Italians are more careful than I am about pairing pastas with sauces. I usually don’t pay too much attention to what noodle goes with what sauce; however, out of respect for the attention Cristiano puts into his shapes, I ask for recommendations each time I visit. Last week I tried six different fresh pastas. While each one would have been delicious with just melted butter, the variations he offered me were wonderful. I will try to explain each one, but the recipes can be difficult to duplicate; Christiano used words like “a little” or “some” or “however much you want.” He never provided measurements. Furthermore, Italian ingredients can vary from what we are use to back home. Things like cream and gorgonzola taste different here.
The first day I visited Cristiano’s store, I bought umbrecelli. This is a thick pasta made with “white dough” meaning there are no eggs added. The name for umbrecceli is different in every Italian city. And while it’s always thick, it can be long like spaghetti or short like penne. In Cortona, it’s called “pici.” In Spoletto it’s “stringozzi.” In Terni it’s “cerioli.” In Genoa it’s called “truffie.” My favorite word is from the region of Veneto where they call it “strozzapreti” which means “priest choker.” This name comes from the old days when priests were associated with their big appetites and tendency to partake in the good life. While scarfing down second helpings of this thick noodle, they were known to occasionally choke on it.
I dressed the umbrecceli with amatraciana sauce, a simple crowd pleaser. There are as many ways to make amatraciana as there are names for umbrecelli; however, Cristiano says to begin by sautéing half of a small onion in olive oil. After it becomes pale and soft, add seven ounces of thick pancetta cut into small pieces. Cook for five minutes then add a big splash of white wine. When the sauce reduces, add two cups of tomato puree and gently simmer for 45 minutes adding water if it gets too thick. Serve with pecorino cheese.
The next day I bought agnolotti. This is an egg pasta stuffed with meat. It’s a popular pasta in the region of Emilia Romana. We tried it when we visited Bologna. Cristiano doesn’t make it much because he says Perugians prefer the smaller shape of cappelletti with a meat filling. (Each city is so loyal to their traditions.) With agnolotti, Cristiano explained how to make a super easy salsa rosa: Simply bring to a simmer about two cups of heavy cream then add a quarter cup of tomato puree. Stir. Season with salt. Serve with Parmesan cheese.
The next day was my favorite. Cristiano made “caserecce,” a short egg pasta, and told me how to make a zucchini and tomato sauce. (See photo at the top of this post.) Begin by sautéing half a small onion in plenty of olive oil. Add a generous sprinkle of dried chives. Slice up three zucchinis in rounds and add them to the oil. Add salt. Turn the zucchinis over when they brown. After both sides are cooked, add two small chopped tomatoes. Toss with the pasta and serve with Parmesan cheese.
The fourth pasta I made was gigli all’arrabbiata. Gigli are short, twirly, whimsical noodles. “Gigli” means “lilies” in Italian. “Arrabbiata” means “angry” (because this tomato sauce is spicy). Begin by sautéing a small chopped onion and several cloves of chopped garlic. Add salt. Add plenty of hot pepper flakes. When the onions begin to look translucent, add three cups of tomato puree. Gently simmer for 25 minutes. This is a versatile sauce and can be served on umbrecceli too.
Next, we tried ravioli. Every day Cristiano makes ricotta and spinach ravioli. But on special days, he makes beet ravioli. We arrived on a special day. As he wrapped up my tray of pasta, Cristiano explained what to put on top: Place a big wedge of gorgonzola cheese in a double boiler over hot water. Let it slowly melt while occasionally stirring. When it’s hot, drizzle it over the ravioli and sprinkle toasted walnuts on top.
Finally, we tried cappelletti (little hats). Traditionally Perugians eat this for Christmas in broth, but it’s good any time of year. I wanted to try making a broth, so Cristiano told me to go to the butcher and get several pieces of veal, beef, and chicken, all on the bone, then put the meat in a pot with an onion, several carrots and some celery and cover with water. Add plenty of coarse salt and bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for two hours. Remove the meat and strain the broth. Let it cool in the fridge and then skim off the fat that rises and solidifies. Reheat and cook the cappelletti in the broth for 8 minutes. Serve with Parmesan cheese. The meat from the stock can be served as a second coarse with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.
One last thing I wanted to share about pasta making is a short list of rules that all Italians swear by. I can’t tell you how many time I hear the following:
1. Before cooking the noodles, add plenty of salt to the boiling water. Americans are use to adding a sprinkle, but here they add a small handful. It should be as salty as the ocean, they say. (And never add oil to the water, it prevents the noodles from absorbing flavor.)
2. Cook the noodles al dente. I thought I knew what this meant, but Italians cook their noodles even less than I expected. Overcooked pasta tastes like baby food, the Italians say. They would rather serve underdone than overdone pasta. (This is the rule I worried about the most when I had Italian company over for dinner.)
3. Before draining the noodles, add a ladle or two of the hot pasta water to the sauce. They say the starchy water is good for creating a silky sauce, and it somehow makes the sauce stick to the noodles better.
4. Before serving, add drained noodles to the sauce in the saucepan and combine, instead of serving a ladle of sauce on top of the noodles. The Italians even cook the noodles with the sauce for a minute or two. (Just make sure you’ve added the pasta to the sauce before it’s done so you don’t overcook them.)