I STILL remember the shock of my first meal in Florence. An order for grilled steak came as just that: a steak, grilled. No potatoes, no fantasia of five miniature vegetables, no sauce apart from olive oil. The art of it now reminds me of when the painter Giotto was asked by his pope to submit examples of his work. He simply drew a perfect freehand circle in red chalk on a sheet of paper and sent that along.
Like an Italian cook, Giotto knew the value of the right ingredients - and of a simplicity typified by the Florentine pamphlet Con Poco o Nulla (With Little or Nothing) which opens with 10 suggestions for using day-old bread. As with all the best Italian cookbooks, it celebrates the appetites of the contadini, the peasants. With few exceptions, their food tastes of what grows, flies, runs and swims where they live.
Such essential ingredients are celebrated in Anna del Conte's magisterial Gastronomy of Italy (Simon & Schuster, pounds 9.99), an encyclopedia of all those incantatory Italian culinary words, from abbacchio (baby lamb, one of Rome's great specialities) to my favourite stinco (veal shin) and zuppa inglese ("English soup", the Italian version of trifle). Well-filled with recipes and pictures, this should be the standard reference book in all rented Italian villas.
The Italian's real art is to instill in us a deep envy of their lifestyle. Two books to turn non-Latins the colour of fresh pesto are Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio's Complete Italian Food (Quadrille, pounds 25) and Robert Fresson's loving photo-essay Savouring Italy (Pavilion, out of print). The recipes are almost irrelevant; what matters is the emphasis on perfect ingredients presented with integrity.
Michelangelo own illustrated list of typically frugal but joyous Florentine meals, written on the back of a letter in 1517, appears in Gillian Riley's witty translation of Giacomo Castelvetro's The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy (Viking/ British Museum, out of print), an early 17th-century book that its author, a keen gardener, hoped would teach the English to make a decent salad. Beautifully illustrated with paintings of the period, the book offers charming insights into an Italy inseparable from its cuisine: Venetian ladies ogling passers-by from behind sprays of bean foliage, dried pumpkins used as floats by children in the Brenta canals.
From hop shoots fried in olive oil and sprinkled with bitter orange juice to artichokes "about the size of a walnut" eaten raw, and grilled asparagus with parmesan cheese, any one of Castelvetro's recipes could be served today in Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray's Hammersmith restaurant. Rogers and Gray's River Cafe Cookbook and River Cafe Cookbook Two (both Ebury Press, pounds 15) are worth having for their inspired slant on classic Italian style.
Mary Taylor Simetti's Sicilian Food (Jill Norman, out of print) discusses many of Italy's external sources, showing the innovations of Arab traders/invaders, whose influence is reflected in such dishes as spinach with pine-nuts and raisins, and the marzipan pastries still sold in Sicilian convents. Simetti credits the Greeks as well, who ran the first school for professional chefs at Syracuse in the fourth century BC.
Finally for the techniques of Italian cooking and the science of it, there are Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook, Second Classic Italian Cookbook and Marcella's Kitchen (all Papermac, pounds 12.99). Hazan is rooted in the Italian classics such as Pellegrino and Ada Boni, but she has the advantage of explaining the exact use of salt and soffritto and risotto rice, those precise details omitted by that earlier generation of cooks who had the good fortune to possess the ultimate culinary accessory - an Italian grandmother.
Leslie Forbes is the author of `A Table In Tuscany' (Penguin, pounds 12).
Next week: the essential works on Caravaggio.Reuse content