Unlike pasta which is often best served right after cooking, this post has simmered on the back burner for a few months.
I wanted time to peruse the 400 pages of Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant, which was released last fall to rave reviews. De Vita is an authority on the history and variety of the country’s regional cooking. Fant is a writer and native New Yorker who has made Rome her home for more than 30 years.
Reading the book has been like a conversation with trusted culinary colleagues. In some sections my head bobbles up and down in affirmation. At other times, I cock my head as a fresh idea leads me to consider something in a new way.
The book is comprised of four main sections: “Welcome to the World of Italian Pasta,” “Sauces,” “Soups,” and “Pasta.” Although non-Italian cooks may be surprised at the inclusion of a soups chapter in a pasta tome, the authors tells us that pastasciutta (“dry pasta” that is served with a sauce) is a relative newcomer in Italy. “As late as the first half of the twentieth century, small towns and rural areas ate their pasta in broth or in vegetable or legume soups.”
Conversely, for cooks who drown their spaghetti in ladles of red sauce, they gently let us know how pastaciutta should be.
“Even though we use the word ‘sauce,’ we prefer the Italian word condimento as a generic term. Is a handful of cheese tossed on bare spaghetti a sauce? It is certainly a condimento. Condimento covers just about everything you can add to a bowl of pasta, while ‘sauce’ has connotation of liquidity and advance preparation, which are not always relevant.”
Talk of condimenti aside, one chapter is titled “Sauces” (perhaps their editor’s doing) which is organized, not by regions, but by main ingredients. The authors believe this is truer to what really happens in kitchens than are politically drawn boundaries. They explain that southern Lazio, Rome’s region, has more in common with Campania, where Naples is the capital. And that northwest Tuscany enjoys fare in common with adjacent Liguria.
The section on “Pasta,” nearly 100 pages, is alone worth the cost of the book. It starts with formulas for the basic doughs: pasta all-uovo (egg dough), pasta acqua e farina (flour-and-water dough), and la sfoglia (a sheet of rolled egg pasta). From these basic doughs, De Vita and Fant show us how to create everything agnolotti to strozzapretti. It’s in this section that Luciana Marini’s meticulous illustrations prove invaluable.
Open to any page in this book and you are stepping into a home kitchen somewhere in Italy just as De Vita has done since the 1950s, talking to the women who prepare these pastas as their mothers and their mother’s mothers did. Italian cooks share recipes in a sort of shorthand trusting the reader to taste for salt and watch for doneness without the need to have every time and technique codified.
De Vita and Fant have preserved the heart, the essence, of these recipes, but added enough detail so that even an inexperienced cook can prepare one of these dishes and say: I made pasta the Italian way.
Sugo con i broccoli alla siciliana (Broccoli, olives and pistachios)
Serves 4 to 6
For the condimento:
2 cloves garlic
2 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained and blotted dry
2 tablespoons salt-packed capers, rinsed free of all salt
3 ounces (80 grams) black olives, pitted, preferably Gaeta or taggiasche
1 1/2 ounces (40 grams) shelled unsalted pistachios
6 tablespoons very fruity extra virgin olive oil
1 small piece dried chile, about an inch long
about 2 pounds (1 kilogram) broccoli or cauliflower or one of their relatives, trimmed and cut into florets
To make the dish:
1 pound (450 grams) factory-made pasta corta such as busiata, fileja, penne, sedani, orecchiette, rigatoni, strascinati, or cecamariti
6 rounded tablespoons (60 grams) grated pecorino ragusano cheese (or a youngish pecorino romano)
Put 5 quarts (5 liters) of water on to boil in an 8-quart (8-liter) pot over high heat.
Chop coarsely together by hand the garlic, anchovy fillets, capers, olives, and pistachios.
Heat the oil gently in a skillet large enough to hold the pasta later. Add the chile and discard when it begins to color. Add the garlic mixture to the pan and sauté gently in the oil until the ingredients just begin to turn gold, about 2 minutes.
When the water boils, add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the vegetable and boil until it can be pierced easily with a fork, about 5-7 minutes. The vegetable should be cooked, but al dente, not mushy.
Lift the cooked vegetable out of the pot with a slotted spoon or spider strainer right into the skillet, leaving the water in the pot (where you’ll cook the pasta). Taste for salt (with the anchovies, olives, and capers you will probably not need any at all), and let the flavors blend for a couple of minutes over low heat.
Meanwhile, bring the water back to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
When the pasta is al dente, lift it out of the water with a handheld colander or spider strainer and transfer it, rather wet, to the skillet. Mix well over low heat for about 30 seconds, sprinkle with the cheese, and mix again. Transfer to a warm serving dish or serve directly from the skillet. Serve immediately.
Wine suggestion: a hearty Sicilian red, such as Nero d’Avola