The Italian Cookbook

Roberta Corradin - October 2006

Conceived for family use almost 40 years ago but taken to heart by chefs, Anna Gosetti della Salda's Le Ricette Regionali Italiane remains the go-to book for regional Italian cooking. Chefs in Italy—and the feisty author herself—provide Roberta Corradin insights as to its ongoing influence.

So unique is Le Ricette Regionali Italiane that as soon as an American dining companion started describing his favorite Italian cookbook a few months ago, I knew right away he was talking about Anna Gosetti della Salda's region-by-region recipe survey of the peninsula, first published in 1967. "Some recipes are proposed in multiple versions according to different ways of cooking them in villages in the same area," he waxed, "and the author sometimes even mentions variations from different families living in the same village." Enough said!

Only Gosetti della Salda among Italian cookbook authors went to such lengths. Not Artusi Pellegrino, who published the first 12 versions of the 790 recipes of La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiare Bene (Kitchen Science and the Art of Eating Well) from 1891 to 1908. Not Ada Boni, who laid down the foundation of classic Italian regionalism in Il Talismano della Felicità (The Talisman of Happiness), first published in 1921 after six years of recipe gathering. And not Il Cucchiaio d'Argento (The Silver Spoon), published in 1950, which veered toward Continental standards in subsequent editions. In her attempt to gather over 2,000 recipes for her book (2,058 to be exact, plus 12 basic recipes), Gosetti della Salda made four trips up and down the Italian boot, comparing different versions of the same recipe, asking advice in every town from families renowned for their cooking, and spending time in their kitchens. From Piedmonte/Valle d'Aosta through Umbria, Abruzzi e Molise, Calabria, and on to Sardinia and Sicily, Gosseti della Sarda presents a groaning board of local dishes, many with footnotes parsing every permutation of the dish and most too rooted to have ventured onto the autostradas of modern Italy. And she compiled this mural of Italian culinary culture while she edited and published the influential monthly magazine La Cucina Italiana, a post she held from January 1952 to February 1981.

Wearing a frizzy mahogany-henna shoulder-length wig (her real hair, white with curls, also sits on her shoulders) and sporting a loose blue navy silk shirt, a knee-length beige skirt, pearl necklace, and light, elegant makeup applied to her immaculate skin, Gosetti della Salda, at 90, is coquettish and very concerned about fashion. She did not like my Armani dress and kept criticizing its cut during our meeting. "My dear, you should take it back to the store," she scolded. Self-exiled from food circles since selling La Cucina Italiana to Quadratom, the magazine's current publisher, Gosetti della Salda owns a publishing house, Solares, whose catalog consists of a single title—Le Ricette Regionali Italiane, currently in its 16th edition and available only in Italian. She passes most of her time in her house on Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples, or in Milan, and in the past 20 years she had granted only one interview, that to her friend, the food critic Edoardo Raspelli, for Buffet magazine, before agreeing to see me.

To fully appreciate what Gosetti della Salda still means to Italians, it's enough to gauge the reactions her name provokes among a diverse group of chefs. It's not a big surprise to discover, for instance, that Nadia Santini, the Michelin three-star chef/co-owner of Dal Pescatore in Canneto sull'Oglio, near Mantua, gives Gosetti della Salda's cookbook as a gift to every foreign intern in her kitchen. Santini champions tradition, firmly believing that cooking is more about reproducing than innovating. In that spirit, she's used verbatim renditions of Gosetti della Salda's recipes in her restaurant—for instance, tortellacci dolci di carnevale, large sugar pastry tortellini stuffed with sour cherry marmalade and chestnut/bittersweet chocolate paste. "Thanks to her always reliable recipes, Senora Gosetti hands down the true value of Italian cuisine; her book is an expression of each region," Santini says. Then, she laments, "It would be good for the image of our country if her book could reach foreign readers."

That's not going to happen soon. Gosetti della Salda has refused every proposal to translate her book, including one for $150,000 from an American publisher. Her only concession came in 2002 to the Japanese, whom she allowed to add a Japanese language legend to the Italian edition. "I'm impressed and touched at how determined and earnest they must be to learn Italian just to have the feeling of my original work instead of relying on a translation," she remarks.

While the recipes in Le Ricette Regionali Italiane suit Santini's style, they certainly don't jibe with the visionary cooking practiced by Massimo Bottura at his Michelin two-star Osteria Francescana in Modena. Yet he too becomes weak in the knees at the mere mention of the book. "The richness of Italy's regions is unique and vast, and this book is the tool to get to know regional traditions even if one does not have firsthand exposure to that specific area," Bottura says. "I do avant-garde cuisine. When I read this book, it's automatic for me to start working on ingredients and techniques: it's the departure point to invent what I call evocative cuisine. In my opinion, avant-garde only makes sense when it evokes sensations already impressed in your memory. So, what do we evoke? Flavors and traditions. And it's in such a book that you can go look for it. Never forget that the quality of ingredients—paramount in Italy—is at the base of everything."

Bottura turns Gosetti della Salda's tradition upside down. "We all love the many regional versions of fish soup, but they all share an uncomfortable side—they're all difficult, with the bones and all, especially in a restaurant. So I decided to make transparent ravioli wrappers from seaweed powder, filled with liquid essence of fish soup, floating in a turbot/tomato confit broth. I place a wafer made from the dehydrated fish used to make the soup over the top. What you have is all the flavor of the soup and the taste of the fish without the bones." For another simple dish that he calls "bread, sardines, and Mediterranean mood," Bottura drapes a split filleted fresh sardine, tail fin waving, on thin toast with a garnish of capers, fleur de sel, pizzute olive paste, fresh tomato seeds in their jelly, eggplant confit, pesto Ischitano (scallions, anchovies, celery, lemon zest, hot red pepper), colatura d'alici (preserved anchovy juice), and candied tomato—different forms of traditional accompaniments.

