• Image about Paolo

That's Italian!

We cut through the pasta to check out five Italian cookbooks and see which ones can take the heat.

According to Neil Simon, there are two laws in the universe: the law of gravity, and everybody likes Italian food. Perhaps that's why Italian cookbooks flood bookstore shelves every year like a sea of red sauce. But which book is best? To find out, I held an Italian cook-off in my own kitchen, following recipes for potato gnocchi from five well-known Italian cookbooks. My husband, Paolo, a native Italian and a lifelong gnocchi lover, served as a one-man judging panel.

How to Cook Italian by Giuliano Hazan
(Scribner, $35)
I've always felt a kinship with Giuliano Hazan. My mother is a fabulous baker, which led me to wonder when I was younger whether people liked me for me or for her brownies. (Lest you think I exaggerate: A long-lost pal recently located me online, after two decades. "I think of you often," she e-mailed, "and of the amazing cookies your mother used to make.") Hazan's mother, Marcella Hazan, almost single-handedly introduced authentic Italian cooking to the United States with 1973's The Classic ­Italian Cook Book. That has to weigh on a guy.

But Hazan has more going for him than a famous last name. He can cook. His recipe produces cloudlike Yukon Gold potato gnocchi enrobed in a smooth and flavorful, if overly rich, Simple Butter and Tomato Sauce. (Hazan was the only author of the five to point out that gnocchi marry best with a smooth sauce.)

I have quibbles with the recipe - I found the instructions to be occasionally vague - but there is only one real problem with Hazan's actual gnocchi: There aren't enough of them. While Hazan claims that they serve four as a main course, Paolo and I polish them off by ourselves. An hour later, I hear a noise in the kitchen and find Paolo in front of the stove, preparing a most un-Italian snack: popcorn.

"Sorry," he shrugs. "Still hungry."

The Silver Spoon
(Phaidon Press, $40)
"That's Italy's best-selling cookbook," I ­inform Paolo when I catch him leafing through this mammoth tome, which has more than 2,000 recipes for everything from penne arrabbiata to chopped mutton with prunes.

"When have you seen an Italian cook from a recipe?" he scoffs.

As I begin working on the potato gnocchi (one of 18 varieties), I think that if The ­Silver Spoon is a typical cookbook, I know why Italians don't rely on them.

Each recipe is about a paragraph in length and full of mind-bending advice like instructions for how to press the gnocchi against "the underside of a grater." I am surprised to see an egg in the recipe - ­something Paolo dismisses as "cheating." Egg makes the dough easier to handle, but the end result is heavy, which these gnocchi are.