Ten Best Pasta Dishes
by Nancy O’Neill
Just the thought of pasta makes the mouth water! There are so many sizes, varieties and sauces that it truly is difficult to choose just 10. It would seem that the widely held belief that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy from China is more myth than fact as there was a mention of pasta in a document in 1250 forty-five years before Polo returned from his adventures.
It would seem the dry variety of pasta as we know it today, originated in the Middle East and was imported into Sicily during the Arab invasions. In fact there are references to pasta in Muslim texts as far back as 1,000ad. On the other hand fresh pasta has been linked to Greece and was probably imported into Italy in a similar fashion. One of the most popular dry pastas is from Gragnano near Naples. During the 1500s this town was considered to be the home of durum wheat pasta and in the 1750s the city’s administration reorganized the urban layout benefit the drying of maccheroni!
So what is the difference between dry pasta “pasta secca” and fresh pasta “pasta all’uovo”? Well the ingredients for a start. Most dry pastas come from the south of Italy and do not usually contain egg which would perish quite easily in such a hot climate; it’s basic ingredients are ground semolina flour and water which is mix into a paste and pushed through molds of different shapes. It is then left to dry at low temperatures over a few days until all the moisture has evaporated.
Fresh pasta which was traditionally more common in the north and central regions, can be made with different types of flour although the most common is the “00” high gluten flour. Eggs are added to the mixture to create a more malleable, bread-like dough which suits more delicate sauces.
One is not better than the other, although locals who are loyal to their regional variety might disagree, it just depends on the sauces you are going to use or the textures you would like to experience. So, let’s have a look at some of the most popular pasta dishes and how they were developed.
1. Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma is a typical dish from the Sicilian city of Catania incorporating traditional Mediterranean produce namely eggplant/aubergine. The name was inspired by Nino Martoglio, a Sicilian poet and writer who compared it to Bellini’s masterpiece “Norma” upon tasting the sumptuous dish for the first time.
As with most of the Italian pasta greats, there are very few ingredients, however what makes every Italian pasta dish so tasty is the quality of the produce and the marriage with the right variety of pasta resulting in taste bud-tingling flavors. For this recipe you will need eggplant, ripe flavorsome tomatoes, salted ricotta, garlic, basil, olive oil, salt and pepper. Remember to add salt to the eggplant and allow it to “drain” before cooking to release some of the bitter juices. Cheap, tasty, easy to make and perfect for vegetarians this delicious but simple dish is a winning crowd pleaser every time.
2. Bucatini all’Amatriciana
This most famous of Roman dishes was so named after originating in the town of Amatrice in the Lazio region. The original recipe was called Gricia (which is still prepared in central Italy) was not tomato based as tomatoes had not been introduced into Italy at that stage. The recipe as we know it today became very popular in Rome during the 19th century as economic contacts between Rome and Amatrice became stronger.
Ingredients of the classic version vary slightly as the recipes developed depending on the availability of local produce. Guanciale (cheek bacon) is usually used as are tomatoes. Onions have always been included any time I have eaten Amatriciana but do not seem to be favoured in the surrounds of Amatrice. Lashings of black pepper or chilli pepper and pecorino Romano (from Amatrice if you can get it!) are standard also. The pasta choice is usually spaghetti or bucatini (slightly thicker spaghetti). Fresh pasta is not advised for this dish.
This peppery pasta will warm you through after an exhausting day of sight-seeing in the capital and to my mind is the perfect introduction to Roman cuisine.
3. Tagliatelle al Ragù alla Bolognese/Lasagna
Spaghetti Bolognaise is probably the most popular pasta dish outside Italy. However in Bologna, Ragù alla Bolognese is always served with egg tagliatelle which are better for holding the heavy meat sauce. Dating back to at least the 1400s, Bolognaise was originally tomato-less and even today should taste more of meat than tomato sauce. There have been so many variations on this beloved dish that in 1982 the Bolognese delegation of Accademia Italiana della Cucina deemed it necessary to issue the “correct” classic Ragù recipe.
