La vita è una combinazione di magia e pasta
Federico Fellini perfectly summed up the Italian condition when he said, ‘Life is made of magic and pasta.’ And it’s not a cliché that Italians eat pasta every day. They really do. A recent study showed that Italians eat 28kg per person per year. Divide that by 80g, the normal portion size, and you get 350. I guess the two weeks when they are not eating it is when they are on holiday, or that you have to take into account that children eat less.
5 Pasta myths
Before we take a detailed look at the Italian staple and how the Italians cook and eat it, let’s clear up a few myths I keep hearing.
1. It was brought to Italy by Marco Polo
This fact is everywhere, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Marco Polo returned from his Chinese sojourn in 1295 and yet in 1154, an Arab writer called Al-Idrisi wrote about a pasta factory located in Sicily, that exported the product all over the Mediterranean. Also, Marco Polo was Venetian and so if he’d brought it back you’d expect it to feature widely in the cuisine of Venice and the Veneto. But it doesn’t. There is only one really traditional pasta dish from Venice, bigoli in salsa. Until the 20th Century, people thought of maccheroni as a southern Italian thing. A Neapolitan thing in particular.
2. It makes you fat
You only have to look around yourself when in Italy to realize that this isn’t true. Pasta is 25% carbohydrate and about 1% fat. What does make you fat is either eating too much—as we’ve seen the normal portion size in Italy is considered to be 80g—or loading it up with calorific sauces. Italians at home will often eat noodles in bianco, with a little oil or butter and a small amount of grated parmigiano reggiano cheese on top.
3. Fresh pasta is higher quality than dried pasta
Dried pasta is not an inferior version of fresh pasta. It’s just a different thing. There is good quality fresh and inferior quality fresh. There is good quality dried and inferior quality dried. But they are not the same thing as we will see below.
4. You should run drained pasta under cold water to stop the cooking
Most Italians agree that you shouldn’t do this. If you rinse it, all you are doing is removing starch which helps to make it mix in with the sauce and makes the sauce creamier. With some sauces, Italians will drain the noodles while they are still a little undercooked and finish off the cooking in the pan with the sauce. They will also add a little of the cooking water to help it on its way.
5. One-pot pasta is popular in Italy
Many advocates of the ‘one pot pasta’ method (where you cook it together with the sauce) say, in its defence that many Italians cook that way. This is not true, and we will see how most Italians cook their pasta below. However, there has been a lot of interest in it recently in Italy. It’s very telling though, that many Italians refer to it as ‘one-pot pasta’. In English. The implication is that it’s not an Italian cooking method. Even if the method was discovered in Italy, just because one cook in one restaurant did it doesn’t mean everybody does it. The taste of one-pot pasta is a little different to the traditionally cooked variety, and many people find it too starchy. However, the fact that people are trying it shows that, contrary to stereotype, Italians are open to new ideas even about their food.
Types of pasta
Pasta basically falls into two types: dried (pasta secca) and fresh (pasta fresca). Pasta fresca subdivides into two categories: pasta all’uovo (egg pasta) and pasta fresca al grano duro.
Although dried noodles have been made industrially since the late 19th Century, its origins are much older. Probably the noodles described by Al-Idrisi were dried. How else could they have been exported? The kinds of pasta that we see today were developed in 16th-Century Naples, when simple machines for mixing and extruding it into shapes were developed.
Today, pasta secca is made with two ingredients: water and semola di grano duro (semolina flour). It’s of the highest quality when you see the words trafilatura a bronzo on the packet. This means that it was extruded using a machine with a die made of bronze which gives the pasta a grain that makes the sauce stick to it better.
1. Pasta di grano duro
There are many traditional types of fresh pasta which are made by hand using the same ingredients as the dried version. These include hand-rolled Tuscan pici. When making pasta fresca by hand, it’s considered necessary to make it using a wooden rolling pin on a wooden board. In this way, it picks up the grain of the wood which has the same effect as the bronze extruding machine. Of course, many people making it at home will now use a rolling machine instead of a rolling pin as it’s easier to get good results.
2. Pasta all’uovo
Egg pasta is made with two ingredients. Eggs and farina di grano tenero, which is from a slightly different wheat plant to semolina di grano duro. It is often, but not always, stuffed with meat or cheese. Tortellini, ravioli, agnolotti, cappelletti are well-known examples. However, it’s also used to make long shapes like tagliatelle, tagliolini, fettuccine and so on.
Obviously there is a cholesterol issue when eating products made with eggs. For this reason no-one eats pasta all’uovo every day. In fact, traditionally, it was reserved for high days and holidays. It’s no accident that making tortellini is a common holiday ritual for many families and that tortellini in brodo is considered the classic winter holiday dish.
People say there are as many shapes of pasta as there are days in the year. If you classify them by the different names they are called up and down Italy you’ll have enough for three years. However many there are, they divide into four basic types.
1. Pasta lunga (long)
These include spaghetti, tagliatelle, bucatini, and so on.
