establishments.

As a student of Italian food, I was delighted to tear through the pages of this book and discover a wealth of little culinary gems. Exclamations of “I knew that!” and “I didn't know that” accompanied the turn of nearly every page. Even in places where Mariani's opinions might have conflicted with mine – sorry, John, but I'm one of those Italian cooks who proudly contends that Catherine de Medici did teach the French how to cook – I found his grasp and presentation of the subject matter to be superb.

In terms of style, the book is very much like a conversation with a friend. Facts and ideas, concepts and anecdotes all flow together seamlessly in a nice, easy read that you can either choose to devour all at once or parcel out section by section to enjoy over time. A few critics have taken Mariani to task for bogging down or slowing down his otherwise enjoyable treatise with overly arcane passages about expensive restaurants in “chic locales” and dwelling too long on subjects like the “Italian mobster stereotype.” I, too, found slow reading in some areas, but overall the book carries itself extremely well.

Another critical note asserts that Mariani fails to connect to his theme of Italian food conquering “the world” by spending too much time focused on the rise and popularity of Italian-American cuisine. I would dispute that since it is my opinion that Americans have been largely responsible for the spread of Italian food to other parts of the globe. But that's a nit pick that could easily be the subject of its own book. In fact, the “sub-plot,” if you will, of “How Italian Food Conquered the World” seems to be a subtle telling of the overall Italian immigration experience. The book isn't just about Italian food, but about the people behind Italian food – the ones who are responsible for its growing ubiquity.

With a foreword by Italian culinary maven Lidia Bastianich and acknowledged input from a laundry list of Italian cooking notables, Mariani has produced a truly delicious book that even throws a few truly delicious Italian recipes into the mix, just for good measure. It is what The Daily's Colman Andrews describes as “equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun.”

Published by Palgrave Macmillan and available as a hardback at bookstores everywhere (and as an ebook through various online outlets), “How Italian Food Conquered the World” is a “must have” addition to any comprehensive culinary library.

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