Pellegrino Artusi: father of Italian Cuisine

Father, guru, evangelist?

Ask any Italian chef, food writer, or home cook, who the most influential figure in Italian cuisine is, and one name comes up again and again: Pellegrino Artusi. Regularly hailed as the father or ‘inventor of Italian cuisine’ his book, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well) is one of the best-selling Italian cookbooks of all time. It is still in print with multiple publishers and the ‘bible of Italian cuisine’ occupies shelf space many an Italian household (I myself have three copies!)

The only known photograph of Pellegrino Artusi.

Right place at the right time?

Artusi’s status as ‘the inventor of Italian cuisine’ is partly—but by no means only—due to his work being published in the right place at the right time. La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, one of the the first Italian cookbooks to gather together dishes from different regions of Italy, was researched and published during the heady days of Italian unification—the conscious fabrication of a single Italy of regions rather than a collection of multiple diverse states.

Artusi as a writer

The book’s initial and continuing popularity is also based on Artusi’s skill as a writer, his obvious passion for cooking (or rather eating), and the fact that all the recipes included were rigorously tested and assumed no prior skill in the kitchen. Artusi was not a professional cook, but a passionate amateur, writing for other passionate amateur home cooks. As he states in the introduction to the last edition of the book published in his lifetime, ‘with this book, all you need to know is how to pick up a ladle.’

His life

Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli, a small market town near Forlì in modern-day Emilia-Romagna. Following a petty bourgeois education, Artusi worked, until the age of thirty-one, in his family shop located in the town centre. In 1851, a traumatic event saw the family move lock stock and barrel to Florence where they established a successful trade in silk. It wasn’t until 1865, however, that the forty-five-year-old Artusi found himself in a financial and personal position to devote his time to his two great passions: literature and food.

And works

His studies bore fruit in three works: firstly a biography of the poet Ugo Foscolo, a sort of Venetian Lord Byron; secondly a commentary of the letters of poet and satirist Giuseppe Giusti; and finally the book which was to dominate the last twenty years of his life, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene.

Science in the kitchen

La scienza in cucina, is a collection of 790 recipes (in its final edition) together with an introductory essay on healthy eating. His opinions on the latter are well worth reading if you take into account that he lived to the ripe old age of 91. Peppered through the recipes are personal anecdotes, opinions, and wry comments that make Artusi’s voice and personality still come alive more than a hundred years after his death and give the book a modern feel.

Although it has been translated into English, Artusi’s book has somewhat escaped the notice of the Anglo-saxon reading public, whose knowledge and love for Italian cuisine have been fostered and shaped by writers such as Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan, and Anna del Conte. Hopefully, two-hundred years after his birth, we can do something to redress the balance. After all, 100 years-worth of Italian home cooks can’t be wrong, can they?

11 thoughts on “Pellegrino Artusi: father of Italian Cuisine”

  1. This is great to read, Luca, and know more about Artusi. I have a copy in Italian and have looked at it for certain recipes but not ‘read’ it. Perhaps I should try and it might even improve my Italian as well as my Italian cooking!!

    1. Thank you! I’m really glad you liked it. Watch this space. I’m going to be writing a lot more about him in the coming weeks as well as translating passages and recipes from the book. Maybe they will help you as a crib. If you are on social media, I’ve also set up some ‘tribute’ accounts which I am trying to grow: all @cucinaartusi on FB / Insta / Twitter.

  2. Christine Beveridge

    I have a copy in English, and it’s well worth a read, even if you don’t cook any of his recipes! His writing is entertaining, and many of his recipes worth trying. Have only recently found your blog, and am trying your ragù alla Bolognese tomorrow. Looking forward to many more delicious recipes! Grazie mille.

    1. It’s really absorbing, isn’t it? The Italian original is a gorgeous mix of literary language and recipes and has a lot of old fashined but fascinating words for utensils!
      Glad you like my blog. The bolognese recipe has proven very popular. Buon appetito!

  3. Thank you. I didn’t know him . The search is now on for a copy . I read and collect books about the English traveling in Italy. It’s amazing how many actually published their recollections and the food often features greatly . The best of the writers for mine is H V Morton , one of the finest travel writers of the 1920s and ‘30s but now almost forgotten .

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and you’ve helped to prove my point. Artusi has been a household name in Italy for 120 years but is still largely unknown outside Italy. There are some translations in English and I’m also going to be writing a lot more about him and doing some new translations too. Watch this space and thank you!

    2. Morton sounds really interesting. I will try and read some of his work, especially A Traveller in Italy and A Traveller in Rome. Thank you!

  4. Ciao Luca! Great minds think alike. I was preparing a post for what would have been Artusi’s 200th bday on August 4th, but family emergencies got in the way, and I will have to save it for next year. I have always wanted to buy a copy when I am in Italia, but the book is so huge that it just won’t fit in my valigia without having to sacrifice my precious cacioricotta. A few years ago, I found a small, thick paperback edition without photos. it has all 790 recipes, so you can imagine how small the writing is, but it was a good alternative at the time. I need to at least buy a copy to leave in Puglia! I could order an English copy online to keep here at home, but I want the original Italiano! Looking forward to your upcoming posts and tributes! Ciao, Cristina

  5. Pingback: Cavallucci di Siena: Italian Twelfth Night cookies - Luca's Italy

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