Book Review: Waverley Root’s The Food of Italy

The next book from my tag sale bounty is Waverley Root’s The Food of Italy. Before getting to the book, I just ask you to say out loud: WAVERLEY ROOT. What a great name! It sounds like a posh tearoom in Notting Hill or an heirloom turnip grown in Jamie Oliver’s garden.


Root originally published The Food of Italy in 1971 as a follow-up to his beloved The Food of France. Both were re-released in 1992 with gorgeous cover art by Louise Fili and are still easily available. (Side note: As a just-out-of-college graphic designer, I tried desperately to get an interview at Fili’s studio, but she never answered my letters or calls. That was part of a different lifetime, but I’m still a tad bitter.)

Root was a news journalist who spent 50 years as a foreign correspondent in Europe writing for the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post. His text has little flourish but is packed with facts supplied one after the other which quickly becomes addictive and engrossing.

As a historian, I truly appreciate the intense background work Root must have done to present the history of Italy and its cuisine so succinctly. First, each region gets its chapter. Then he uses three lenses to examine the chief influences on Italian cuisine: Etruscan, Greek, and Saracen (Arab). While some regions like Tuscany are deservedly longer, he still presents Molise, Calabria, and Basilicata, then poverty-stricken and little-traveled, with rigor.

Though Root’s writing does not reflect the tenets of New Journalism, it clearly bears its influence. (Think Gay Talese on food. The Food of Italy is definitely a product of the early ’70s, yet it’s astonishing that he wrote with such ease on a cuisine which, at that time, most Americans only associated with pizza and chicken parm. Long before pancetta became a household word, Root was educating us about grana padano cheese and the richness of nero d’avola wine. Every once in a while, he lets a more personal voice creep in, as when discussing pizza in the Campania chapter:

Drink a rough red wine with it, nothing refined; a suave wine would be wasted on pizza. It wouldn’t help the pizza and the pizza wouldn’t help the wine.

I’m gonna say that to the sommelier at Otto next time I’m there, just to see what happens.

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