Funny story, I studied Italian for one year in college. It was a great start for my future life in Italy. Only I had no idea that my future life would be in Italy. I wouldn’t figure it out until years later.
College Jill had never been to Italy and didn’t like Italian food. Gulp, that’s right. I didn’t like Italian food. That’s why I stopped studying the Italian language.
Big mistake. I should have at least gone to Italy. I might have realized that most Italians would not have liked the food that I thought was Italian either. Although my first visit to Italy didn’t go so well. I got sick and missed much of the eating.
It was on my second trip to Italy 15 years later that I finally figured out what Italian food was all about. I fell in love with the cuisine, the country, and an Italian man. It turns out that real Italian food is my absolute favorite food. Much of the “Italian” I ate back in the States was not in fact Italian. The discovery was a revelation. I love Italian food not only enough to learn the language but to quit my job in New York City and run away to cooking school in northern Italy.
There are many ways to illustrate the differences between food in Italy and much of the Italian food available in the United States. However, it was the pasta that was the most eye-opening for me.
I thought pasta was a boring carb filled with empty calories. It was best avoided or saved for rare indulgences when it was buried in cheese and/or meat. It seemed mushy and either drowned in sauce or left as a rubbery mess beneath a tomato hat.
Five ways to make your pasta more Italian Italian
- Be mindful as to how you add the pasta to the sauce. Not all pasta and sauces should be combined in the same way. Some pastas like to be blended with the sauce in a bowl. Pesto comes to mind as does pasta with ricotta cheese. I finish many of my pastas by draining the pasta and tossing it with the sauce in a skillet over medium-high heat for about 30 seconds. Some examples that do well in a skillet include classic pasta with tomato, pasta with garlic, and pasta with broccoli. Another option is to warm a serving bowl with hot water or in an oven at a low temperature. I do this with cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper).
- Most pasta shapes will work with most sauces. There are traditions that govern pasta and sauce combinations. Some folks will gasp if you get it wrong. Yet much of this is based on tradition and the local availability of ingredients. With a handful of exceptions, most pasta shapes will work with most sauces.
- Do not overcook pasta. Pasta is most delicious and healthy when it is cooked “al dente” which means to the tooth in Italian and which refers to pasta that is still a bit firm to the bite. Not only is overcooked pasta mushy and less delicious, but your body digests it less efficiently.
- Use a big pot with plenty of water and salt. Keep your pasta from sticking by giving it plenty of room. There is a general rule along the lines of 1 liter of water and 10 grams of salt for every 100 grams of pasta. But if you use a big pot with plenty of water and salt you should be fine. I typically throw in a palmful of coarse salt after the water comes to a boil. Use less if you plan on including salty ingredients.
- Do not break long pasta to fit it in the pot. Your pot may be too small for a full-length strand of spaghetti but that’s ok. Put the spaghetti in as far as you can. Wait a couple of seconds until the strands soften. Then use a wooden spoon to push the pasta all the way under.