Spaghetti, tortellini, gnochetti, fusilli—they tell the story of Italy.
I learned my pasta basics decades ago from an old woman named Filomena. Learned them reluctantly. Witchlike Filomena with her chin whiskers and shrill cackle was my landlady in Assisi where, as a young piano student, I took summer master classes. “Sei ritornata?”—You’re back?—she’d screech when I tiptoed in after a date. She’d then perch on my bed, waving a crucifix, and berate me about my morals. Going out became such a drag that I would spend evenings at home watching her cook.
Filomena didn’t make fancy pasta with black Umbrian truffles. Mostly we ate that elemental linguine with garlic and oil and a weekend ragù fortified with some pork bones. But she cooked with such spare elegance that I still retain the indelible image of her scrupulously removing garlic cloves from the sizzling oil—lest it turn bitter—and her conviction that an extra speck of pepperoncino was grounds to call the carabinieri. Years before discovering Marcella Hazan, I learned to simmer the sugo di pomodoro exactly until the oil separates. Learned that basil should be torn, never offended with the blade of the knife. That the sugo should veil each strand of pasta just so...and that a splash of the cooking water from pasta alchemically binds sauce and starch.
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In the end a fellow pianist did steal me away—to his home in Palermo. After Filomena’s austere cucina, I discovered an Arabic-inflected world of spaghetti with an intricate foil of fresh sardines, pungent anchovies, saffron, pine nuts, and raisins. The pianist’s uncle took us fishing for octopus in the oily Sicilian night and la mamma cooked the chopped-up beast for hours into a messy, tomatoey marvel. We ate it over stubby tubetti at the family’s beachside cabana, followed by a searingly tart lemon granita.
Pasta became my Italian talisman. It still is.
I can draw a mental map of the boot. Women in black squat on stools, pressing thumbs into dough: we’re in a dim, narrow alley in Bari, and those are orecchiette—the “little ears” of Puglia—to be dressed with a peppery tangle of cicoria greens. Wormlike trofie fashioned from chestnut flour bring to mind a Ligurian lunch on the sun-dappled terrace of the trattoria La Brinca, suffused with the pervasive aromas of Prà-basil pesto. Sturdy bucatini, gritty with cacio e pepe (pecorino and black pepper), capture the brash essence of Rome. Veneto? Fat whole-wheat bigoli with the marine smack of sardines. Mantua? Tortelli di zucca bulging with pumpkin, Grana Padano cheese, and crushed amaretti—a relic of the extravagant Renaissance banquets of the ducal Gonzagas. And how could I forget the tiny, toothsome tortellini of Modena, filled with pork, veal, and prosciutto and dressed by my favorite chef, Massimo Bottura, in a cream of aged Parmesan that tastes like edible gold? Just when you think pasta can’t get more indulgent, Piedmont presents tajarin (tagliatelle), with its artery-clogging ratio of 40—40!—egg yolks per kilo of flour. In a pool, please, of rich butter. Time to swear off carbs—at least for a day.
Any pasta secca (dried pasta) pilgrimage must begin near the Amalfi Coast in Gragnano, once famed as Italy’s maccheroni capital. Since the 18th century, Gragnano has been a one-industry town and locals still talk about its perfect drying conditions: sun, strong sea breezes, and fast streams that formerly powered the grain mills. Recently I visited Pastificio Gentile, a three-generation producer run by the Zampino family. When Gentile was founded, in 1876, tiny Gragnano had 80 pasta factories; now a mere handful remain. Along the main street, Via Roma, noodles once flapped on racks, drying like laundry. Italian pasta snobs insist that each pastificio excels in one particular shape: the incomparable spaghettoni from Benedetto Cavalieri, in Puglia; the flat trenette produced by Latini, in Marche; the much-fetishized spaghettoro, extruded through gold dies by Verrigni, in Abruzzi. Gentile’s wheaty masterpiece is fusilli—but not the short corkscrews of your aunt’s pasta salad. I watched a trio of Gentile’s white-clad lady pastaie in action. With a quick forward sweep, each long strand was wrapped around a thin steel rod. Yes: hand-coiled fusilli. In the drying chamber, a fan and a heater simulated Gragnano’s outdoor conditions. “Lento, slow,” explained Natale Zampino, Gentile’s gray-haired patriarch. “Two days, as opposed to six hours for pasta industriale.” At low temperature, “to bring out that exquisite wheatiness.” And the wheat better be the artisanally milled, protein-rich, heirloom Senatore Cappelli variety.
Afterward Maria Sorrentino, the family matriarch, sat me down for a plate of fusilli sauced with clouds of just-made ricotta, and the fruity San Marzano tomatoes she puts up for her small canning business. She also dressed short, tubular paccheri—“slaps” in Neapolitan dialect—with yellow potatoes, bay leaf, and pancetta. The “exquisite wheatiness” factor? After three decades of eating pastasciutta in Italy, I felt like I was discovering it for the first time.
Another epiphany awaited that evening at the white-on-white dining room of chef Gennaro Esposito’s Torre del Saracino, down the coast in Vico Equense. Esposito’s grand tribute to arte bianca (white art) is a minestra di pasta mista—his riff on an old fisherman’s recipe—comprising over a dozen shapes: spongy seashells, rings, twists, ridged strands. Served in a surreally concentrated soup of local reef fish and crustaceans, the dish resembles a broken-up Louise Nevelson sculpture—or an alphabet soup zoomed in on from on high. I remembered a Neapolitan mayor’s declaration that angels eat a diet of pasta. And I pilfered Esposito’s idea, and have been making my own Gragnano-produced minestra di pasta mista at home in New York. My guests eat it and cast their eyes heavenward.
Appeared as “For the Love of Pasta” in T+L Magazine