Tossing noodles in some sauce is an age old tradition. Immigrants from Europe’s boot brought over recipes from the old country and remixed them to fit our ever-changing American palates. When it comes to pasta, we’ve created new traditions and expanded oldies — from the corner restaurants in Little Italy to the home kitchens across the country.
Travel around Italy and you’re going to eat some pasta, most of it more traditional than the stuff you get at home. The bones of Italian cooking culture are made of durum wheat (plus an egg yolk, salt, and water). The blood that makes it all come alive are the sauces that the pasta gets tossed in.
If you’re heading to Italy, here are a few originals to tempt you back on the gluten wagon.
PASTA AL POMODORO
Pomodoro is the simplest of dishes. It’s light and playful. This isn’t the spaghetti with ketchup Ray Liotta laments about at the end of Goodfellas. A good Pomodoro is deeper and more nuanced than that.
These days, it’s hard to imagine Italy without the tomato, but that wasn’t always the case. The fruit was first seen in Italy around 1540. It wasn’t used in cuisine until late in the 1690s. Even then, it wasn’t a cornerstone of Italian cuisine until later in the 18th century when local varieties started spreading across Italy.
The Pomodoro sauce is a simple blend of olive oil, onions, garlic, and local tomatoes simmered down into a sauce. A knob of butter is mixed in near the end to give it a velvety texture. Lastly, al dente pasta is tossed directly in the sauce to cook for a few final minutes before serving. The addition of fresh basil leaves give the whole dish a refreshing burst of aromatic flavor. And that’s it. Simple, seductive, and classic.
Much like New York style pizza, the great Italian-American tradition of the Sunday sauce (or gravy) full of meatballs, sausages, and veal shanks all simmered down in a lush red gravy started in the kitchens and back alleys of Naples. Whether you want to call it a meat sauce or gravy or ragù doesn’t matter. They’re all correct at the end of the day.
This is the heavy-hitter of the Italian pasta scene. Clemenza teaches Michael to make it in The Godfather. Vinnie’s making it in prison in Goodfellas. It’s what gave us our spaghetti and meatballs, which has become a cornerstone of Americana cuisine.
A good Neapolitan Ragù, or ragù alla napoletana, starts with a soffritto base. That’s generally a minced blend of carrot, onion, garlic, and celery sautéed lightly in olive oil. Then you sear off a whole load of meat, sausages, and/or meatballs — generally it’s whatever you can afford that week. Add in your tomato sauce and let simmer all day. Sometimes nonnas will go to the trouble of making a pomodoro sauce themselves. Sometimes they’re happy to just use a good bottle of tomato sauce. Toss that ragù with some pasta and serve with the meat. Then unbutton the top button on your pants and tuck in.
PASTA ALLA CARBONARA
There are culture clashes over the correct preparation of a good Carbonara. The French and British have been known to use cream to get the texture, which is a big no-no. A Carbonara is not a sauce, it’s a dressing. It’s a deceptively simple dish that requires only four ingredients to dress some fresh pasta. The name Carbonara is disputed in its origins. We know that it had something to do with coal miners around the 1930s. Some believe that the miners would make the pasta on their coal shovels over fires during their breaks. Others claim that it was simply a dish made for coal miners, to fill them up. Either way, coal or “carbone” made it into the title of the dish.
The simplicity of a Carbonara is the blending of four ingredients: a bacon (preferably pancetta or guanciale), cheese (preferably grated pecorino romano or parmigiano-reggiano), eggs, and some black pepper. Carbonara is also a fast dish to make. While you’re boiling your pasta, brown off the bacon in a little olive oil, combine some eggs with the cheese and black pepper on the side. Once the bacon is nicely browned, pour off most of the extra fat and toss the pasta directly in the pan to coat it. Then toss again with the egg and cheese mixture while continuously moving the pasta so the egg doesn’t congeal. No cream necessary. It’s that easy.