Ingredients: 300 g beef (thin beef skirt is preferable), 150 g pancetta, 50 g celery, 50 g carrot, 50 g onion (notice no garlic), 5 spoons tomato sauce or 20 g triple tomato puree, Half cup of dry white or red wine, 1 cup (250 mL) whole milk, Salt and pepper to taste (notice no herbs). However even the Bolognesi will add sausage, rabbit, chicken or porcini mushrooms to add another dimension. The key to a good Ragù is to cook it slowly for quite a long time; seven or eight hours cooking time is common to bring all the flavors together.
Ragù alla Bolognese is also the basis for Lasagna another well-known and well-loved dish worldwide. In Bologna it is usually made with green lasagne sheets a pasta which incorporates cooked spinach. There are many theories as to the origins of the dish although the most likely seems to be that a similar dish existed in ancient Greece which was later transferred to the Romans. The ancient Greek word “Lasagnum” refers to a dish or bowl hence the name as we know it today. The wonderful thing about Lasagna is its versatility. It is delicious with a Ragù as mentioned above but for the veggies amongst us, it is equally tasty with roasted vegetables, wild mushroom or cheese sauce. Recently I had the fortune to taste an artichoke version cooked by my Neopolitan friend’s mother which I have to say has been my favourite so far. I dream of that Lasagna! If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend it.
4. Spaghetti/Rigatoni alla Carbonara
There are many hypotheses for the origins of this well-loved dish. The simplicity of the ingredients could mean that it was an easy dish to make for the charcoal makers “Carbonari” who spent long periods of time in the woods during the year. However the fact that we do not see reference to this dish in Italian cookbooks until after the second World War could demonstrate that it was invented by Roman trattorias to keep the American troops happy using ingredients (eggs and bacon) which was standard issue for the US soldiers.
Even culinary experts cannot agree on the origins so we will probably never know for sure. This not the only debate attached to this most delicious dish! What type of bacon should be used? Should you use the whole egg or just the yokes? Do you add cream? What cheese do you put on top? Most chefs would agree that you must not allow the eggs to overcook as the consistency should be creamy and not scrambled. Classic ingredients would be pancetta or guanciale (cheek) bacon, eggs, black pepper and cheese (pecorino Romano or parmesan). Onions or garlic is usually used too. Add the spaghetti or rigatoni to the bacon which has been cooked in a pan. Turn off the heat and mix in the raw egg allowing the heat to cook the eggs slightly. At the last moment grind a generous helping of black pepper on top and sprinkle with an abundance of cheese. Simply delicious!
5. Ragù Napoletano
Most Italian pasta sauces are ingenious in their simplicity however this cannot be said for Ragù Napoletano. This rich, meaty sauce takes hours to cook and many Neopolitan women cook it overnight getting up regularly to stir it if they want to achieve the desired result. The meat for the sauce is pig ribs/pig roast, guanciale, prosciutto and bacon (in large chunks). Triple tomato concentrate, red wine, onions, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper are also included. It would take more than one paragraph to explain the complete recipe (and probably some type of degree!). However it is extremely important to brown the meat well, cook it ultra-slowly and add the tomato concentrate a little at a time to achieve a rich burgundy red sauce.
Pasta types could be Paccheri (shorter rigatoni tubes) or Strozzapreti, a twisted type of gnocchi whose name literally translates as “Priest-stranglers” after a greedy 18th century priest almost choked to death on them! Top the final dish with a cheese like a mature Caciocavallo Sorrentino to cope with the rich depth of flavor.
Main differences between this Ragù and the Bolognese version are the type of meat used, the size of the chunks and the type of pasta used. Moreover there is no milk in the Neapolitan recipe and an abundance of tomato compared to its northern cousin. Finally the whole pieces of stewed meat from the Neapolitan Ragù are often used as a main course to follow the pasta starter. Two dishes for the price of one (with a lot more work than two dishes involved!). A lot of sweat and dedication is needed but the end result is well worth it! Better still, go to Naples and have one of the experts make it for you!
6. Orecchiette ai Cime di Rapa
Orechiette (little ears) are a home-made pasta most commonly found in Puglia, a region in Southern Italy. The name indicates the shape of the pasta, small, domed, white disks with one smooth side and one rough to hold the sauce. Unlike other fresh pastas, eggs are not usually included in its preparation. If you drive though Puglia during springtime it is not uncommon to see groups of women, young and old, sitting outside around tables diligently pressing each individual piece of dough into an Orecchietta with their right thumbs and gossiping about the latest happenings in the neighborhood.