2. Pasta corta (short)
These include conchiglie, rigatoni, penne, and so on.
3. Pasta minuta (mini)
These include filini, ditalini, and quadretti.
4. Pasta ripiena (stuffed)
These include tortellini, ravioli, anolini, and so on.
Many shapes, such as penne or conchiglie, come in two varieties: liscia (smooth) and rigata (with grooves). The grooves are designed to hold the sauce better.
A non-Italian once asked if it didn’t get boring to eat pasta every day, but the answer is simple. All these different types and shapes actually taste different. So how can it get boring when you have so many varieties.
How to eat it
There are four main methods of preparing pasta.
1. pastasciutta: boiled in water, drained, and then added to a sauce.
2. pasta in brodo: cooked in a broth or soup in which is it served and eaten.
3. pasta al forno: parboiled and then mixed with other ingredients and finished off in the oven.
4. fritta: fried. For many non-Italians this category is surprising but it’s very common in certain parts of Italy. Examples include: frittata di maccheroni from Naples; chiacchere, pieces of pasta fried and sugared for Carnival; gnocco fritto deep fried pasta dough served as an accompaniment to cold meats and cheese, particularly in Emilia-Romagna.
For pastasciutta, (literally dry pasta referring to the fact it’s drained) each different type of pasta works better with a different kind of sauce. Generally speaking, long pasta goes well with creamy or liquid sauces, short pasta goes better with chunky sauces. Pasta minuta is usually eaten in brodo and pasta ripiena with oil and butter or sometimes in brodo.
Italians have been cooking pasta for centuries and so a very detailed method of best practice has evolved. Although obviously different people are going to do things in a slightly different way, there are certain wisdoms that almost all Italians agree on. Cooking pasta in this way would make any nonna proud.
1. Salt and water
When preparing pastasciutta Italians use salted water. It’s considered a fault to use too little water. The accepted wisdom is to use 1 litre of water + 10g salt per 100g pasta. The sounds like a lot of water but this way the pasta will have room to ‘breathe’ and not stick together. Also, if this sounds like a lot of salt, remember you’re not going to eat it but it will add the right amount of saltiness to the dish. If you’re cooking more than 500g pasta and you don’t have a pan that will take 5 litres of water, you need to do what the Italians do and get a bigger pan. Adding oil to the water to help the pasta not stick together is another myth. If you are using enough water, it won’t stick.
When I lived in France, many people would add a stock cube to the water instead of salt or use fresh stock. While this is a nice idea, Italians do not do this unless, of course, you are talking about pasta in brodo. The main reason why is that the stock will flavour the pasta and interfere with the flavour of the sauce. The French also serve it as a side dish to meat and fish, another thing Italians will not do.
2. When do you add the salt?
There’s a debate as to when you should add the salt. Some say before you boil the water and some say when the water is boiling. The latter argue that salted water takes longer to boil but the difference in boiling time between pure water and water with 1% salt is negligible. As someone once said to me, ‘Put the salt in first or you might forget and that would be the real disaster.’
3. Make sure the water is boiling
The water must be really boiling before you add the pasta. Adding it will lower the temperature slightly and could take the water off the boil. So wait until you have bubbles. Big, bubbly bubbles.
4. Don’t break the spaghetti!
Some people break spaghetti in half before cooking it, but I say ‘No!’ Spaghetti which has been broken in half is much harder to eat. The longer the spaghetti the easier it is to wrap around your fork. In the recent past, spaghetti used to be twice the length is was now. I remember this and it was even easier to eat. If you’re worried that the spaghetti doesn’t all fit in the water, hold the spaghetti in your fist, put the end in the water, and then let go. Wait a minute or so and then gently press down the parts not in the water under the water. If you are using enough water and a big enough pan this is easy.
Packets usually come with handy cooking times which will give you a good idea of how long it will take. However, you should always test the pasta yourself. It is ready when it is al dente. This means that your teeth will cut through it when you apply gentle pressure. Italians lament pasta which is scotta (overcooked) as it will turn into a mush. The difference in mouthfeel between spaghetti al dente as opposed to spaghetti scotti is like the difference in taste between baked beans and caviar. If serving the pastasciutta with a sauce, many Italians will remove it from the water when it is a little undercooked and then finish it off in the pan with the sauce and a little cooking water. We’re talking for a minute or two maximum.
Most pasta secca takes about ten to twelve minutes to cook. Pasta fresca cooks very quickly indeed. When you put it in the water, it will sink to the bottom of the pan and then shortly after rise to the top. It’s ready about two minutes after it has risen to the top.
6. Don’t drain
Instead of draining, scoop it out of the water with tongs or a slotted spoon. This will keep some of the cooking water which will help it to mix with the sauce. This also means that you have the cooking water so you can add some to adjust the consistency of the sauce. If you do drain the pasta, remove some of the cooking water first and whatever you do, as I said above, don’t rinse it.
Even if you’re pretty happy with the way you cook pasta, following these simple guidelines will make your dishes truly sing. I mean, generations of Italian grannies can’t be wrong, can they?