Certainly, in terms of scope, there has never been anything like it...for any country. Patricia Wells' subsequent The Food Lover's Guide to France isn't even in the competition, and Faith Willinger's misleadingly titled Eating In Italy (the book, in fact, is solely concerned with Northern Italy), although admirable enough, has nothing like the sheer mass of useful information that Plotkin has packed into this one. The more obscure the place, the more determined he is to visit it; the less inviting it is-Taranto [Sicily] is not, to put it mildly, a place that puts on its best face for the visitor. Some of the largest oil refineries and steel mills in Italy may be found here [and] most of the town is filled with demoralizingly similar apartment flats. Mangy dogs congregate outside the train station, and, as you walk through the centro storico, you will find it run-down but without the raffish animation of similar areas in Palermo, Napoli, or Genova. A chief port of the Italian navy, Taranto is full of randy young sailors, most of them with lots of energy and no way to expend it.... the more effort he makes to find something there worth visiting (in this instance, the Museo Nazionale, with its stupendous collection of Greek antiquities. Food, although his main concern, is far from his only one).
Italy for the Gourmet Traveler opens with some solid introductory chapters-the one on eating in Italy is alone worth the price of admission-and then devotes a chapter each to the country's regions. These start off with an overview of the region itself, a discussion of its notable foodstuffs, wines, cheeses, and preserved meat products, and a course-by-course delineation of typical local dishes. Plotkin then focuses on individual cities and towns, giving a short but succinct portrait of each (he has chosen twenty-one "classic towns" that receive particularly evocative treatment), followed by descriptive listings of the best eating places, food stores, bakeries, candy makers, wine merchants, coffee bars, outdoor and indoor public markets, and, in larger cities, bookstores, cooking schools, health food merchants, honey sellers, housewares and cooking equipment stores, and guided walks. These entries can be brief and to the point, but they can also fill an entire page, sometimes more.
This brings me to the aspect of Plotkin's writing that sets him in a category quite his own: his awareness of the world beyond his plate. He is an acute observer, willing to linger on a park bench or street corner and let everyday life unfold before him. And he shares what he absorbs with the easy conversational style of a gifted letter writer: Walk past the panificio, button store, shoe store, arms store (that caters to hunters), and you will discover a truck, so typical in Italy, that opens on one side. Called Rosticceria "Chi Magna Torna" (He Who Eats Returns), it always does a booming business selling roast chicken, guinea hen, duck, lamb, sausage, ribs, turkey, meatballs, and sparrows (popular here). This truck and its customers are a vivid sight that merits several minutes of observation. At night the truck folds up and rolls away. Near the truck is a large elderly woman selling eggs. She wears a heavy sweater and a red-and-green apron. This is one of a vanishing breed of people, usually elderly and poor, who earn a few extra lire selling whatever the land on which they live yields.