I've just been out doing last-minute shopping. You're out doing last-minute shopping. Or deciding what to do with the book-buying gift certificates that always make the best Christmas gifts. Here are suggestions I've been meaning to make for too long, offered almost too late--but these are all books you should own, whenever you make your way to a bookstore and however they make their way to your or a worthy recipient's library.
My first love is Italy, so I start with two Italian-themed books you need. The first, La Cucina, is an encyclopedia by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina of over 2,000 recipes that is an essential reference for professional and home kitchens. The range and scope of the recipes, many of which you'll never have occasion to make (donkey stew, tope--a name I didn't know for shark--with garlic and finferle, Tuscan wild mushrooms substituted here with chanterelles), itself sets it apart from almost any other book, particularly one in good English.
I say "good English," because although the credited translator is Jay Hyams, I know that my friend Fred Plotkin had a great deal to do with the translation of the recipes for American kitchens. I hear his dry wit in many places--"This recipe from Toscana for beans cooked in a glass flask should ideally be made with an authentic Chianti fiasco (with or without the straw)"--and see his good sense too. And as always in a book of this size and any book Fred has anything to do with, I learn things constantly. In a brief swing through, I finally found the derivation of the common Italian, especially Roman, way to refer to offal:
the quinto quarto ("fifth quarter") on the theory that the weight of these parts, which no one usually wants--including the head, tail, hooves, and tripe--was equal to one quarter of the slaughtered animal's weight.
When you have a dish anywhere in Italy and need to make it at home, you'll want to start here.