Whether you buy, dry or roll your own, pasta is a daily dish in almost every region on the peninsula. In families, making fresh pasta is an act of love usually reserved for leisurely Sunday or holiday lunches. Recipes and techniques are often passed through generations and practice makes perfect. Children watch their mothers prepare pasta from the time they can waddle. Flour and water or flour and eggs. Nothing could be simpler. But the devil is in the details.
For example, which Semola flour to use "0" or "00"?
How many eggs and what size? Whole eggs or just yolks?
Do you add water or wine?
A tablespoon of olive oil in the dough or not?
Two kinds of flour are used to make pasta. Semola is the hard wheat flour used mostly by pasta companies to make the dried extruded pasta. It's higher in gluten and difficult to roll out by hand for beginners. But it does makes for chewier pasta. Many regional pastas depend on semola and water; Florentine staples orecchiette and pici are two of countless examples.
The best dried pasta, meanwhile, is made with hard wheat flour, semola di grano duro. Companies such as Latini (based in Osimo, in Le Marche) actually grow their own wheat. The pasta is extruded (or shaped) through bronze molds, or dies, that give it a rough finish, helping the sauce to stick to the pasta. Slow drying completes the cycle.
Bringing eggs into the mix leads to a pasta with a richer, silkier dough. These include Bologna's tortellini. Agile fingers fill and fold tiny little crowns of prosciutto.
But there are rules. Picking a pasta also means finding the appropriate sauce to go with it.
Let regional wisdom be you guide.
In Liguria, it's pesto to go with trenette or corzetti. Amatriciana, bacon and tomatoes, flavors spaghetti in Rome. Tuscan pappardelle cry out for wild boar sauce.
A friend of mine in Florence has more than 10 kinds of pasta at home at any one time. "Why?" I asked her. "I never know what kind of sauce I may want when I get home," she replied. Simple as that.
Where did it all begin? Though many sustain that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China on his trips there in 1295, it makes an appearance in Etruscan times. A Ceveteri fresco shows pasta being served as a sweet with honey and nuts. The Romans made a flour and water dough, called laganum, predecessor to modern-day lasagna. The pasta was cooked more like a crepe and served with sauces. A descendent may be the testaroli of Lunigiana in Liguria, a crepe-like dough baked over a flame then boiled in water.
Records also show "macharonis" (a mispelling of the period) as arriving in the port of Genova in 1279, probably from Sicily, which had mastered the art of drying pasta. There are more than 500 names for pasta shapes. Long pasta includes spaghetti, bucatini, percetteli and ziti. Short pastas number rigatoni, penne, conchiglie and farfalle.
As Sophia Loren once said, "Everything you see, I owe to pasta." What is good enough for Sophia is good enough for me!
A SHORT GUIDE TO NAMES:
Here are some pasta names with their region of origin:
Piedmont: Agnolotti, tajarin
Liguria: Trenette, corzetti, pansotti, trofie
Lombardy: Bigoli, casonei
Veneto: Bigoli, pizzoccheri
Emilia Romagna: Garganelli, cappelletti, anolini, tagliatelle, tortellini, passatelli
Tuscany: Pappardelle, tortelli, pici
Abruzzo: Maccheroni alla Chitara
Puglia: Cavatieddi, orecchiette, lagane
Campagna: Ziti, paste miste, paccheri
Basilicata: "Minuich"/Minnicchi (maccheroni coi ferri), strangulapreuti
Cook pasta in salted water. Use sea salt or kosher salt. Pasta absorbs the salt through osmosis, retaining its flavor. This can't be matched by salting the pasta afterwards.
Use lots of water so the pasta has space to "swim" while cooking.
Do not add oil. Pasta is made of hard wheat flour, which contains gluten. The process of shaping in bronze dies (not Teflon) and the gluten create a surface that makes sauce adhere to pasta. Adding oil makes pasta slippery and allows the sauce to slides off.
Do not rinse off the pasta for the same reason as above. You want the starch from the pasta to retain the sauce.
Keep some of the pasta water. You always want a little water clinging to the pasta for the sauce. The secret to the perfect sauce isnt in the adding of cream or butter to recipes, but keeping water to add back at the end.
Do not overcook. You want the pasta "al dente," which means with "bite." Pasta finishes its cooking process in the sauce. "Al dente" pasta is also easier to digest.
RECIPE: SPAGHETTI DI VINO
I found this recipe in a small trattoria in Umbria and fell in love with it. To give it some additional kick, I added garlic and chili.
1 pound of spaghetti (the best quality is from durum wheat and slow dried, with a rough finish that absorbs the sauce better).
2 cups red wine (try Merlot, a Cabernet might be to heavy).
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil.
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
2 tbs butter (optional).
Cook in salted water for 8 minutes and drain.
While the spaghetti is boiling, heat the olive oil in a large skillet.
Place the drained spaghetti in the oil and stir.
Add 1/2 cup of the wine. Stir until the wine is absorbed. Then, add another 1/2 cup of wine and continue stirring.
This part is like making a risotto. Continue to add enough wine to give the spaghetti a great color and flavor.
Taste while cooking! When the spaghetti is done, stir in the Parmesan cheese . If the wine is tannin-rich, you may want to stir in a tablespoon of butter, or more.