Life is a combination of magic and pasta. – Federico Fellini
Pasta in bianco. Pasta – spaghetti, rotelle, fusilli, penne. It didn’t matter the type of pasta, yet pasta in bianco was the only thing he would eat. Oh, plain white rice would work, as would the occasional pan-seared slice of fish. Ravioli in brodo was slurped up happily. But he could eat pasta in bianco, plain pasta simply tossed with olive oil and dusted with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, was his favorite meal.
My little son, brought to Italy before his earliest memories, a tiny tot, and raised, for all intents and purposes, as an Italian. His tender years, his formative years until the age of eight were spent in Italy, totally immersed in the Italian culture. Yet his natural aversion to new foods, complicated dishes and too many flavors had him sticking closely to plain white pasta or rice, meal after meal.
It was a romantic getaway weekend. Husband knew of the ideal little spot, a tiny village outside of Bologna, a place that he had discovered once on a business trip. And he knew the best little hotel, nestled in the center of that historic, medieval town. He had stayed at this hotel before, eaten at the hotel’s restaurant and I knew that I was in for a treat.
Narrow cobbled streets, snaking upwards, we carried our bags from the car park on the outskirts and entered the hotel. A step up to reach the door, we noticed another open doorway to the right. Curious as we are, we peeped in and saw that it was a kitchen, undoubtedly the hotel’s kitchen, large enough for two or three women to prepare the restaurant’s meals. Women, always women. A large stainless steel table stood in the center, an expanse of stove against the back wall. We sighed in contentment. A kitchen such as this promised divine cuisine.
Settled into our room, we decided to explore the village. We took the winding staircase down to the street, yet our glance, our curiosity was immediately and naturally drawn to the open door of the kitchen. We leaned in and saw just what we had hoped to see: three women hand-rolling pasta and tortellini. For the day’s lunch. A sacred silence reigned in the semi-darkness, concentrated as they were on their work. Rhythmic movements, deft fingers folded, rolled and turned, three sets of eyes turned down towards the work surface. Rows upon rows of flour-dusted tortellini lined up obediently. Something so holy, a tradition stretching back generations, a near-religious experience.
We kept in close contact with our Italian friends once we moved back to France from Milan. When they let us know that they would be traveling through France and could swing by and pay us a visit, we were more than excited! We were elated. Friends who go out of their way to stay in touch, to visit, are rare and precious indeed.
And of course we planned an action-packed visit: a walk in the nearby woods, a trip into Paris, and an evening out at our current favorite eatery, a Scandinavian restaurant all dressed in white a blue. Fresh fish, smoked salmon, Danish specialties. We bundled everyone into the car and proudly walked them into the restaurant. The boys, our two and their one, made their choices, everyone finding something to please. Husband and I and Lucia selected starters and mains, very pleased indeed.
Yet… Alberto. How can a grown man be so stuck in tradition, be such a creature of habit. He scoured the menu, scrutinized each and every offer, brow furrowed in concentrated worry. A look of panic spread across his face as we waited for his decision. “There is no pasta!” he wailed. “I need a primo piatto – a first course, a starter of pasta!” We stared at him in wonder, consternation and just a tad of amusement. Husband and I smothered a giggle or two as we thought of those heady Italian stereotypes. But here was an Italian who embodied that stereotype of one who absolutely must start each and every meal with pasta.
Eventually, with the help and understanding of the chef, were able to serve Alberto a plate of pasta and assuage his panic. We couldn’t let a guest go hungry, could we?
The pasta of my youth was certainly not the pasta that my children were raised on. Theirs was an Italian childhood, one of fresh pasta purchased at the market daily. Theirs was handmade ravioli or tortellini filled with goat cheese or porcini or spiced pumpkin. Theirs was orecchiette tossed with freshly chopped ripe summer tomatoes and basil from the garden. Theirs was tiny raviolini in brodo, delicate little ravioli filled with a dot of cheese floating in a warm clear broth and dusted with freshly grated Parmesan. Pasta al pesto, spaghetti in rosso, my sons enjoyed every sort of pasta one could imagine both at home and at school, raised, nourished and nurtured in Italy through their youth as they were.
My own childhood was an odd mix of old earthy Russian dishes and modern American cuisine and none too creative at that. Cans of Spaghettio’s, tiny circles like ring worms floating in thick reddish-orange sauce, salty and sweet, sometimes dotted with miniature meatballs; or Tuna Noodle Casserole, my sister’s specialty, cans of tuna tossed in wide, flat egg noodles, swimming in a can of mushroom soup and topped with crispy, crunchy potato chips.
How I loved pasta!
My mother would make meatballs, simmer them in tomato sauce and plop the whole on a bowl full of spaghetti… or linguini with clam sauce, clams from the jar but even as a kid I adored the long, thin, slippery noodles bathed in a fishy sauce dotted with parsley, chewy with clams.
And then there was Noodle Kugel. Wide, flat egg noodles baked with apples and cinnamon, studded with raisins, in a large sheet pan, sliced into thick chunks and eaten warm with Cool Whip on top. That Cinnamon Apple Noodle Kugel was my comfort food, dense, chewy and heavy, just sweet enough. One always picked off the crispy burnt bits on the top before digging into the noodles.
Manicotti. One of the first dishes I ever prepared on my own as an adult away from home was Manicotti. Pasta tubes stuffed with a creamy ricotta and parmesan filling, speckled with green of the parsley, pushed into the tubes with fingers slick with the filling, fingers it took all of my self-constraint not to lick. Tubes of pasta filled to overflowing with white fit together like a puzzle in the baking dish to get them all in and then smothered under tomato sauce. Mozzarella, more parmesan and into the oven. A pasta recipe I still make. A pasta recipe we still love.
We fondly called her Nonna Anna, our neighbor, our son’s best friend’s grandmother, Italian through and through. I learned so much from her as she spoke about her cooking, the simple dishes she prepared for her brood when they were all together. Simple, economical and filling for her and her husband Beppe, their five children and a gaggle of grandchildren, all gathered together in that little white house out in the countryside. Tremendous bowls of pasta tossed with cubes of fresh ripe tomatoes and chopped basil, olive oil, salt and pepper just before serving and basta. She showed me how to make Risotto alla Milanese using tiny penne in place of the rice, stirring, stirring the pasta in wine and broth, adding saffron powder, stirring and stirring until meltingly smooth and creamy, like the best risotto. A generous dusting of parmesan and everyone was content.
ILVA'S PASTA FRITTATA
Whip up a few eggs, about one per person, with one tablespoon freshly grated parmesan per egg.
Take your leftover pasta (and I am speaking of pasta with any kind of sauce), put it in a bowl and stir in the eggs.
Heat up olive oil in a skillet and pour in the pasta, flatten it out and cook on high heat, let it crackle. Turn the frittata on a plate or a large lid and slip it into the skillet so that it cooks and gets golden brown on both sides.
Serve with a sprinkle of fresh parsley or herbs on top.