This type of pasta probably originated in Provence where a similar pasta is made and then introduced into southern Italy by the Anjous, a French dynasty which dominated Puglia during the 1200s. Nowadays the typical sauce to accompany these delicious “little ears” is made with “Cime di Rapa” a bitter leafy green known as Rapini in English. If you can’t find Rapini, broccoli is a good substitute. Ingredients are rapini (or broccoli), garlic, anchovies, olive oil, Pecorino and toasted breadcrumbs.
7. Pesto alla Genovese
There are many types of pesto in Italy depending on the region you visit and the produce available locally. However the pesto we all know and love is alla Genovese (from Genoa). The prime ingredient for this type of pesto is of course basil which seems to grow very favourably in the Ligurian climate. The name originates from the verb Pestare which means to grind (as in pestle and mortar).
As with most pasta sauces in Italy variations on the same theme differ from family to family. The most common classic recipe is now basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano). Some recipes include other types of nuts. There are two types of pasta associated with Pesto alla Genovese; the fresh Trofie which are a twisted type of gnocchi made with white flour or Trenette which is slightly thinner than Linguine. Nowadays it is quite common to add potatoes and French beans to the recipe especially when using Trenette which I have to say I find particularly delicious!
8. Vermicelli alla Puttanesca
Due to the name, Puttanesca, many believe this sauce has some type of connection to prostitutes as “Puttana” means just that in Italian. However the name came about one evening in the early 1950s on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. Architect Sandro Petti was entertaining a group of friends when they asked him to rustle up something to eat as they were absolutely starving. However he told them he didn’t have much left in the kitchen and they would have to go somewhere else to get something to eat. It was very late in the evening and almost impossible to find anywhere open at that time. One of his friends exclaimed ‘Don’t worry Sandro, just make us a “puttanata qualsiasi”’, which roughly translated means a slightly more vulgar version of “any old thing”. Sandro duly threw together a sauce consisting of the very limited ingredients in his larder i.e. a few tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, olive oil and some oregano. The recipe today usually includes some anchovies, chilli and parsley.
After the success of the dish that evening, Petti added it to the list of starters on his menu calling it Puttanesca as Puttanata seemed a bit vulgar. The key to this dish is to make a basic Marinara sauce and then add the other ingredients. Tomato should only colour but not dominate the sauce allowing all the other flavours to come through. As is true for Italian cuisine in general, less is more.
9. Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci al Burro e Salvia
Merchants in Venice and Tuscany are credited with the earliest mentions of ravioli as far back as the 14th century. Ravioli were even known to the 14th century English population, appearing in an Anglo-Norman vellum manuscript.
There is a multitude of ravioli options on offer (cheese, mushroom, meat) without including their cousins, tortelloni, tortellini etc… One of my absolute favourites is Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci al Burro e Salvia. The key to this dish in my opinion is the consistency of the fresh pasta, neither too firm or too sloppy and a generous amount of Parmigiano Reggiano heaped on top just before serving.
The ravioli are stuffed with ricotta, spinach, some Parmigiano Reggiano, an egg, salt and pepper. While the sauce is made by melting about 40g of unsalted butter in a pan taking care not to burn or split. Add 8-12 sage leaves and allow to infuse for a few minutes on a very low heat. The perfect result is if the sage crisps slightly adding texture to the overall dish. Toss the ravioli in the sauce and grind some black pepper on top. Take off the heat, serve and spoon on lots of Parmigiano. Delicate, subtle and mouth-wateringly good!
10. Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
Considered to traditionally come from the Abruzzo region, this cheap and cheerful dish is now popular the length and breadth of the boot. As there are very few ingredients (garlic, olive oil, chilli, parsley and spaghetti) it is usually the first dish young Italians learn to make. It is also the dish that will most often be offered to you “facciamo due spaghetti” if you end up back at an Italian friend’s house after a night on the beer!
The sauce is made by sautéing minced or pressed garlic in olive oil (about 5 tbsp) on a low heat to avoid burning. Add dry or fresh chilli to give it a good kick and add the cooked spaghetti to the pan once the oil has absorbed all the flavours and toss well. Mix in chopped flat leaf parsley, serve and grate Pecorino or parmesan cheese over the top or some toasted breadcrumbs which is common in the southern regions. Simply scrumptious!