I have been trying to write about pasta for a week. I sent off a column about it, but the need to express my passion wasn’t exhausted. I wrote 1,300 words about my complicated relationship to travel (a.k.a., eating pasta abroad). I keep telling stories, framing, trying to find an angle that helps me explain exactly what it is about pasta that is so enchanting to me.
Now that I take a look at my notebooks, I see that I’ve actually been trying to write about pasta since last summer. I was in Boston at a food writing conference, and I spent three days writing about “icebox noodles” only to type up a narrative about risotto at the last minute.
Maybe my relationship with the stuff is complicated. After all, the allergy docs tell me I’m moderately allergic to wheat, and I definitely can’t handle pasta too many nights in a row. Or maybe I feel like I can’t describe how much I love pasta without sounding ridiculous. I mean, how can I analyze the visceral experience of hot sauce basting your face in steam without sounding foolish? Or worse??
I’ll just do what food writers do best, and tell a food memory. (Buckle up.)
I was finally in Italy. In Rome. (Note the little tears at the corners of my eyes.)
Set aside how irritating I was being to my husband (then boyfriend) who had flown across the world to meet me there (I hadn’t yet mastered the art of wandering and the map gave me serious anxiety) and picture me in unparalleled heaven. After spending years crying into my pillow about how I would never get to travel, in a strange turn of events, I stopped complaining about being broke and just went for it.
Rome was the second stop on the trip, right after Amsterdam (we’ll save that story for another time), but emotions were high in those first few days. Shorty and I hadn’t had a ton of luck finding the alleged culinary nirvana we were supposed to uncover in Italy, and it turns out that Toms aren’t great for walking all over cobblestones.
A few days into the trip, though, we spent an afternoon cycling out along the Via Appia Antica, this ancient road out of Rome that is completely straight and only bends slightly at a point where, as the stories go, Christ was seen after the resurrection. There are tombs along the road that date back before the Common Era and lava boulders buried in the path. The boulders make cycling difficult, but wandering around unimpeded through ancient, crumbling villas is worth every brake failure a rented road bike circa 1975 can offer.
The sun was so beautiful bouncing off the hot stones and the wide open sky, and it was so QUIET, and the exercise felt so good, that we lost track of time. We remembered that we hadn’t figured out the bus system (never did, never will). Sunburned and stranded outside of town, we had a sunny, 50-minute walk back into town ahead of us.
I went blank for a while, and next thing I know, I’m wandering around the Pantheon at dusk, panicking about the map again, insisting that we are walking in circles ( I’m convinced we actually DID walk in the circles for the whole trip, but also that walking in circles in Rome isn’t so bad). We begged a restaurant to let us in even though none of the others were open for dinner yet, and we ended up in a cool, low-ceilinged little place with mismatched chairs in a corner where they put the people who don’t make reservations. The white stone wall was cold against my blistering shoulder.
Shorty entered his personal happy place with a steaming pot of mussels as I embarked on the most delicious pasta I have ever tasted. The sauce was smooth and sweet and tangy, almost as if it were made of cherry tomatoes but with all the skin and seeds removed. The noodles were little three-inch twists formed by hand — there they were, all different sizes, little twizzles of dough perfectly coated in the tomato. Blobs of mozzarella nestled between everything, with delicate, peppery basil chopped fresh just before serving.
Maybe that pasta was so brilliant because of my physical fatigue, or maybe it was the fact that it came at the end of our best day in Rome. Maybe it was sheer appreciation for the type of rustic and starchy culinary experience I had expected to find in that dream of a city.
I do know this: that pasta dish was memorable because it was simple. I’m sure it had less than ten ingredients, including the oil and the salt and pepper. Each element was made with such care that it didn’t need blizzards of parmesan powder or a yacht-sized hunk of garlic bread to finish it off. And I also know this: pasta is only fully enjoyed after a tiring day of work, or hours out in the sun, when your feet are throbbing and dirty and your back has this funny kink in it, and you’re so hungry you’ve passed hungry, moved through complacent, and landed on incoherence.
The other day, I heard a Splendid Table interview with Maureen Fant, co-author of a new book on pasta, Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way. I loved her easy tone about following but also breaking the “rules” of pasta, and I appreciated hearing her tongue-in-cheek but also actually serious reverence for doing pasta like Italians do.
I’ve tested three of the recipes already, and they’re staples. I can see this book in twenty years, splattered and creased with the history of hundreds of Sunday dinners. This one is my favorite so far, a meat sauce that positively sings with the addition of a secret, earthy ingredient — dried mushrooms. Nothing can replicate the best pasta I ever tasted, but this gets pretty close.
Ragu con carne macinata e funghi secchi
(Tomato sauce with ground meat and dried mushrooms)
Based on the recipe Sauce & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way.
For the original, complete recipe, check out the book Sauces & Shapes. Printed here is what I was able to do with the supermarket here in Waco. I changed some proportions to use up what I had in the house too.
1 medium spring onion (or 2 small), white and light green parts
1 medium carrot
1 small celery rib
10-12 sprigs fresh parsley
6 Tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. ground beef
1 cup red wine
3 cups tomato purée (or canned, strained tomato)
2 ounces dried oyster mushrooms (if your store has porcini, I’d go with that)
Fresh-ground black pepper
½ cup beef broth
1 lb. pappardelle noodles
½ cup grated parmesan
1. Soak the mushrooms: In a medium bowl, pour very warm water over the dried mushrooms and let soak 20-30 minutes. Strain (reserve mushroom water for another use) and squeeze mushrooms between paper towels.
2. In a food processor, chop the onion, carrot, celery, and parsley until minced. (Or mince with a knife.) In a 4- to 5-quart Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil to medium. Sauté minced vegetables until tender, 5-8 minutes. (Set the food processor aside as you’ll use it to chop the mushrooms in a few minutes. No need to rinse it.)
3. Add the beef and cook another 5-8 minutes, until meat breaks up when stirred with a wooden spoon and is browned. Raise the heat to high.
4. Add wine and cook off alcohol. When the pot stops giving off the aroma of wine, add tomato sauce. Meanwhile, pulse mushrooms in the food processor (no need to clean it) or chop them small. Add mushrooms to pot, along with 1 teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.
5. Simmer the sauce (the recipe calls for a covered pot, but I cooked mine uncovered, as I wanted it to reduce) over low heat so that it is barely bubbling, adding the beef broth in a few stages. When the sauce is reduced and thickened, and there is a sheen of oil on the surface (up to 90 minutes), remove from heat and taste for salt and pepper.
6. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it liberally. Cook pasta according to package directions, until al dente.
Tip: After adding pasta to the water, put the lid on until it returns to a boil (usually less than 30 seconds), then reduce the heat to a steady boil.
7. To serve, use tongs to transfer pappardelle into a large, heatproof bowl. The noodles will be dripping pasta water — that’s okay, it helps the sauce stick. Pour sauce over the noodles and toss with tongs or a large spoon to coat. Serve pasta immediately on plates or in shallow bowls, and garnish with grated parmesan.