PASTA ALLA PUTTANESCA
Puttanesca was born from throwing together what was left in a kitchen into a pan to feed one last table of sex workers, or puttane, after closing time. The chef only had some capers, olives, and tomatoes left. He tossed some spaghetti in and the Puttanesca was born. The dish is now famous around the whole of Italy, even though it’s only been around since the 1960s at the earliest.
Although the Puttanesca was created with leftovers, the general recipe has been standardized and is more of something you dress pasta with, rather than a sauce. All you need is a good sauce pan and some hot olive oil. Toss in some garlic, capers, olives, and anchovies. Then add in some nice cherry tomatoes and just sear. Lastly toss in your pasta and parsley or oregano. Done. The saltiness of the anchovies shine through the brine-y capers and olives while the fresh tomatoes cut through with a nice acidity.
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Alfredo is that white sauce on your grocery store shelf next to the red sauce. It’s ubiquitous in America. It’s Olive Garden’s most ordered dish. But it’s not American. It’s from Rome. It’s actually named by an Italian dude, Alfredo Di Lelio. Alfredo lays claim to the invention of the dish that he slapped his name on. However, recipes of fettuccine tossed in butter and cheese date back to the 15th century.
Regardless, today there are two competing restaurants in Rome that lay claim to the great dish. They both toss the fettuccine table side for maximum effect. Fettuccine in the USA tends to skip on using butter for a white sauce of cheese and starch and likely milk products. But it doesn’t have to be that hard. Fettuccine All’Alfredo is literally just some freshly boiled pasta tossed with a large knob of butter and some grated parmesan. It’s one of the oldest ways on record to make a pasta dish and there’s nothing more to it. It takes the exact same amount of time to mix in a jar of sauce as it does to mix in the butter and cheese. So why not try it the old fashioned way? At least you’ll know exactly what you’re eating.
Let’s get right to this. Bolognese has tomatoes in it. At least modern Bolognese does. There’s an old recipe from 1891 called Maccheroni alla bolognese that is basically onion, carrots, chunks of veal and pancetta all fried in butter. Then a bone broth covers the ingredients and it all cooks down. At the very end, cream is recommended to smooth out the dish before pasta is tossed in and grated cheese applied. That recipe is not what you’ll find in Bologna today.
In 1982, the Italian Academy of Cuisine (Accademia Italiana della Cucina) enshrined the recipe for ragù alla bolognese with tomatoes in the recipe. All the restaurants use their variation of the official recipe. Especially in Bologna.
That recipe is a classic. First you need our old friend soffritto to get things going — a nice minced blend of carrots, celery and onion sautéed in olive oil. Add in some ground beef, veal, and/or pork. Once that’s cooked through, add in about a third of a bottle of very dry wine (red or white) and cook completely off. Remove any excess fat then add in some tomato paste. Mix in some good broth and a little milk and tomato sauce. Simmer. Toss in some tagliatelle, or any pasta really, and you’re done. This one takes a lot longer than the pastas that are dressed. It’s a sauce and needs time to gel all those amazing flavors swirling together. In fact, it might be quicker just go to Bologna and try it for yourself!
SPAGHETTI ALLE VONGOLE
Spaghetti alle Vongole is the granddaddy of Linguine and Clam Sauce. It’s a simple dish that dates back a long way. How long, no one knows, really. There are two versions found in Italy — in bianco and in rosso. The latter adds the new world ingredients of tomatoes and chili flakes and is found more in the south and around the shipping ports of Naples. Where as in banco is all old world.
Putting together a pasta alle vongole is another straight forward process that takes little prep. The only time real skill is needed is for dicing the garlic. Once that’s done, you heat some olive oil, add in said garlic and sauté. Once the garlic is soft, add in some clams and white wine. Once the clams open, their juices will be released and mix with the garlic, wine and olive oil creating a sweet and salty flavor spectrum. Boil up some nice spaghetti or linguine, strain, and toss the clam sauce in with some fresh parsley and you’re ready to nosh.