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Cotechino e lenticchie
Melanzane alla parmigiana
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The humble origin
Bruschetta is one of the foods with the most humble origin ever. And the fact that has become one of the symbols of the Italian cuisine in the world should make us think about how so often simplicity is a winner.
Bread has always been an important component of the basic foods, especially for the poor people who couldn’t have any access to more sophisticated and expensive resources. This was true at the times of the Roman Empire, when bread was the centre of the supplying system, as well as in our times where its distribution in the warzones can still make the difference between life and death for thousands of people. Since the diffusion of wheat, bread has been one of the biggest means in the hands of governments to control the masses.
Nowadays, especially in the advanced countries, it is often seen as a complement in the normal daily diet, but centuries ago most of the people worked hard just to gain a portion of that cooked mix of flour and water. And it was only around the 12th century that every family could have access to a public oven where could bake their own bread, while the luckiest ones had a private one at home.
Anyway for many centuries, bread was prepared and baked once a week, and the problem of preserving it until the end of the week was a serious one. One the various strategies, probably the easiest one, brought to the origin of bruschetta. Yes, because an elementary way to extend the life of the old bread is just to toast it.
In the central regions of Italy this habit encountered the common use of olive oil and the wide presence of garlic. So, with a lot of different local names, bruschetta came to us.
The name “bruschetta” (please pronounce “sche” as “ske”, as in Italian “ch” is always “k”) comes from an ancient word of the Roman dialect, today currently used even in the modern Italian language. In this dialect the word “bruscare”, a verb, meant a mix of “to toast”, “to scorch” and “to burn”. This is natural if you think to the difficulty to toast uniformly the slice of bread in all the old traditional ways (mainly in the fireplace, but also in the oven or on a pan over the fire). For this reason the slice of bruschetta is not only toasted, but got to have those burnt zones (especially along the borders) that give it its peculiar taste. Without these burnt zones bruschetta is not a well done one. It’s the case when you haven’t to look for perfection, also perfection is not actually wanted. And in the end the slight touch of burnt perfectly complements the intense flavors of olive oil and garlic, creating a perfect harmony.
Traditions and modernity
There are many local versions of bruschetta, even if the basic recipe is always the same. A slice of bread, preferably an old one, toasted in some way, rubbed with garlic, and topped with olive oil. A sprinkle of salt and that’s all.
In Tuscany it’s called “fett’unta” (“oily slice”), in Piedmont “soma d’aj” (“load of garlic”), in Calabria “fedda ruscia” (“scorched slice”), but it’s practically the same preparation. Only the kind of local bread can slightly change the result. In the particular case of Tuscany, the bread is called “pane sciocco” (literally “dumb bread”), a particular kind of bread without salt, born in Florence and nowadays used in Tuscany and Umbria, that has a curious origin. It was born as a consequence of the fights between Pisa and Florence in the 12th century. In that time Pisa raised the price of salt to an unreasonable level, blocking de facto the supply of the precious resource to the town of Florence. The people of Florence didn’t lose heart, and began making bread without salt, giving birth to a traditional variety that is still widely used today.
In the end “bruschetta” arrived to the modern age ready to become a perfect canvas for the creative Italian cuisine.
The first fundamental contribution came from Naples with its tomatoes that still are the best companions, together with basil, for our beloved slices of “bruschetta”. Today most of the restaurants in Italy serve bruschetta in many versions, from the basic one, to that with tomatoes, to those with a wide choice of toppings as olive paste, truffle paste, artichoke paste, every kind of grilled or marinated vegetables, beans and more and more.
An important tip: don’t be frugal with garlic. Maybe it’s not so “social”, but it has a lot of healthy properties, besides the typical tasty touch that a good bruschetta cannot miss.
Cotechino e lenticchie
New Year's Day’s tradition
Every time the year gets close to the end, everybody use to wonder what the new year will bring in their lives. Unfortunately (or not...) nothing and nobody is able to give such a response.
But in Italy we have a rock solid certainty: the dinner of new year's eve will invariably end with a dish of "cotechino e lenticchie" or "zampone e lenticchie".
It's a nourishing dish of humble origins, really savoury and particularly appropriate for the cold season. But why Italians use this dish to bring about luck and prosperity for the approaching new year?
Let's start investigating the two components separately...
Cotechino and Zampone
Cotechino and Zampone are two kind of sausage that share the content mix, but are stuffed into two different casings. Cotechino is more traditional in its hog's intestine casing, while Zampone find its "packaging" in the hog's front leg. Cotechino, like his derived Zampone, is a sausage, to be consumed after boiling, that in the Middle Ages could be made only by the members of the guild of "beccai" (butchers specialized in hog's preparation). It's name comes from the word "cotica" that is a still used name for the hog's skin, one of the ingredients of the mix.
