IT'S no secret that Americans love pasta. Their passion for Italian food - both simple and sophisticated - seems to know no bounds.
Cookbook authors are responding to the craze, which has been going strong for over a decade now, by specializing in either regional or individual aspects of Italian cuisine.
Among the most notable of recent releases is The Classic Pasta Cookbook (Dorling Kindersley, 160 pp., $24.95), by Guiliano Hazan, son of that doyen of Italian cooking teachers, Marcella Hazan.
Vibrant photographs of beautifully prepared and styled dishes and easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions make this hardcover an excellent guide to selecting, making, and cooking pasta.
The book's playful layout will inspire you to study every page, if not try every recipe.
Stressing pasta's versatility, Hazan offers more than 100 recipes for such dishes as: Spaghetti Alla Checca (spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, herbs, and mozzarella), Fettuccine al Prosciutto e Asparagi (Fettuccine with Prosciutto, Asparagus, and Cream), and Tortelloni di Ricotta e Prezzemolo (Tortelloni filled with Ricotta and Parsley).
Hazan's mother describes his palate as ``possessing the gastronomic equivalent of perfect pitch.'' (Spoken like a true Italian mother.)
Another one of America's foremost authorities on Italian cuisine is Julia della Croce, author of Antipasti: The Little Dishes of Italy (photography by Joyce Oudkerk Pool, 152 pp., $18.95).
Della Croce opens with sections on essential ingredients and mail-order sources for cooking equipment and provisions.
She then splits her book into eight chapters including Antipasti di Mare (seafood), Antipasti di Polenta e Fagioli (polenta and beans), and Pane, Corstate, e Tramezzini (savory breads, pies, and sandwiches).
She dispels the myth that antipasti (literally, ``before the pasta'') is a cold platter of salami, olives, pickled vegetables, and cheese, and explains that antipasti can be made in many forms, both hot and cold.
``It could be argued that antipasti are the most versatile and appealing of all Italian dishes,'' della Croce writes.
Zucchini rolls stuffed with ricotta, peppers filled with rice and sausage, potato fritters with sauteed wild mushrooms and fontina cheese sauce, and Tuscan-style shrimp and cannellini beans are just some of the 80 recipes - all of which, in classic Italian style, call for only the freshest and best ingredients.
Author Carol Field's Italy in Small Bites (William Morrow & Co., 284 pp., $23) offers a historical and contemporary perspective on that country's food.
``Eating in Italy is such an immense pleasure that it should be no surprise to discover that Italians have a tradition of eating not three but five meals a day,'' she writes, explaining that the two extra meals are called ``merende'' - ``tasty, nourishing little bites eaten at midmorning and midafternoon.''
Field calls merende the ``soul food of Italy,'' and offers more than 150 recipes for these mini-meals ``from fields and kitchen gardens [from which] come a myriad of greens and herbs, eggplant, tomatoes, sweet peppers, artichokes, garlic, and onions.''
Most are simple, ranging from bruschetta (toasted garlic bread) and polenta to biscotti and necci (ricotta-filled chestnut crepes).
The creative force behind the Il Fornaio restaurants and bakeries in California, Franco Galli, shares baking traditions and inspiration in his new book, The Il Fornaio Baking Book: Sweet and Savory Recipes from the Italian Kitchen, (Chronicle Books, 192 pp., $19.95).
Gallo's bread recipes are all free-form: no bread pans needed. Special chapters are dedicated to Dolci (sweets), Biscotti (cookies), Pizze, and leftover-bread recipes.
Folklore, fables, and personal tales of Gallis's boyhood in Italy add a folksy feeling.
``I went to work at five in the morning and helped make bread until half-past ten. Then I would load my bicycle with loaves hot from the charcoal-fired forno and delivered them to farm families in the nearby countryside,'' he writes.
Favorite dishes of Italian-American immigrant families now living in New England are the thrust of Lotte Mendelsohn and Bea Lazzaro's book, Italian Regional Cookery: A Culinary Travelogue (Font & Center Press, 360 pp., $15.95).
The paperback is divided into three sections: `The Italian Table,' `Cooking with Bea,' and `The Italian Regions & Their Recipes.'
Line drawings and simple maps signify each region and chapter. Interspersed are ``chats'' that add personal spice to the book, such as chiacchierate con le tre nonne (talk with three grandmothers) and chiacchierate con un pescatore (chat with a fisherman).