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.
Where to go now—neighborhood by neighborhood in Istanbul.
On my first visit to Istanbul, in the mid 1980’s, donkey carts still trundled across the iron Galata Bridge between the historic Old City and the Europeanized Beyoğlu quarter. And right away I was hooked...on faded Byzantine frescoes and smoky kebabs and tulip-shaped glasses of tea. I’m even more smitten today, as I gaze over the Bosporus boat traffic from the window of a little apartment I bought in the leafy Cihangir quarter. Istanbul is a global megalopolis now, a place where grit and gloss, East and West, secularism and Islam all collide with a jolt—or just as often cohabit gracefully. This is my Istanbul.
Pastificio Gentile, Gragnano (pictured). Book ahead for a pasta demo followed by a meal of Signora Maria’s celestial fusilli and homemade preserves. $$
Torre del Saracino, Vico Equense. Gennaro Esposito’s pasta mista soup is one of Italy’s most celebrated creations. $$$
Osteria Francescana, Modena. Every trattoria in Emilia-Romagna serves good tortellini, but genius chef Massimo Bottura’s toothsome beauties in a cream of organic aged Parmesan should be enshrined. $$$$
Ah, the eternal Istanbul conundrum: a pummeling at a historic, no-frills hammam such as Cağaloğlu, or a luxurious steam at a modern hotel spa. Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamami(1 Cankurtaran Mahallesi Bab-i Hümayun Cad.; 90-212/517-3535; treatments from $90), which recently opened between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, offers the best of both worlds. The double-domed structure returns to its original incarnation—it was built as a bathhouse in 1556 by Mimar Sinan. Now, it shines with 1,400 square feet of marble, gold-plated faucets, and a galleried cedar cold room under a soaring cupola. After aromatherapy and bubble massages, guests can linger in the relaxation lounge over Turkish delights while the sound of a muezzin echoes in the distance.