A former exchange student to Italy, I reminisce about the various pasta-related lessons I learned so many years ago.
I thought I knew pasta before I moved to Italy. After all, I'd cooked my way through the pasta section of all my cookbooks and felt well-versed in the art of salting water, detecting the right consistency, and heating sauce before adding it to hot noodles. But when I was 16 and found myself living on the island of Sardinia, I realized I still had a lot to learn.
Pasta in Italy is known as the primo, or first course, on any menu, whether in a restaurant or at home. It is not the main that we consider it here in the U.S. and Canada. So the key is never to eat too much pasta because there's always meat and salad coming later. It took me a while to figure that out.
I also had to get used to the regularity of pasta. The stereotype is astonishingly accurate; the Italians I met really do eat pasta every single day. While I was eager to try whatever my host mom served, my teenage brother's habit was to turn his nose up at it and request a bowl of buttered pasta with cheese. His parents would roll their eyes and admonish him symbolically before handing it over. It didn't matter to me; it meant I got more of the good stuff -- so much, in fact, that I gained 30 pounds in ten months. (It was worth it.)
I quickly got to know the unusual pasta shapes for which Sardinia is famous. Its iconic malloreddus (pictured above), which are tiny gnocchi-like shapes made from semolina dough, sometimes with the addition of saffron, are served at every major life celebration in a rich tomato-sausage-fennel sauce. Fregola are small pasta pebbles, similar to Israeli couscous, made from semolina. They're often cooked with vongole, littleneck clams, a standard sauce ingredient also used for spaghetti.
My absolute favorite, though, was culurgiones, which is Sardinia's version of ravioli, only way better. They are chewy, filling packets of deliciousness, very similar to a pierogi, and stuffed with potato and mint. Usually they come with a simple tomato sauce, covered with freshly grated pecorino cheese.
But then I encountered bottarga alla muggine, and nothing else mattered. Bottarga is dried and salted mullet (fish) roe, and it comes either in a solid form that you grate on a box grater to create a mound of brownish powder or pre-ground in a jar. It is salty, barely fishy, and richly flavorful in a way I'd never experienced before. (I suppose a foodie would call that 'umami.') Sprinkled over hot pasta with a generous dose of olive oil, pasta alla bottarga is something I still crave intensely, all these years later.
A Sunday lunch staple was pasta al forno, which I mistakenly called lasagna once. My host parents were quick to point out that 'lasagne' refers only to the flat noodles, nothing more. When layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and béchamel (none of the grainy ricotta we use here), lasagne transform into pasta al forno (trans. pasta from the oven). Interestingly, my family always purchased our pasta al forno directly from il forno, a.k.a. the local baker. It wasn't something my host mother ever considered making herself, and I don't think most of my friends' parents did either.
Upon returning to Canada, I continue to be influenced by my host mother's approach to pasta. I cook it for less time, in saltier water, and keep the sauce flavors simple and vibrant.
On that note, I think I know what I'll be making for dinner tonight... and hopefully you will, too, in celebration of National Pasta Day!