The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (Oxford Companion To...) BY Gillian Riley. Oxford University Press, USA. Hardcover, 672 pages. $35.

The cover of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (Oxford Companion To...)

Tucked in among the many gems—culinary, historical, literary, religious, and otherwise—stashed throughout Gillian Riley’s new Oxford Companion to Italian Food is “The Pope’s Kitchen,” a luscious, whimsical sonnet by the nineteenth-century Roman poet Gioachino Giuseppe Belli, which I cannot bear to include here in anything but its entirety:

The cook wanted to show me,
this morning, all the stuff he bought
for the most holy kitchen. Kitchen?
Some kitchen! You’d think it was a sea-port.

Piles of things, pots and pans and cauldrons,
haunches of veal and beef,
chickens, eggs, milk, fish, veg, pork,
game and all kinds of choice cuts.

So I says: “Your Holy Father does himself all right!”
He says: “You’ve not seen the sideboard,
where praise be there’s as much again.”
I says: “Pardon me, mate!
There must be someone grand for dinner then?”
“Come off it,” he says, “the Pope always eats on his own.”

Belli, Riley tells us in his entry—which in addition to poetry somehow manages to cover the papacy of Gregory XVI, methods of basting grilled lamb, and the fact that there is now a McDonald’s opposite the Pantheon—was later so embarrassed by the heretical edge of this kind of writing that he wanted his sonnets destroyed. “His family and friends made sure this did not happen,” she writes in her characteristically colloquial but never too casual tone, a lovely, rare style to find in what is essentially an encyclopedia. As a result, we can now enjoy this masterpiece, which is not only delightful in its own right but serves as a perfect encapsulation of the Companion to Italian Food as a whole, laden as it is—larded, one might even say, considering that the other sonnet Riley includes is Belli’s ode to that most delicious of cooking fats—with humor, sly political commentary, history, and a general sense of its author’s total immersion in and great passion for Italian cuisine and its connection to all other aspects of Italy.

Like Belli, Riley wears her knowledge lightly, no doubt because it is born of genuine obsession rather than pedantry. She is far too modest in her very short introduction (which is preceded by a swashbuckling foreword by Mario Batali—“Let us follow Gillian in hot pursuit”), confessing her zealotry with all the glee of a child. “We press our noses against the misted-up window pane trying to glimpse what lies beyond,” she writes of herself and her fellow travelers on the Italian culinary quest. And while “no book on Italian food can cover all the ground or answer all the queries . . . we hope to convey the delights and excitement of the pursuit.”

That she certainly does. So well, in fact, that leafing through her volume’s nine hundred or so entries, which are divided under subject headings (“Biographies,” “Cheese and Milk Products,” “Art and Culture,” “Grains,” “Preparing, Serving, and Eating,” to name but a tempting few) and helpfully cross-referenced, is probably as close as one can get to taking a vacation in Italy without boarding a plane. And why suffer the prodding and probing of the Transportation Security Administration when you can read a book in the comfort of your own living room?

Scanning the list of subjects, for example, your eye might fall on “Italo Calvino,” causing you to flip immediately to the C’s, intending to find out more about “Theft in a Pastry Shop,” Calvino’s short story about criminal intent subverted by nothing more than some delicious cakes (which, it turns out, is oddly missing from his entry). But instead, you find yourself, after skipping ahead a bit too far in your excitement and meandering around as though it were a lazy afternoon in Florendoce and you’d made a wrong turn on your way to the Uffizi, waylaid by “Dolci.” There, you learn not only about panforte, zuppa inglese, and other delicacies but also that Italian bars always have freshly baked sweets available in the morning because it’s “important in a culture where breakfast is taken on the hoof and whose quality sets the tone for the day.” (Elsewhere, Riley observes in her typically pithy manner that “pastries once made by the nuns in convents are becoming as scarce as new nuns.”)

If sweets are not your thing (and, pleasantly distracted as you should be on a good trip, you never find your way back to Calvino), you can look up individual herbs—anise, pennyroyal, tansy—or entire regional cuisines. You can while away some minutes reading about the three different kinds of pecorino listed in the index or spend an afternoon reading the pages-long “Pig” entry, which is sub­divided into sections on that animal’s role in the domestic economy of Italy, breeds, fresh pork, and “Pork in the Past” and followed by separate entries for pig’s blood, pig’s head, pig’s extremities, pig’s fat, and pig’s offal. A pork chop will never look the same once you know that the Visigoths brought a wild porcine breed “from their gloomy Northern forests as the Dark Ages closed in on the once tranquil civilization of Rome, symbolised perhaps by the wild hairy scavengers rootling where once stood villas with under-floor central heating.”

