First published in Italy in 1950 under the name Il cucchiaio d’argento, The Silver Spoon is widely regarded as one of the most popular Italian cookbooks of all time. A bestseller since its original publication, it went through eight editions in Italian before being printed in English for the first time in 2005. My mum insists that “every Italian bride” receives a copy upon getting married (can any Italian corroborate this?), but I received mine with no strings attached, as a Christmas gift last year. Believe me, when I unwrapped this baby, I was so excited.
Regular readers of my blogs know that I adore Italian food, and this adoration tends to extend to most Italian cookbooks. But although I’ve had The Silver Spoon in my possession for almost nine months now, I’ve delayed reviewing it here. Frankly, this thing is so huge and comprehensive that I’m a little intimidated by it, and somewhat stumped as to how to present a well-rounded critique. To simply tell you about the dishes I’ve cooked from this book would be futile; with over 2000 recipes, it’s only ever going to be a tiny percentage.
Visually, The Silver Spoon is somewhat dry. Though published by the design-centric Phaidon Press, it’s not favourite cookbook of theirs; it certainly doesn’t fill me with delight like my copy of Breakfast, Lunch, Tea. With so much content to work with, the designers clearly had to make compromises to avoid ending up with a book the size of a small car. As a result, the recipes themselves are somewhat cramped, and what scant photography there is contributes little to the overall feel of the book.
There are things I do like about the design though, including the use of type in the section headings, and the charming line drawings scattered through the pages. Many of the most successful visual devices here are actually in the name of organization; for example each section is colour-coded, and clever tabs along the top of the page allow you to quickly find what you want. If you can keep track of 15 different colours and what they mean, of course.
Yup, The Silver Spoon contains an astonishing 15 chapters, beginning with the standard Cooking Terms and Tools and Equipment, before moving into those including (but not limited to) Antipasti, Appetizers and Pizzas, First Courses, Meat and Offal, Cheese and Desserts and Baking. Each chapter is further broken down by ingredient, and then by recipe. At the end of the book, there’s a sizable Menus chapter, which contains Italian-themed menus and recipes by celebrated chefs from around the world.
As for the recipes themselves, they’re delightfully varied: in the Vegetables section, for instance, you’ll find three for Dandelions (pg. 435), four for Pumpkin (pg. 575), and 17 for Tomatoes (pg. 538). All the classic Italian favourites are present (including Bruschetta, pg. 95 and Milanese Risotto, pg. 330), along with some that are slightly less, er, mainstream. (Brain Roulades with Truffle, pg. 855, anybody?) But neither is The Silver Spoon a tour of stereotypical, cookie-cutter Italy. The presence of many international dishes like Indonesian Rice (pg. 318) and English Bread and Butter Pudding (pg. 1027) are a testament to how varied the country’s cuisine really is.
Be warned, though: while this book may teach you how to cook Italian food, it won’t teach you how to cook. Unless you’re at least somewhat confident with the ins and outs of a kitchen, you’ll find The Silver Spoon confusing, as explanation and clear instruction is somewhat lacking. I also find that there’s rather a lot of jumping around between recipes, with certain dishes almost nothing more than a combination of others. Not that I really mind this; it’s simply a book that assumes you know how to cook, and are using it first and foremost for the recipes.
Well, I do know how to cook, and still I’ll admit: I haven’t used this book nearly as often as I first imagined. Oh, don’t get me wrong- I love reading it, and I’ve used it as a reference countless times, but it’s not the first book I reach for when I need a new recipe. Whether that’s because of its intimidating size or lack of visual enticement, I can’t really say. I do have a hunch that The Silver Spoon is more of a long-term love than a quick fling, though, and I’ll probably be using and treasuring my copy for years to come. After all, generations of Italian brides can’t be wrong.
With careful consideration, I’ve decided to give this book four stars. Deserving of top marks for its breadth and authenticity, The Silver Spoon nonetheless loses out for the depth of its instructions, and for failing, just slightly, to draw me in. Still, if you’re looking for the mamma of all Italian cookbooks, this is it.