Just the thought of pasta makes the mouth water! There are so many sizes, varieties, and sauces that it is challenging to choose only 6 dishes. It would seem that the widely held belief that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy from China is more myth than fact as there was a mention of pasta in a document in 1250 forty-five years before Polo returned from his adventures.
It would seem the dry variety of pasta as we know it today originated in the Middle East and was imported into Sicily during the Arab invasions. There are references to pasta in Muslim texts as far back as 1,000ad. On the other hand, fresh pasta has been linked to Greece and was probably similarly imported into Italy. One of the most popular dry pasta is from Gragnano near Naples. During the 1500s, this town was considered the home of durum wheat pasta, and in the 1750s, the city’s administration reorganized the urban layout to benefit the drying of maccheroni!
Last week, we went over the HOW TO of fresh pasta making. Now let's move on and have a look at some of the most famous pasta dishes made with the fresh stuff! I'll include my favorite recipe at the end!
Tagliatelle al Ragù Alla Bolognese/Lasagna
Spaghetti Bolognaise is probably the most popular pasta dish outside Italy. However, in Bologna, Ragù Alla Bolognese is always served with egg tagliatelle, which is better for holding the heavy meat sauce. Dating back to at least the 1400s, Bolognaise was originally tomato-less and even today should taste more of meat than tomato sauce. There have been so many variations on this beloved dish that in 1982 the Bolognese delegation of Accademia Italiana della Cucina deemed it necessary to issue the “correct” classic Ragù recipe.
Spaghetti/Rigatoni Alla Carbonara
Even culinary experts cannot agree on the origins, so we will probably never know for sure. This, not the only debate attached to this most delicious dish! What type of bacon should be used? Should you use the whole egg or just the yokes? Do you add cream? What cheese do you put on top? Most chefs would agree that you must not allow the eggs to overcook as the consistency should be creamy and not scrambled. Classic ingredients would be pancetta or guanciale (cheek), bacon, eggs, black pepper, and cheese (pecorino Romano or parmesan). Onions or garlic are usually used too. Add the spaghetti or rigatoni to the bacon, which has been cooked in a pan. Turn off the heat and mix in the raw egg allowing the heat to cook the eggs slightly. At the last moment, grind a generous helping of black pepper on top and sprinkle with an abundance of cheese. Simply delicious!
Pesto alla Genovese
As with most pasta sauces in Italy, variations on the same theme differ from family to family. The most common classic recipe is now basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano). Some recipes include other types of nuts. There are two types of pasta associated with Pesto Alla Genovese; the fresh Trofie, a twisted type of gnocchi made with white flour, or Trenette, which is slightly thinner than Linguine. Nowadays, it is quite common to add potatoes and French beans to the recipe, especially when using Trenette, which I have to say I find particularly delicious!
Vermicelli Alla Puttanesca
Due to the name, Puttanesca, many believe this sauce has some connection to prostitutes as “Puttana” means just that in Italian. However, the name came about one evening in the early 1950s on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. Architect Sandro Petti was entertaining a group of friends when they asked him to rustle up something to eat as they were starving. However, he told them he didn’t have much left in the kitchen, and they would have to go somewhere else to get something to eat. It was very late in the evening and almost impossible to find anywhere open at that time. One of his friends exclaimed, ‘Don’t worry, Sandro, just make us a “puttanata qualsiasi,” which roughly translated means a slightly more vulgar version of “any old thing.” Sandro duly threw together a sauce consisting of the very limited ingredients in his larder, i.e., a few tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, olive oil, and some oregano. The recipe today usually includes some anchovies, chili, and parsley.
Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci al Burro e Salvia
Merchants in Venice and Tuscany are credited with the earliest mentions of ravioli as far back as the 14th century. Ravioli was even known to the 14th-century English population, appearing in an Anglo-Norman vellum manuscript.
Many ravioli options are on offer (cheese, mushroom, meat) without including their cousins, tortelloni, tortellini, etc. One of my absolute favorites is Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci al Burro e Salvia. The key to this dish, in my opinion, is the consistency of the fresh pasta, neither too firm nor too sloppy, and a generous amount of Parmigiano Reggiano heaped on top just before serving.
The ravioli are stuffed with ricotta, spinach, some Parmigiano Reggiano, an egg, salt, and pepper. Simultaneously, the sauce is made by melting about 40g of unsalted butter in a pan, taking care not to burn or split. Add 8-12 sage leaves and allow to infuse for a few minutes on very low heat. The perfect result is if the sage crisps slightly, adding texture to the overall dish.
Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
Considered to traditionally come from the Abruzzo region, this cheap and cheerful dish is now popular in the length and breadth of the boot. As there are very few ingredients (garlic, olive oil, chili, parsley, and spaghetti), it is usually the first dish young Italians learn to make. It is also the dish that will most often be offered to you, “facciamo due spaghetti,” if you end up back at an Italian friend’s house after a night on the beer!
The sauce is made by sautéing minced or pressed garlic in olive oil (about 5 tbsp) on low heat to avoid burning. Add dry or fresh chili to give it a good kick, and add the cooked spaghetti to the pan once the oil has absorbed all the flavors and toss well. Mix in chopped flat-leaf parsley, serve, and grate Pecorino or parmesan cheese over the top or some toasted breadcrumbs, common in the southern regions.
And now for one of my favorite pasta dishes; The Recipe...
Pasta is the food of Champions, and of course with the Olympics under way, you can be sure our athletes are indulging! Why not indulge yourself! get those carbs in you, and make it a great week!