Two men operating a macaroni-making machine, Naples, 1929.
Two men operating a macaroni-making machine, Naples, 1929.

And there is so much more. Those on whom the semantics of cooking work like an aphrodisiac can wallow with near-obscene delight in entries like that for the word drizzle—a common enough one that Riley imbues with a slightly discomfiting sensuality while at the same time setting her readers straight about its proper use: “Not a comfortable or accurate way to describe pouring moderate amounts of olive oil over food, and even worse when applied to honey or balsamic vinegar,” she scolds. “The nearest to what is going on is ‘dribble’ which may have mildly unfortunate connotations, and so has been bowdlerized as ‘drizzle,’ but ‘pour’ or other words serve the purpose better. Irrorare is the Italian verb to sprinkle or disperse drops, as in dew, sweat, or tears. Squirting or spraying a liquid over food in the form of froth is a different issue.” And you thought you knew how to cook!

But such finger wagging is more than leavened by the pure pleasure to be had on almost every page. The entry “Festivity and Food” conjures up decadent nights and childhood innocence alike and begins with what is perhaps the raison d’êtreor rather, ragion d’essere—for this volume. “In Italy, a celebration without food is unthinkable,” Riley tells us. From there, it’s a short leap to I Morti (the Day of the Dead) and its marzipan fruits and vegetables, and Christmas with its panettone, eel (capitone), and many courses of fish (seven or nine, generally, served with pezzetti—fried broccoli, artichokes, zucchini, and ricotta—in Rome, while Neapolitans prefer a sauté of broccoli and frutti di mare). As for pasta, Riley describes various local Christmas Eve traditions, but the standout among them, in terms of both flavor and symbolism, is clearly the traditional dish of Lombardy and Piedmont, lasagne, “where wide sheets of pasta evoke the swaddling clothes of the Baby Jesus and are sauced with butter and oil, anchovies, the fragrance of garlic, sage, rosemary, and bay leaves, freshly grated black pepper, and parmesan cheese.” She also mentions a delicious-sounding confection called dita degli apostoli—“tiny omelettes filled with chocolate or espresso-flavoured ricotta” that represent the fingers of the Apostles. It’s enough to make a girl convert to Catholicism in time for the holidays.

If the religion doesn’t get you, no doubt the cooking tips will, many of them combined with scientific tidbits and moments of ontological exploration that transform them into far more than mere suggestions for how to produce a delicious meal. Riley’s entry for basil ends with a discussion of pesto (which rightfully has its own entry, too). She begins straightforwardly: “Some maintain that basil leaves should always be torn, never cut with a knife, as contact with metal causes browning. In fact, browning, the result of action by enzymes in the plant itself, happens . . . regardless of whether the leaves are cut or torn.” After recommending that you avoid the whole thorny issue of discoloration by simply making your pesto right before you wolf it down on hot pasta, “as all good Italians do,” Riley shifts modes from test-kitchen cook to philosopher chef: “The wider question of whether to tear, cut up, or pound salad leaves or herbs or vegetables is a matter of aesthetics as well as dogma,” she finishes with brisk, ecclesiastical authority. It’s like stepping into Thomas Aquinas’s kitchen, only to find him tying on an apron to make you a home-cooked meal.

Which, ultimately, is precisely the kind of feeling that any good food book—cookbook, narrative, encyclopedia, or otherwise—should impart. After all, eating is what binds us no matter who we are or how we approach it, and we’d probably all understand one another a lot better if we visited each other’s kitchens now and then. Belli, for one, believed that even the grandeur of the heavenly kingdom doesn’t hold a candle to a good piece of meat cooked well. “The Holy Ghost would enjoy this miracle,” he wrote about some particularly succulent grilled lamb chops, “floating above St. Peter’s, with all his Apostles / down below in their refectory.” To which I can only say, Amen.

Melanie Rehak is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.