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Pellegrino Artusi: The Man Who Put 'Italian' In Italian Cuisine

Touring the peninsula in the 19th century, Pellegrino Artusi documented Italy's best cuisine -- from pastry in Trieste to pasta in Sicily – and invented a national treasure.

An Italian trattoria (Comell Mare)

Italy is marking the 150th anniversary of its unification from a set of separate kingdoms into a single nation. In the backdrop of the yearlong celebration, another related historic milestone looms – it is 100 years since the death of legendary food connoisseur Pellegrino Artusi, at the age of 91. His classic cookbook The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well, published in 1881, is credited with unifying Italian gastronomy.

Artusi's birthplace Forlimpopoli and Florence, where he lived much of his life, have organized a series events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death, including a conference, themed dinners, exhibitions, and publications (for the full program check www.casaartusi.it).

These events mark something of a revival for the Tuscan gentleman, an eccentric character, who was educated in a seminary but was a fierce anti-papist and supporter of the republican hero Giuseppe Mazzini. A misogynist, his greatest loves were his cats, Bianchino and Sibillone, but he was also platonically devoted to his cook Marietta. He dedicated a recipe for the Christmas cake panettone to her, Panettone Marietta - recipe number 604, out of the 790 in the book. He described it as "much better than Milan-style panettone and very easy to bake."

Surprisingly, Artusi never spent much of his own time cooking, though he knew how to. He mainly traveled around Italy looking for regional specialties, such as the presnitz fruit cake of Trieste (recipe number 550): "Here is another German sweet and so good!"), or Sicilian macaroni with sardines (number 88): "I owe this soup to a charming widow, whose Sicilian husband enjoyed tweaking his homeland's recipes'). He translated the original recipes in local dialects into his sensual and precise Tuscan language. Artusi's language was close to that employed in the book Pinocchio, one of unified Italy's first national bestsellers, which contributed to the construction of a national Italian vernacular.

The son of a Forlimpopoli merchant, Artusi's life changed forever after a band of robbers led by the notorious bandit Stefano Pelloni, nicknamed the passatore (smuggler) ransacked his hometown. The night of January 25, 1851, Pelloni and his men occupied the town's theater and demanded ransom from the audience. That same night, they also broke into the Artusi home, attacking one of Artusi" sisters, Geltrude, who never recovered from the shock. The events became known locally as "The Night of the Passatore".

Artusi, then 31, had completed his studies at the seminary of Bertinoro and then at the University of Bologna. He did not graduate from Bologna, where he passed much of his time discussing politics with Felice Orsini, who would later attempt to assassinate Napoleon III. Orsini gave Artusi the derogatory nickname "macaroni eater."

But after the violent events in his hometown, the future gastronomist decided to moved to Florence where he fell in with the literary crowd of the Gabinetto Viessieux reading room, which was a key meeting place for European political thinkers of the time.

Marco Malvaldi, a crimewriter from Pisa who recently published the bestseller Odore di Chiuso (Smell of Stuffiness) featuring Pellegrino Artusi as a character who helps solve a mystery, knows many anecdotes about the gastronomist. "I love his euphemisms, his ways of avoiding vulgarity," Malvaldi says. "To alert his readers about the collateral effects of cabbages, Artusi defines them as ‘sons of Aeolus, God of the Winds.""

The writer has a theory about Artusi's bachelorhood. "He was a lady's man, just good for waitresses and inconsolable widows. He was not a husband. He admitted that he had never paid for or hit a woman. And he was almost ashamed of it, as if this was a flaw." Only Marietta, the cook, left a mark on him. And in return she and his other cook, Francesco Ruffilli, inherited the rights to Artusi's books.

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