Post-Italian holiday induced perhaps, I’m pretty obsessed with pasta at the moment.
Visiting Sicily made me realise how the regional differences in Italian cooking are so pronounced. In the south they make all their pasta with purely water and flour: no oil or eggs and barely any kneading or resting time. That makes it very fast to make, but you get a chewiness and bite to it that might be a little strange if you’re more used to dried or fresh egg pasta.
I didn’t like it much at first but came to appreciate it after cooking it ourselves in a day class we did at Ristorante Nettuno in Taormina and eating it every day during the trip; with pesto, simple pomodoro sauce, or the handily-vegetarian local speciality dish, alla Norma, with aubergines and ricotta. (Above: alla Normas at Vineria Modì and Tischi Toschi in Taormina, and spaghetti pesto at Red&White. And yes, that other dish is just a bag full of melted cheese – it was stupendous.)
Even the shapes are different: in Sicily it’s all about bucatini – stubby tubes like a cross between spaghetti and macaroni (which we made by hand in our class by rolling the dough around the metal spokes of a broken umbrella) – and ‘maccheroni’ which is actually ridged tubes like rigtoni, the better to hold sauce. Northern Italy is where you’ll find gnocchi and filled pastas like ravioli, though we did have a go making gnocchi in class anyway.
I was really hoping to try cacio e pepe in particular in Sicily after having a knockout version at Borough Market’s Padella, but that’s decidedly a Roman thing so there was none to be found. So I had to DIY once I got home. Luckily my favourite recipe site Serious Eats had my back and I made a pretty passable version; I went to town making fresh egg pasta and all. The most critical step is the very end where you emulsify the oil, butter, pepper and cheese with the starchy pasta cooking liquid to make a creamy, combined sauce with the perfect texture. I found you have to get over the fear of slopping in quite a bit of water and making it look quite wet, since the pasta will soak a lot of it up and leave you with the perfect creaminess, rather than something that dries up as you plate it.
Next I really want to try spaghetti all ubriaco: cooked in red wine, the strands of pasta take on a freaky oxblood hue and I can just imagine how richly complex it’d taste. I don’t actually like drinking red wine much, but this recipe jogged my memory of a dish I had at Estela in NY of endives and walnuts with a ‘drunken’ red wine marinated cheese. Damn, that was a fine dish. Maybe I could throw some nuts and endive into this pasta dish…