Tales from an Italian kitchen
One of my preferred shapes of pasta is mezze maniche – literally half or short sleeves. I still have to concentrate when I say it though – med-zay man-e-kay – which, typed here, seems as much a name for a rapper as a pasta shape. Half the length of another favourite – tubular, ridged rigatoni – the mezze maniche, with their five-pence diameter, are just the thing for catching and hiding chunks.
It is chunks of aubergine, also courgette, red pepper and mozzarella, hiding for this week’s recipe: pasta di mezz’estate, or midsummer pasta. It could just as easily be called middle-of-thesummer-holidays, late August or early September pasta, given the summer we have all shared and the subsequent abundance of summer vegetables that looks set to roll on.
In the introduction to the recipe in their brilliant book Sapori del Sud, Rita and Mariano Pane describe pasta di mezz’estate as “a stupendous palette of Caravaggio’s colours”, which sounds poncy when I write it, but just right in their words. Rita is right: they are Caravaggio’s colours – or maybe Prince’s – a purple two-piece, white ruffed shirt and a raspberry beret. It is a recipe from Campania, so unsurprisingly the vegetables – a large aubergine, red pepper and a couple of courgettes – are diced and fried until golden in a good inch of olive oil. Incidentally, this means they absorb less oil than a shallow fry. It is this immersion in olive oil that gives the vegetables a rich, almost velvety texture and flavour
– a defining one in traditional southern Italian food.
I take an almost perverse pleasure in frying when the weather is hot, in the layers of heat and stream of sweat, a habit possibly begun when we fried an egg on the bonnet of Dad’s Rover 100 in 1989. Alternatively, you could roast the diced vegetables in the oven; just be generous with the oil and salt. You also need some simple tomato sauce, either three large peeled, chopped or squashed tomatoes cooked in a little olive oil with a clove of garlic until saucy, or some passata. To the sauce you add 500g pasta – boiled until al dente – and the still-warm vegetables, along with 250g diced mozzarella, 100g grated parmesan and a handful of ripped basil. The parmesan acts much the same way as with tagliatelle and rich bolognese sauce, a sort of culinary glue, melting and melding everything together.
The idea of there being pasta shape/sauce rules or official combinations is mismatched with the anarchic joy of food, especially if it is used as a sort of oneupmanship. But there is tradition – pairings that work or have been repeated so often they have taken root: a tangle of spaghetti with clams, corkscrew twists of trofie for pesto, a tube of macaroni, rigatoni or mezze maniche for concealing pieces of aubergine and mozzarella.
Whatever pasta you use, pasta di mezz’estate with its glistening vegetables, tomato sheen, melting mozzarella, all united by parmesan and reeking of basil, is a gorgeous, generous dish for a crowd, especially on a warm day, when sunny flavours are called for.