There is plenty to consume in the 600-page-plus The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (Oxford University Press, $35), by Gillian Riley.
Riley, a food historian and writer on food in art, covers all 20 regions from the tip of the boot to the Alps, and Sicily and Sardinia. She dissects the cheeses, sausages, produce, spices, regional dishes, cooking styles, history, cultural influences and important culinary figures - just about everything but wine (which is kissed off in a short mention, probably because it could warrant a book of its own).
Some tasty tidbits:
- Cicero, the Roman orator, reportedly gave the family name to chickpeas, whose Latin name is Cicer arietinum (ceci in Italian), already a staple at the time and to this day.
- Ciabatta, the beloved, billowy bread with a crisp crust, was developed relatively recently - in 1982 by former car racer Arnaldo Cavallari in Adria, Rovigo, in the northern region of the Veneto. Riley admits to a "scrum" with "some pretty tough characters (Italian)" when a London department store first offered ciabatta more than 10 years ago.
- Lard isn't the same as the Italian lardo, though the similar spellings might make one think so. Instead, strutto is the Italian word for lard, which is rendered pork fat, and lardo is cured lard, often with salt, aromatic herbs and spices.
- Mozzarella di bufala, that beloved and most Italian of cheeses, is made from the milk of water buffalo not native to the country. They were brought to Italy from Asia during the late Roman Empire - a much better legacy than that Roman essential garum, a sauce made by fermenting fish and their entrails.
- Mostaccioli, well known in the United States as a pasta dish made with tube-shaped macaroni, was originally the word for cookies named after mosto, grape must, which was cooked down to a thick syrup and used for sweetening instead of honey or sugar. The cookies still are made in Sicily with cloves, cinnamon and ground almonds.
-A portion of panettone, the famous Christmas bread, would be kept by many Milanese families until Feb. 3, the feast of San Biagio, "a saint who intercedes for those with earache and sore throats, when as a potent relic of the Christmas rites it would be eaten for breakfast to ward off winter colds."
- Salt, an inexpensive commodity now, was once so highly treasured that "it was often recovered from the brine and other residues from curing meat, to be recycled."