My first exposure to understanding the simple but intricate concept of Italian food came when I obtained a forno position at a local family run restaurant. This was probably one of the most fulfilling times of my career as it was my first exposure to real authentic Sicilian/ Genovese cooking. I even started to learn the culture and language; it was then I realized the difference between real Italian cooking and the North American basterdization of the art.
Fast forward thirteen years later and many more different restaurants I still reach back to my time at Mama Rosa’s for inspiration. The one thing I came to really embrace is the art of properly putting together great pasta. Even though there is no Italian law on how pasta should be executed, I have come up with some do’s, don’ts, and rules of thumb.
Pasta Boot Camp
One of the most underestimated parts of pasta is the cooking of the pasta itself. Over my 23 years in the business I have seen a lot of different ways to handle the process of blanching the pasta. Some chefs salt the water, some chefs oil the water, some chefs do both. For me I don’t do either. I am a purest when it comes to blanching.
The secret to perfectly cooked pasta is lots of water in the pot, stirring constantly, and whatever you do –dooo not overcook it. The term al dente means “to the tooth” and it refers to the firmness of the pasta once it is blanched. Now I like my pasta a little more el dente than most other chefs. The reason for this is because if I am going to reheat the pasta I want to make sure the pasta is not over cooked after warming up in my sauce.
They All Come In All Shapes And Sizes
The other day I purchased The Pasta Bible: The Definitive Guide to Choosing, Making Cooking and
Enjoying Italian Pasta by Jeni Wright. There is a section where it lists all the types of Italian pastas used
in cooking. Most types I’ve seen, but there was some that I thought was cool; but I’ve never seen before. Here are the categories with some examples:
Short Pasta- Penne, fusilli, farfalle, radiatore, macaroni, and rigatone.
Long Pasta- Spaghetti, Linguini, Fettuccini, Angel Hair, Mafalda, and Papardelle
Stuffed Pasta- Ravioli, Agnialoti, tortellini, cannelloni, and manicotti.
Lasagnia uses flat pasta sheets or Mafalda. Pasta for soup is known as pastina which in fact comes in many shapes.
Even though you might think I’m stating the obvious but it will be important later. Just follow me for a little longer.
And Now For The Mortar And Bricks
In Italian cooking and North American, as a mater of fact, there are certain types of basis or sauces used in pasta
construction. Now these are base sauces, not with garnishes or ingredients. Here are the basic sauce types:
Cream Sauces Tomato Sauces
Garlic & Oil Pestos
Purees Wine & Butter sauces
Bringing It All
Now we have touched on some basics here are some of my rules of thumb when it comes to pasta dishes.
Now you may or may not agree with me but these are 10 golden rules have done me well over time.
1) If you are using a broad noodle like fettuccini, papardalle, or mafalda, don’t mix a tomato sauce or meat sauce in with the noodles, jut serve it on top.
2) If you are using a short pasta feel free to mix it in the tomato or meat sauce.
3) Cream sauces always get mixed in all pastas, never place on top.
4) If you are serving tortellini with a tomato sauce or meat sauce, and its not being baked, then serve it on top not mixed.
5) All baked pasta must be mixed with sauce for obvious reasons.
6) When using a garlic and oil or wine & butter variation of sauce, the best pastas to use are spaghetti or linguini.
7) The best pastas to bake are penne and tortellini. This doesn’t include lasagne.
8) Never use tomato sauce with linguini, there are much better pastas to use.
9) Some of the more delicate short pastas like fusilli, farfalle, or shell pasta are better suited for cold salads instead of
heating with a sauce.
10) The tiny pasta called pastina is best suited for soups.
Well even though my methods might be a little un-orthodox or maybe obvious, these have been little tricks I have picked up over the years. I hope it helps.
Til next time- catch you on the flip side.