A rich, robust epicurean feast for those who enjoy history as a main course.
Dickie (Italian Studies/University College London; Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, 2004, etc.) begins his extensive survey of Italian food in 12th-century Palermo and ends in present-day Genoa. He honors the Italian notion of “civilization of the table,” which “embraces all the many different aspects of a culture that are expressed through food.” Every dish has a story behind it, and the author’s subjects range from spaghetti (“one of the great unifying motifs in Italy’s constantly shifting gastronomic mosaic”) to Parmesan cheese to the meat-dominant cuisine of medieval Milan, where food doubled as medicine. The descriptions of the unique ingredients used in authentic dishes like Palermo’s focaccia (stuffed with veal spleen and strips of lung, fried in lard) or Roman pajata (intestines of an unweaned calf, complete with mother’s milk) may set inexperienced stomachs churning. Venice in the 1300s brings on a discussion of spices. During the Renaissance, Dickie asserts, Italy’s urban food system became more sophisticated due to the conjunction of multicourse meals served to royalty with regal pageantry. The open-air festivals of the early 18th century gave birth to pizza, new technologies in the manufacturing of dried pasta and the further development of tomato sauce, “the lifeblood of Italian food.” Describing with good humor what Italians refer to as the “cornucopia of horrors” that constitutes American eating, Dickie moves from Mussolini to Sophia Loren to the modern Slow Food movement. But the “charisma” of Italian food comes across only in certain sections; the author’s dense history of early Italian cuisine is overly comprehensive, though never entirely inaccessible.
A bit of personality and humor interjected into this pastoral lesson might have been the seasoning the author needed to garner more crossover appeal.