Even if I didn't know Burton Anderson personally, Pleasures of the Italian Table would be my favorite book on Italy. It's a book that blends perfectly local gastronomy, Italian culture and some great characters: the producers, the farmers, the growers, the artisans, and the cooks behind some of Italy's most celebrated foods.
Burton Anderson has lived in this country for decades, and is the world's leading expert on Italian wines (his book Vino is a classic), as well as a colleague and friend of Tom. I first met him on one of our house-hunting trips to Tuscany years ago: in a tiny borgo of medieval stone perched on a hillside overlooking gorgeous countryside, we saw the most beautiful house, just vacated by a Dutch family with four children. Still now, years later, Tom and I occasionally think of that house - of the huge fireplace in the living room, the high, high ceilings, and the disorderly room arrangement on different floor levels, typical of old houses built little by little, year by year, as the budget allowed and the size of the family required - and wonder whether we shouldn't have gone for it. The house, though, had some big problems: no water, and no parking. Clearly, Tom and I weren't as fierce as the nordic Dutch.
In that borgo, and on that hill, was also Burton Anderson's house, and his olive grove (and his water-well, and parking area!). In one of the chapter's of Pleasures of the Italian Table, Burton discusses olive oil, and tells the story of his fortunes and misfortunes in producing it, from the grove to his table: it's one of my favorite parts of the book.
Each chapter of the book is devoted to a "pleasure" (from balsamic vinegar to pasta, from risotto to culatello cured pork), its story, and the story of the people who prepare it, as experienced by the author himself. So, when Burton discusses truffles, he also chronicles how early on a clammy, foggy morning, he went hunting for them with an expert and a pack of truffle-hounds. When Burton writes about pizza, he takes the reader with him to a famous pizzeria in Naples, where he discusses pizza-making and different types of mozzarella cheese with the cook.
Pleasures of the Italian Table isn't a recipe book. It's a book about the committed, memorable individuals who make it possible to sit at an Italian table, and enjoy its pleasures.