IT seems impossible today that in the early 1980s, few Americans had ever heard of, and certainly had not tasted, polenta, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, or extra virgin olive oil.
Now, all these Italian foods are available, and some are commonplace. Americans are now learning the nuances of Italian cuisine, course by course and region by region. The Italian attitude toward cooking and eating not only inspires a wide generation of young American chefs, it also pervades the home cooking of the United States.
Based on regional and local ingredients, American cooking methods have tended to follow classic French techniques, but now, to some extent, they are becoming more Italian.
This trend is aided by a wealth of cookbooks, and the pre-Christmas collection contains some memorable, interesting, and, most of all, helpful directions for home cooks seeking the gastronomic pleasures of Italian food.
Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Tuscany, with photographs by John Dominis (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $50). "It seems like another era," says Mr. Bugialli, "when I was hunting for a name for my first cookbook with my own teaching and family recipes, that my publisher insisted I must certainly not use the word `Tuscany' in the title.
"That was `much too regional, too specialized,' they said. So we called it `The Fine Art of Italian Cooking.' " That was in 1977.
"Today, people want to know more about the background of food, but one of the most difficult concepts for Americans to grasp is that places so close together can, as a result of their long, separate histories, remain so distinct," says this Florentine native, who teaches Italian cooking in both Italy and in the US. "This makes it fascinating for both of us."
Known for his painstaking research, Bugialli concentrates in this book on recipes from old Tuscan families (including his own) to show the distinctions among dishes from the important cities of Tuscany, as well as small towns and villages.
Lectures and classes take Bugialli to 45 or more cities in the US and Canada each year, and he reports interesting feedback from students.
"Everyone is very busy, today. They want food they can prepare quickly and ahead of time whenever possible," he says. "Americans say, `I don't want to be in the kitchen; I want to enjoy my guests. Europeans don't mind ... they don't feel sorry to say, `I'm working in the kitchen.'
"In Europe a person may have 14 waiters to help serve, and still the host will want to slice the meat at the table, to present it to the guests. It's a tradition of hospitality - this is in the best of families," he explains.
The new cookbook, organized by courses, has personal introductions to recipes as Bugialli weaves in his own experiences.
John Dominis photographed the finished food in locations throughout the hills and plains of Tuscany. There are stunning, full-color scenes of famous markets, as well as shots of the incomparable Tuscan architecture.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan (Alfred A. Knopf, $30).
Marcella Hazan's early cookbooks had the indefinable ability to convey the feel as well as the flavor of Italian food; the aromas, the fresh country flavors, and the simple preparation.
Her new volume combines her first two, "The Classic Italian Cook Book," and "More Classic Italian Cooking." It will easily become a primer and classic for a new generation of cooks ready to learn this popular cuisine.
Mrs. Hazan recognizes the changes that have taken place in eating habits: Some recipes have been updated and new recipes added. Changes include steps to reduce the fat content as much as 30 percent in some dishes.
There is an entirely new chapter called "Fundamentals," a mini-encyclopedia of Italian foods. There are new doughs for focaccia and pizza and a new recipe for a favorite regional loaf, Apulia's olive bread.
The Splendid Table: Recipes From Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, by Lynne Rosetto Kasper (Morrow, $30).
This book brings alive the spirited, hospitable side of Italians, who love to cook and eat together. Lynne Kasper writes with a passion for Italian food while being fully aware of America's fitness concerns.
Ten years ago, while living in Europe, the author began searching for authentic tastes of Emilia-Romagna, a small yet culinarily fertile province of Italy. This lush area that produced balsamic vinegar, tortellini, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and prosciutto di Parma is venerated by food people the world over.
"The region's cuisine is as complex as an intricately woven tapestry," said Ms. Kasper in a visit to Boston. Encountered are personalities such as Lucrezia Borgia, composer Rossini, Napoleon's Empress Marie Louise, and opera star Luciano Pavarotti.
Recipes range from the 16th century to the 18th, but include some creative, modern recipes such as Tagliatelle With Caramelized Onions and Fresh Herbs and a lasagna of wild and fresh mushrooms.
Tuscany, the Beautiful Cookbook, by Lorenza de' Medici (Collins, $45).
Despite an aristocratic heritage, Lorenza de' Medici, who traces her ancestry back to the famed patron of the arts Lorenzo de' Medici, is a hardworking career woman, former editor of Vogue Italia, and author of more than 20 cookbooks.
For the past nine years she has hosted cooking classes for English-speaking students at her magnificent 11th-century Tuscan abbey and estate, Badia a Coltibuono. This fall she launched a new, 13-part television series, "The de' Medici Kitchen," along with her second large, full-color cookbook. It serves as a companion to her "Italy, the Beautiful Cookbook" in 1987.
"Tuscany is really `the' place," she said by phone. "It is very well preserved, not built up, perhaps because it is so hilly. And for a small province in the center of Italy, we are fortunate to have wonderful, fresh, ingredients.
"Tuscan food is very simple," she continued. "We use olive oil, not butter, and we have many fresh herbs - probably more herbs that anywhere else....
"We buy food, fresh, almost every day, a few vegetables, and some fruit - and make a dish of pasta. And it takes only 10 minutes."
The Tuscan cookbook includes dishes from homes and small trattorias, such as a plate of crostini appetizers, a famous fish soup of Livorno, Siena's spicy panforte cake, lamb with artichokes, the chestnut specialties of Lucca, and others.
Trattoria Cooking, by Biba Caggiano (Macmillan, $25). From her travels throughout Italy, the author has collected recipes for homey polentas, filling pizzas, calzones, frittatas, and other dishes that exemplify the simple, "comfort" foods of Italy's trattorias, such as Onion and Bread Soup, and Rigatoni With Tomatoes. There are also mouth-watering desserts and a guide to trattorias in Italy from this Italian-born teacher and chef-owner of Biba restaurant in Sacramento, Calif.
Riso: Undiscovered Rice Dishes of Northern Italy, by Gioietta Vitale, with Lisa Lawley (Crown, $17). If you thought risotto was the only way Italians cooked rice, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Grain can be as versatile as pasta - well, almost. The dishes are light, fresh, and easy.
Cucina Paradiso, the Heavenly Food of Sicily, by Clifford A. Wright (Simon & Schuster $25). All of the recipes here are traditional dishes from Sicily that belong to cucina arabo-sicula, which means they are in some way Arab-inspired or derived. The author, a Middle East scholar and food enthusiast convincingly explains the Arabian influences by the medieval conquest of Sicily by Arabs whose "culture remained there intact for 400 years."
A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, translated by Anna Herklotz, (University of Chicago Press, $29.95). A useful book for food historians and serious food buffs. Although tested and updated, this is cooking before tomatoes, pasta, oranges, or lemons entered the Mediterranean diet. A new look at a 2,000-year-old cuisine, it relies somewhat on the writings of Apicius, Cato, Columella, and other early Romans, with line drawings and photos of Pompeiian taverns and food shops.