Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and their Food by John Dickie; The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley - review by Elisabeth Luard

Elisabeth Luard

Catnip to the Gastronome

Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and their Food


Sceptre 416pp £20

The Oxford Companion to Italian Food


Oxford University Press 637pp £19.99

These two books turn a searchlight on the history and habits of the Italian kitchen. One advises abandoning the ‘syrupy stories about how Italian food got where it is today’, while the other provides a scholarly guide to what it actually is.

John Dickie follows Cosa Nostra, his much-praised study of the Sicilian Mafia (scary stuff – I read it in Palermo), with a subject just as likely to earn a knife between the ribs. Delizia! is a page-turner, catnip to the gastronome, delving into the store cupboard of a uniquely rich culinary habit. That said, the basic premise – that the story of Italian food is the story of Italian cities – is open to question.

First in the firing line is the ‘Molino Blanco myth’ – a reference to the highly successful marketing campaign of the 1990s which associated Italy’s culinary traditions with the ‘sun-weathered old peasant with a twinkle in his eye; the noisy family gathered under the pergola while mamma serves the pasta’.

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