Igles Corelli, the chef at La Tamerice in Ostellato, near Ferrara, agrees: "You can't be innovative unless your knowledge of tradition is deep and well-founded." In Corelli's hands Gosetti della Salda's iconic fegato alla veneziana (Venice's thinly sliced calves' liver and onions, traditionally served with polenta) becomes an onion flan with liver sauce and polenta chips. "The liver's texture is reworked in a sauce with ginger and coriander; onion chunks become a flan, and crispness is given by polenta chips," he explains. "All the flavors are here, just reinterpreted."

Another guru of modern Italian cuisine, Fulvio Pierangelini of the Michelin two-star Il Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo, Tuscany, near Livorno, says, "I often give the book as a gift; its main purpose is for checking recipes' basic versions. The recipes are sometimes roughly explained, and if readers aren't familiar with that specific regional tradition there's a risk of misunderstanding or misinterpretation." Given the miles traveled down the culinary path during the 39 years since the book was first published, Pierangelini believes its recipes need updating, adding that "historical knowledge, technique, and understanding of ingredients are the fundamental requisites needed to rework her tradition." But Ciccio Sultano of the Michelin two-star Il Duomo in Ragusa, Sicily, demurs. "Proof of the book's reliability comes from reading the chapter on your region," he says, "and for Sicily, her recipes are correct."

Born three years after the first book initially appeared, 36 year old Paolo Masieri of the Michelin one-star Paolo e Barbara in San Remo, Liguria, exclaims, "Anna Gosetti della Salda? Of course I have her book. I read it to no end! Today every chef wants to publish his own cookbook, yet this one is still a milestone. Of course, I rework its recipes in a modern perspective. I especially use this book to learn about different regional traditions. For instance, I often get very good red mullets, and I worked out my own way of her classic red mullet alla livornese." Instead of baking sautéed whole mullets in a tomato sauce and serving them from their earthenware pan as per custom, Masieri heats fillets two minutes with parsley in extra-virgin olive oils—one infused with garlic, the other with hot red peppers—recomposes them to look like a whole fish, with a sauce of Pachino tomatoes (named for the Sicilian town) between the fillets and on the plate, and seasons the fish with the flavored cooking oils.

The only carping criticism comes from Gianfranco Vissani of the Michelin two-star Vissani in Baschi, Umbria: "Gosetti's recipes are approximate," he complains. "Hers is an outdated book. Moreover, when it comes to Italy you can't really talk about regional cuisine: there are so many variants that you should rather call it local cuisine." As noted, however, that's a base Gosetti della Salda has well covered.

Gosetti della Salda flicks aside any complaints. "I recently read the book one more time, very carefully, just to find out what new criticisms I might have. I'm my most severe critic, yet I can't help admitting I did such a good job. I looked deeply into every recipe and technique; there's no room for superficiality in my work. If I were to start again I would do just as I have."

Neither does praise faze her. On hearing how so many Italian chefs still consult a book conceived 40 years ago for domestic use, Gosetti della Salda keeps her composure, giving only a small shrug. "I'm 90. I'm no longer interested in cuisine. My favorite recipe is boiled rice with extra-virgin olive oil."

The biggest story about this very influential book is about its author, whose life, it turns out, could have been played by Katherine Hepburn. After her mother died while giving birth to her fourth child, her father moved his four daughters from their village near Mantua to Milan. Anna, then 14, started working at the San Siro horse racing track. She loved horses and soon became acquainted with the most influential and wealthiest people in Milan, who attended the races. Through them she took a job at an advertising agency, and after World War II she opened her own agency, Ardiv.

Then, to help a friend and a client sell bouillon cubes, Gosetti della Salda proposed a magazine to promote home cooking—La Cucina Italiana. For a column dedicated to regional cuisine, she traveled extensively throughout Italy and, after four years, she had collected over 2,000 recipes, eventually published in 1967 in Le Ricette Regionali Italiane.

"I wasn't concerned with success," she says. "I wanted to do something that could last forever. Therefore this book is about the past, about tradition. Tradition lasts."

In keeping with her vision of "something old and familiar," she chose to have the numbered recipes printed on yellowed paper—"I had a producer run several proofs by me"—and peppered the text with hundreds of black-and-white line drawings—mallards in a swamp illustrate Venetian bigoli con anatra (spaghetti with duck sauce) and a hare on its haunches faces the ingredient list for lepre alla cacciatora. "Pictures are subject to fashions, to changes in taste," she explains. "The drawings express a classic taste. In the 1960s nobody published recipes illustrated with drawings, nobody used yellow, old-looking paper. I had the nerve to do something different, something new.

"I'm the first feminist: you can't imagine how much I did to make things easier for women," declares Gosetti della Salda, who never married. "When the book was published, I thought: this is something I could never have done if I were married. For one thing I couldn't have traveled four times across Italy to find these recipes. And then a husband would have been more concerned about the amount we paid the artists for the drawings and to the paper producer. After the first edition I got less money than what I had invested. Only after several editions did the book start paying for itself."

To Gosetti della Salada, Le Ricette Regionali Italiane is as much a feminist statement as a culinary one. "You can't imagine how hard I had to work to impose myself on a landscape dominated by men," she recalls. "People in the business often distrusted me because I was a woman—and a single woman. It was difficult to get money from banks, surely more difficult than if I were a businessman or a married professional woman. I truly hope that all I did can open the way for all working women. I'd like my work to be an example for them."
An inspiration to chefs, a vanguard for women. Quite a life!