A paean to pasta
Our columnist has come a long way since supecting that spaghetti was her favourite food aged eight. She’s moved to Rome, been schooled in pasta the Italian way, and can confirm that, yes, spaghetti takes top spot
We are back, temporarily, in the flat I lived in when I first moved to Rome 13 years ago. Friends keep asking how we’ve managed to fit all our things into such a small space. My answer is that we didn’t, that we are merely living around them in a sort of domestic Tetris, which my six-year-old finds most entertaining. I don’t. But I do have great affection for this small second-floor flat, which shares an internal courtyard with a bread shop and trattoria, as in many ways it is the reason I began writing about food in the first place. Stuffed to the gunnels we may be, but we are woken by the thick scent of bread being paddled from the ovens. Then, later in the day, as the trattoria comes to life, the siren scent of cured pork meeting a hot pan, sulphurous greens and the steam from baskets of pasta makes its way up two floors and through our front door.
It was at the trattoria below and in the flats of neighbours on either side where I first tasted many of the classic Roman pastas for the first time: gricia, carbonara, amatriciana, the spicy arrabbiata clinging to quills of penne; where I first enjoyed spoonfuls of pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans); and rosemary-scented pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpeas). Also sturdy pillows of ravioli dressed with melted butter and sage, ribbons of pasta with chicken livers and – my desert-island dish – a tangle of spaghetti and clams. Years before, as I diligently tried and failed to wind the strands around the fork, I told my mum spaghetti was maybe my favourite meal. I must have been eight. I was 32 when I knew it was.
I knew little about Roman food and spoke no Italian when I first arrived. This was frustrating but, in retrospect, quite useful with regard to cooking, as it meant that advice was best demonstrated. You don’t need words to understand that the Italian love of pasta is visceral, nor to understand the strength and tenacity of Italian food habits and their single-minded belief about how things are best done. I did find it intimidating, especially when combined with the often hurtful thoughts about the English and their food. Dented I was, but none of this was enough to puncture my enthusiasm or determination.
I had cooked pasta all of my adult life, but had never tasted anything like the dishes in Rome – and later Sicily. I was happy to relearn the most basic things: how to cook pasta, to sauté a clove of garlic and make the simplest tomato sauce, how to match a shape with a sauce, to flip a pan and bring disparate parts together. I watched and I copied. Add to this a new partner whose nonno was a Sicilian tomato and wheat farmer.
These days Oretta Zanini De Vita’s encyclopedia of pasta never leaves my desk. Every time I look at this astonishing compendium of 300 shapes and 1,500 regional variations, I realise that my experience of pasta, despite my years and travel, is minimal, and that Roman influences prevail. We eat pasta almost every day and they are everyday pastas, which means the no-nonsense sort – a few ingredients combined boldly in a way that makes sense, respecting tradition but never letting that get in the way of a meal. I have written about most of them in this column, and repeated three favourites in today’s pages. There is also another ragu, this week’s new recipe, and it is one that provides two meals.
Like so many Italian recipes, the foundations are fundamental: pancetta and a great handful of chopped carrot, celery and onion cooked until soft and fragrant. Then the meat – in this case a whole piece – which is browned and followed by wine and tomato, and which bubbles away until the sauce is glossy and the meat tender. The meat has a double role here, lending rich juices to the sauce while retaining enough flavour for another course or meal, ideally with green sauce.
I have adopted the Roman habit of tossing the pasta first with cheese, which creates a better surface for sauce to cling to. Whether you add
cheese before or after, toss vigorously, sending steam and alluring aromas to your neighbours.
You don’t need words to understand that the Italian love of pasta is visceral
1 Pasta with braised beef ragu (on the cover) Serves 4-6
100g pancetta, diced
4 tbsp olive oil
2 white onions, peeled and finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
8 sprigs parsley, finely chopped
600-800g boneless beef in a single piece (braising steak)
500ml red wine
2 bay leaves
Salt and black pepper
Extra stock or simply water
500g dried or fresh pasta
Parmesan, for serving
1 In a large, heavy-based pan with a lid, fry the pancetta in the olive oil until it has rendered its fat, then add the vegetables and parsley and cook until soft and wilted – about 10 minutes.
2 Add the beef to the pan, turning to brown on all sides. Raise the heat a little, add the wine and let that bubble and evaporate for a few minutes before adding the passata, bay leaves, a pinch of salt and grinds of pepper.
3 Lower the heat so the sauce simmers gently, then cover the pan for two hours or until the meat is very tender and the sauce reduced and thick but still very much a sauce – check by lifting the lid from time to time, adding stock or water if the sauce seems too thick. Remove the meat and save it for the second course or another day.
4 Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add salt, stir, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Reheat the sauce if it has cooled. Tip the pasta into a large warmed bowl, add a handful of grated parmesan and toss, add the sauce and toss again. Divide between bowls, handing round more parmesan. Serve meat as a second course with green sauce, perhaps.
2 Baked pasta
Warm 5 tbsp olive oil in a large, heavybased pan, then add a finely chopped white onion with a pinch of salt and cook until translucent. Add in tinned plum tomatoes, roughly cut up along with a pinch of dried red chilli flakes, bring to the boil then simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in a handful of fresh basil in the last 5 minutes, balancing the flavours with salt and sugar if necessary. Halfcook 500g pasta, drain and mix with half the sauce, then layer in an oiled ovenproof dish alternately with sauce, 500g mozzarella slices, a handful of basil leaves, finishing with a layer of sauce, 100g grated parmesan and breadcrumbs. Bake until crusty and golden at 180C/350F/gas 4 (20 mins).
3 Tagliatelle with bursting tomatoes
Put a gently crushed garlic clove in 6 tbsp of olive oil in a cold pan and gently heat, without browning. Add 1kg cherry tomatoes and a pinch each of salt, oregano and red chilli flakes, then stir until glistening. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, shaking the pan until all the tomatoes have burst. Squash with the back of a wooden spoon to help release the juices. Stir in a handful of ripped fresh basil. Cook 500g tagliatelle, remove from the water and tip into the sauce, stirring in a little cooking water if necessary. Divide and serve.
4 Courgette carbonara
In a large frying pan, cook 1 sliced medium-sized onion and 300g courgettes cut into 5cm strips, in 5 tbsp olive oil with a pinch of salt until soft – about 10 minutes. Whisk together 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks, 70g grated parmesan, a pinch of salt and lots of pepper. Cook 450g linguine until al dente, reserving some cooking water, then add to the vegetables, stirring. Turn off the heat and, working quickly, add the egg mixture and a splash of the cooking water, stirring vigorously to coat well. Serve topped with ripped basil leaves.