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An Italian Meal: Part 3 - Pasta

An Italian Meal: Part 3 - Pasta
Image: Eddie Jacob
Can you tell tagliatelle from orecchiette? What's the difference between ravioli and penne? Christine Smallwood explores pasta in part three of her series.
If there’s one course in an Italian meal that gets visitors excited, it’s the primo or pasta course. Although this is the carbohydrate-heavy and traditionally cheap part of the meal, it does feature much of the food for which Italy is most famous: pasta, gnocchi, risotto and polenta.

Whole books have been written on each of these, and it’s no surprise that all are taken very seriously. For an extreme example, look no further than the world-famous, award-winning chef, Gualtiero Marchesi who makes a saffron risotto which includes gold leaf (and not the cheapest part of the meal, in his case). But there are many more inexpensive and delicious regional quirks on these staples. Farro for example, a popular grain in Umbria, is frequently used to make ‘farrotto’ which as the name indicates is like a risotto, but with farro replacing the rice. Whatever the regional preferences though, pasta is popularly eaten as a course in its own right, all over the country.

Italy has hundreds of different pasta shapes and all regions have their own speciality pastas, be they long (like spaghetti), short (penne) or filled (ravioli). Different shapes are suitable for different sauces, and don’t hesitate to ask your waiter to explain why the sauce and pasta shape of the primo you have ordered suit each other. At the very least you’ll get a cursory explanation, but with luck a full, expansive story and maybe an entertaining local anecdote.

The ability to cook good pasta is a necessary culinary skill. Any decent chef will tell you that pasta should always be cooked in a large saucepan with approximately one litre of water for every 100g of pasta. Gabriele di
An Italian Meal: Part 3 - Pasta
Image: Eddie Jacob
Giandomenico the charismatic chef and co-owner of L’Antica Trattoria dell’Orso in Orvieto believes that “if you can make a good dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce, you are a good cook”. As with all simple dishes, that clearly means that everything has to be done perfectly – your tomatoes must be at their peak of ripeness, both the sauce and pasta have to be perfectly seasoned and the pasta has to be cooked al dente.
Be aware though that one Italian’s al dente is another’s overcooked.

Making pasta is considered an essential life skill in many parts of Italy. There is an old saying in Martina Franca, a beautiful town in central Puglia, which is a practical variation on our belief that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach: “If you don’t know how to make orecchiette, you’ll never get a husband.”

However don’t presume that fresh pasta is better than dried. Good quality dried pasta will always be preferable to badly made fresh pasta. The De Cecco brand from Abruzzo is widely found here in the UK and is highly regarded in part because of the pure water used to make it. Pasquale Centrone who runs Da Tuccino in Polignano a Mare, a fair distance further down the Adriatic coast in Puglia, struggles to understand why some people consider dried pasta to be inferior. “Those of us who have a palate and sense of taste formed by what was eaten many years ago prefer dried pasta. You have to watch fresh pasta very closely otherwise it becomes too soft, unlike pasta made with very hard grain. Tastes and ideas change all the time, but for me, the use of fresh pasta is sometimes contrary.”

Those palates shaped in childhood mean that pasta recipes handed down through generations become favourite comfort foods. Filippo Proietti’s mother, Santina, who is responsible for the homely fare served at his relaxed and fun Osteria del Matto in Spoleto still serves a pasta dish, Strangozzi alla Spoletina, which was taught to her by her grandmother. A simple mix of olive oil, garlic, parsley and tomatoes (with an optional chilli pepper) it’s a recipe which has no quantities, leaving the cook to be guided by personal taste. Filippo explains that the difference between strangozzi and tagliatelle is that the former is thick pasta, cut finely, and the latter is thin pasta, cut widely. He may not do the cooking but he’s animated when talking about what his mother serves.

Pasta is enjoyed worldwide these days but foreigners sometimes express surprise when they first eat pasta in Italy at how small the portions are and how little sauce there is. On reflection though this makes sense because the pasta dish is not the whole meal but just one of the courses and should really precede, not replace the secondo.

L’Antica Trattoria dell’Orso
Via della Misericordia 18-20
05018 Orvieto
+39 0763 341 642
Da Tuccino
Via S. Caterina 69/F
70044 Polignano a Mare
+39 080 4241 560
L’Osteria del Matto
Vicolo del Mercato 3
06049 Spoleto
+39 0743 225 506
An Italian Meal: Part 3 - Pasta
Image: Eddie Jacob
2 Comments | Add a comment


Abigail Jones
The is article is not only informative but also gives some invaluable restaurant tips. Its a good insight into some of the books written by C Smallwood: An appetite for Umbria and An appetite for Puglia.
Robin Reynolds
Very interesting article. No one ever talks about pasta, and yet we all love it, so its good to see someone address the subject in a serious way. A question: What happens when Pasta is not made with pure water?


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