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Pasta, Actually

My dear friend and food writer extraordinaire, Jason loves the movie “Love, Actually” so I named this article for him. It was through him that I had the chance to travel to Naples on a whirlwind food tour. Our mission? Pasta. And what a delicious mission it was.

 

Using my connections, his research and some happy accidents, we landed in Naples, ready to discover the joys of authentic pasta cooking so that Jason could share his experience and recipes with his devoted readers of “177 Milk Street,” a gorgeous food magazine designed to take the home cooking experience to delicious new levels. Each and every month, Jason and the other writers, along with founder Christopher Kimball take readers on journeys to places well-known to us and some not so much and then share classic and obscure recipes to our delight. I find a recipe that becomes a permanent part of my cooking in each and every issue.

 

So when my friend called me asking for tips about my beloved Naples, I was only too happy to help. After an exhausting list of “must-do” things, Jason sighed and said, “Why don’t you just come with me?” And so Robert and I packed a bag and headed to Italy.

 

I am not sure I have ever learned so much about cooking pasta as I did in these days.

 

Our pasta adventure began in Grangnano, a small city outside Naples celebrated for its air-dried, bronze-extruded pasta. And it should be! But I am getting ahead of myself.

 

Pasta has been made in Italy for thousands of years. No, Marco Polo didn’t bring the idea and recipe pasta back from the Far East. In ancient Rome pasta was called “laganum” and the Arabs, who conquered the south of Italy in the 9th century, called it “itriyya.”

 

And then the magic happened. In the 16th century in Grangano, they figured it out and pasta became an industrial product and by the 18th century, pasta from Gragnano began to travel beyond Campania’s borders to other parts of Italy. Soon after, pasta would become a signature dish of many regions in Italy.

 

So what is so special about pasta from the quaint hillside town of Gragnano? The name itself implies a location and style of production, (sort of the way that DOC wine guarantees a wine’s origins). To be called pasta “di Gragnano,” the pasta must be produced in a legally defined area in and around the Bay of Naples and it must be made by mixing durum wheat with the calcium-poor water of the Monti Lattari. The dough is forced through rough bronze forms (trafilata al bronzo) and dried at low temperatures in the mountain air. The result is a high quality product with plenty of coarse surface area to absorb the flavor and liquid of the sauce with which it is served. Cool, huh?

 

We arrived at Pasta Cuomo in the morning for a tour of their facility before cooking and eating pasta. Ten generations of pasta makers have brought this family-owned company to its present iteration with brother and sister, Alfonso and Amelia Cuomo guiding the business through changing modern times.

 

But not too modern.

 

Walking through their automated plant, so much is still done by hand to ensure that the pasta they produce is of the highest quality, what we would call artisanal, but what they call “normale.”

 

And that was on full display as we ate the simple, elegant, masterful dishes prepared for us by Alfonso. Sautéing a whole garlic clove “in its dress” (unpeeled), the oil was delicately flavored so as not to overtake the flavor of the pasta. Halved cherry tomatoes were added to create a spectacularly simple, luscious dish. He cooked his pasta in well-salted water (and seasoned the tomatoes only a wee bit), as it’s the pasta that is the star of a pasta dish, not the sauce, as Americans believe.

 

Alfonso created other dishes for us, from pasta with broccolini leaves (pureed into a coarse pesto) to winter squash sauce…all served over well-seasoned pasta. The simplicity of the dishes belied the sensational flavors that exploded in our mouths as we moaned with pleasure.

 

The next day found us in Pompeii for a quick historic tour of this once-thriving metropolis. I am always astonished at the sophistication of Pompeii and its people’s ingenuity. As someone from Naples, we are so proud of what our people have contributed to civilization…to this day, from plumbing to spas for wellness.  

 

Our walking tour left us hungry so our journey to The Secret Terrace, hosted by the brilliant home cook, Antonella was more than welcome. Her pasta dishes made me nostalgic as every single ingredient and technique was straight out of my Nonna’s kitchen. Her Puttanesca sauce, made from canned cherry tomatoes, olives and capers was so reminiscent of my grandmother’s I would have sworn she was standing next to Antonella like a guardian angel guiding her hand. Her pasta with cauliflower took me back to my childhood, when it was the only thing I would eat. The food was so delicious and familiar, it brought tears to my eyes.

 

Cooking pasta in less water so it’s more flavorful and doesn’t taste ‘watery’; simmering a whole clove of garlic in oil before sautéing other ingredients so the flavor is mild and the pasta shines; salting the pasta water more than the sauce so again…the pasta shines; keeping ingredients simple and fresh…all these methods gave me a new love of pasta and a renewed respect for its place in my healthy diet.

 

Here are some of the recipes I learned:

 

Pasta Puttanesca

 

Makes 3-4 servings

Extra virgin olive oil

1 clove fresh garlic, whole, unpeeled

Sea salt

Generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

½ red onion, diced

1 32-ounce can cherry tomatoes

3-4 tablespoons capers, drained, but not rinsed

12-18 oil-cured black olives, pitted, coarsely chopped

 

½ - pound fusilli pasta

 

Place a small amount of oil and garlic in a skillet over medium heat. When the garlic begins to sizzle, simmer until golden and then remove it and discard it. Add crushed red pepper flakes and onion, a pinch of salt and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add tomatoes, capers and olives and stir well. Season lightly with salt and cook, stirring occasionally.

 

Bring a medium-sized pot to a boil with a generous handful sea salt.  (The water level should generously cover the pasta, but not drown it.) Cook, stirring occasionally for 7 minutes. Taste the pasta and add more salt if the pasta tastes flat. Cook for 2-3 minutes more. The pasta should be ultra-al dente, almost crunchy.

 

Strain the cooked pasta into the sauce and stir well. Serve immediately garnished with fresh flatleaf parsley.

 

Cauliflower Pasta

 

Makes 3-4 servings

 

Extra virgin olive oil

1 clove fresh garlic, whole, unpeeled

½ yellow onion, diced

Sea salt

½ head cauliflower, steamed until fork-tender, coarsely chopped

 

½ - pound rigatoni

 

Place a generous amount of oil and the whole garlic clove in a deep skillet over medium heat. Simmer the garlic until it’s golden…do not burn. Remove from oil and stir onions into the oil. Add a pinch of salt and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in cauliflower and simmer on low heat.

 

Bring a medium-sized pot to a boil with a generous handful sea salt.  (The water level should generously cover the pasta, but not drown it.) Cook, stirring occasionally for 7 minutes. Taste the pasta and add more salt if the pasta tastes flat. Cook for 2-3 minutes more. The pasta should be ultra-al dente, almost crunchy.

 

Strain the cooked pasta into the cauliflower and stir well. Serve immediately garnished with fresh flatleaf parsley or basil.

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