From North to South
Last time, we looked at four classic Italian pasta sauces, with an aside on the great Italian tomato. This week, we finish our pasta series by looking at six more.
Pasta 5, the pasta al ragu involves a lot more time, creating an incredibly complex sauce. You could use mince and end up with a chunky sauce, perfect with sturdy, tube shaped pastas like rigatoni and penne, great for holding on to the chunky sauce. Alternatively, you could slow-cook a piece of meat like duck or veal, pull it into strands and add it to the sauce near the end, creating a different, more delicate texture, great with freshly made ribbons of pappardelle or tagliatelle.
The world-famous Ragu alla Bolognese, simply called a Bolognese, gets its name from the city of Bologna in Northern Italy. As with all ragu, it starts with some pancetta (unsmoked pork belly) and soffrito, a mixture of onion, carrot and celery., followed by the addition of ground meat (pork or beef or both), wine, crushed tomatoes and stock. The entire mixture is then slowly cooked for hours over a slow flame.
As with all slow-cooked meat dishes, time and patience is the key to a good Bolognese. It is an incredibly rich and complex sauce, great on pasta or even layered in a lasagna. The ragus from the North are as complex and indulgent as pasta sauces get.
If tomatoes are good to begin with, they can hold their own in a pasta sauce, without any meat. Few Italian dishes are as simple and elegant as our Pasta 6. Pomodoro means tomato in Italian. This classic Italian tomato sauce has no fixed recipe, and wars have been fought over what should and should not go in it. Tomato, fresh basil, garlic and good quality extra virgin olive oil form the base, while small amounts of other ingredients like carrots, onions and leek can also be added.
Unlike a Bolognese, a pomodoro sauce is all about the tomato. The cooking time is minimal, which allows the fresh flavours of the tomato to shine through. This is one of those dishes for which you need to crack open one of those expensive tins of San Marzano tomatoes we talked about last time.
Pasta 7 bridges the gap between the complex Bolognese and the simple Pomodoro. Spaghetti Puttanesca hails from Naples in the Italian South. Puttanesca translates to “in the style of a prostitute”. Its etymology is questionable, with some claiming it was cooked up by ladies of the night in between their clients, while others claim it is so called because of its punchy, aromatic flavours.
And punchy it definitely is. With the sharp, acidic tang of the tomatoes and the salty bite of the capers, olives and anchovies, the dish has a pretty aggressive, yet amazing flavour profile. It does share some of the abrasive wildness of its alleged etymological source, which makes it an excellent choice for anyone who likes punchy flavours.
We’ve already talked about the rich and indulgent pastas of the hilly Italian north, laden with cheese and meat, like the pesto Genovese and the ragu Bolognese. The pastas from the coastal Italian south on the other hand showcase the best of seafood, and spaghetti puttanesca, with its intense umami hit from the anchovies, is a great example. Our final three dishes continue our exploration the Italian South.
Pasta 8 is the ultimate expression of the seafood bounty of the Mediterranean, like the French bouillabaisse and the Spanish paella. It is called frutti di mare, which translates to “Fruits of the Sea”. It brings together an assortment of seafood, with just a dash of a light tomato sauce. Unlike the puttanesca though, the focus here is less on the tomato and more on the seafood.
The key ingredient to a good frutti di mare pasta is fresh, good-quality seafood. Clams, mussels, squid, prawns; you can add anything you want. To that you add a good seafood stock or bisque, a bit of tomato sauce, a splash of wine, and you’re done. Seafood splendour at its very best.
Ditch the tomatoes and stick to just one kind of seafood and you get Pasta 9, a Neapolitan dish that is a pure taste of the sea. A spaghetti vongole starts off with olive oil, garlic and chillies, followed by the addition of fresh clams. As the clams steam, they open up and release their juices, creating a simple sauce packed with the briny intensity of seafood. Add some spaghetti, toss, finish with some parsley, and you’re done.
And if you think spaghetti vongole is as simple as pastas can get, think again. Take away the clams and wine and you’ve got the beginnings of Pasta 10, yet another Neapolitan classic. Spaghetti aglio e olio is exactly as advertised; spaghetti, with garlic (aglio) and olive oil (olio). It is finished with a generous handful of chopped parsley and sometimes, a sprinkling of fresh red chillies, in which case the dish is called aglio olio e pepperoncino.
This is one of those dishes that Italians are a master of, where good quality ingredients take center stage. With such a minimalistic flavour profile, the olive oil has to be top notch, the garlic potent, and the parsley as fresh as possible. If there is a pasta dish that best epitomizes the concept of less is more, it is this.
In any dish, choosing the right pasta is crucial. Sturdy tubes of rigatoni and penne can stand up to a hearty ragu made with mince, while thick ribbons of fresh tagliatelle and pappardelle are ideal for a rich creamy sauce. A light seafood dish like frutti di mare requires thinner ribbons, like a linguine or a fettuccine. Pasta vongole is even lighter, which is why using a thinner pasta like spaghetti makes sense.
Other seafood variants with even more delicate ingredients like sea urchin and fish roe go well with even thinner strands of capellini also called angel hair pasta. Choose the wrong pasta and you ruin the dish, however good the sauce may be. Try serving a hearty sausage ragu with delicate capellini and you’ll realise what I’m talking about.
The world of pasta is baffling, intricate and wonderful. Whether you like the vibrant acidity of tomatoes, the creamy lusciousness of butter and cheese, the hearty richness of a rich meat stew or the briny pop of seafood, there’s something in it for everybody. It is a world of wonders, and we’ve barely scratched the surface here. And in the end you too will be crooning, “That’s Amore!”