Pasta all'italiana seems a piece of cake, what could go wrong? but as Italy's national food, consumed almost every day in every household, never underestimate the subtle precision involved in cooking pasta 'the Italian way'.
Let's start with pasta shapes:
Pasta lunga - long
Think spaghetti, bucatini, linguine and tagliatelle.
Pasta corta - short
Think fusilli, tortiglioni, penne and orecchiette.
A match made in food heaven
Your chosen pasta shape depends on your chosen sauce. Sauce first… allora, what are we thinking ragù or carbonara? Amatriciana or quattro formaggi? Usually a quick look through the fridge tells us what options are available today. Most Italians cook pastasciutta - dry pasta, unless of course you live in Bologna - foodie capital, and make fresh tagliatelle for your ragù .
As a rule of culinary thumb, the thicker the sauce, the 'shorter' the pasta.
Fusilli are the 'loose' exception because they (yes, one fusillo, two fusilli) will happily go with practically any sauce.
These are some classic combinations:
Bucatini all'amatriciana (with guanciale and tomato)
Tagliatelle con ragù
Linguine al pesto
Orecchiette a cime di rapa (with turnip greens and garlic)
Penne al salmone (with smoked salmon and cream)
Ingredients - the beauty of Italian cooking lies in the ingredients.
If your olive oil is cold-pressed, extra-virgin and your pasta is 'trafilati a bronzo', you could make spaghetti all'olio, grate some18-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano over it and you'd have yourself the simplest but most sublime plate of pasta. Same goes with panini: beautiful bread + beautiful Prosciutto and nothing else is needed.
Here are the cooking tips that Italians naturally follow, be warned: them seeing you 'not following' may culminate in a passionate demonstration of hand gestures and loud objection - they take food rather seriously and they love their pasta.
They also take the decimal measuring system rather seriously; when I first moved to Italy, sitting around a kitchen table with the water boiling and a box of spaghetti at the ready, I was always asked, "Quanta pasta vuoi?" - "How much pasta would you like?"
The answer is expected in grams.
And you're expected to know what grammage you'd like to eat.
I quickly learnt that 80 grams is a small plate, 100 grams a generous plate, and 120 grams too much (per me).
Then guess what? Some Italians actually do get the scales out!
Because warming up yesterday's pasta is not appreciated here, al dente goes out the window, and al dente is another thing, but we'll get to that later.
We need to look at the pot and the water. Never too much water!
A large pot, deep if you're cooking spaghetti, with many litres of water - if we're measuring (which wouldn't be out of place): use 100g pasta to 1 litre of water.
Sale grosso - quando quando quando?
When the water starts boiling is time to add coarse sea salt. How much? Well, if we're measuring (and there's a strong chance we already are) it's 7g salt to 100g pasta. Italians simply pour a pile of salt into the palm of their hand and call it a 'pugnetto' - a fist-full of salt
No olive oil goes in the water! If there's enough boiling water, the pasta will not stick.
And do not break the spaghetti or you'll break an Italian's heart - spaghetti are intended to be long, to wrap around a fork.
Cooking pasta the Italian way means making a sauce the Italian way. The holy cooking water - l’acqua di cottura, is used to smooth your sauce just before adding the pasta. It's a fundamental ingredient in Rome's famous Cacio e Pepe (cacio cheese, black pepper and cooking water) as well as Carbonara (guanciale, eggs, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and cooking water). Some drain the pasta al dente and continue the last minute of cooking directly in the pan, adding cooking water to make your sauce silky.
Follow the cooking times on your pasta box. You can cook it for less, but not more. Overcooked pasta (pasta stracotta) is not on. We're looking for al dente - with a little bite, i.e. a firm centre.
Finally, the pan is where the magic happens. This is where your chosen pasta meets your chosen sauce and it's love at first sight. Add pasta to sauce, never sauce on top of pasta - it's not the Italian way.
Grate some Grana Padano, Pecorino or Parmigiano, grab that fork and twirl those spaghetti like a pro!
Buon appetito amici.