In 1667 Vincenzo Tanara, a gastronome from Bologna, in its essay “Economia del cittadino in villa”, talks broadly "of the hog, and of the 110 ways to make food from it", mentioning for the first time the "Zampetti alla Modenese" (literally "little hog's legs Modena style"), giving an accurate recipe for it. Although the name still had to be modified in "Zampone" (big hog's leg), after the use of the bigger and fatter english "Large white" porks, the ingredients of the mix (the same of Cotechino) were already fixed in 60% of last choice meat, 20% of neck's lard and 20% of skin. By the composition we can easily say that this kind of sausage was born to be a nourishing but inexpensive food, that, prepared in winter, had to last for all the year.
About the origin of the use of the hog's leg as a casing, we have to go back to 1511 in a little town in the province of Modena, named Mirandola.
In that time, the town, being a loyal supporter of France, was besieged by the troops of Pope Julius II. The inhabitants had almost finished the food and still had only a certain number of porks. Slaughtering them meant leaving them go bad, while leaving them alive meant delivering them to the enemy. Even a genius like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, well known philosopher, author of the "Oration on the Dignity of Man" (which has been called the "Manifesto of the Renaissance") living in the town, could not find any solution. But, on 1st of January 1511, an anonymous cook of the court proposed to stuff the legs of the porks with their own meat, to preserve the content for a long time. Was the birth of "Zampetti alla Modenese".
The solution didn't really bring luck to the town of Mirandola that just 20 days later had to surrender to the army of the Pope, but reveals to us the reason to associate Zampone to New Year's Day.
Lenticchie is the Italian name of lentils, undoubtedly the oldest bean ever farmed. Traces of it were found in Mesopotamia aged 7000 BC.
From Mesopotamia to Egypt, then Greece and then Rome.
The literature of all times is full of mentions of this precious food, starting with Esau selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew, and continuing with Galen praising its curative virtues, Antiphanes, Chrysippus of Soli, Apicius, Cato, Plinius, and so on.
The lentil soup, even if replaced by cornmeal as basic food in Northern Italy gave it anyway its name: Puls (soup) + Lentis (of lentils) = Polenta. Lentil, as all the other beans, being a humble food, almost disappeared from the tables in the twentieth century, to reappear as healthy food (and it really is) in the last years.
And... what about new year's day?
Well, already in the Roman times there was the habit to exchange a little bag (a "scarsella", a sort of purse used in those times to put money) full of lentils with the wish of their transformation into money. Nowadays the bag has turned to a spoon of soup, but the meaning remain the same. And beware, don't add any oil in the soup or the money will slip away!
In the end
In the end, if it's possible to find links between Cotechino/Zampone and New Year's Day and between Lenticchie and New Year's Day, both links are weak and nothing can be found to join all together in the same story.
Anyway, one thing is sure: Cotechino and Lenticchie are so delicious together and maybe the real link is all here, in the perfect harmony of their tastes. And Italians will keep on celebrating New Year's Day with their superstitious consume for a long time.
What's an espresso?
If you are Italian, you use the word "espresso" only when you are out of your homeland, because in Italy we say simply "caffè" (coffee). Despite in Italy too you may find bad and good coffee, the real problem begins as you cross the border of the "Bel Paese".
It's really difficult, not impossible but very difficult, to drink a decent espresso outside of Italy.
But let's go to see what is more exactly an espresso. The official and most aseptic definition of an espresso is "a beverage obtained from a process of roasting and grinding of coffee seeds, producted by percolation of hot water under pressure, that passes through a layer of ground and pressed coffee".
While this definition is particularly focused on the kind of process, it leaves plenty of room for a definition of a "good" espresso. So, let's write down the characteristics of an optimal cup of espresso, bearing in mind that all the following data are the result of experiments and scientific studies, and not only a "common opinion".
A good cup of espresso must respect these parameters:
• Use of a dose of ground coffee of 7 g ± 0.5
• Temperature of the water just out of the machine: 88°C ± 2°C
• Temperature of the beverage in the cup: 67°C ± 3°C
• Pressure of the water: 9 bar ± 1
• Percolation time: 25 secondi ± 5 secondi (on a professional bar machine)
• Viscosity at 45°C > 1.5 mPa s
• Total lipids > 2 mg/ml
• Caffeine < 100 mg/cup
• Volume of a cup ("crema" included): 25 ml ± 2.5
Now the haziness of the definition has given the way to a certain strictness. So let's start saying that some of these parameters can vary, sometimes consistently, depending on many variables (the coffee blend, the machine, the atmospheric conditions, etc...).
But some not. If you go around with a 89ml (3 ounces) of so-called "espresso" (like the Starbuck's one...) well... you are nowhere close to drinking a good cup.
The first espresso machine was created by Louis Bernard Babaut in 1822, and presented at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. The main reason that moved Babaut to invent it was the intention to have a machine able to prepare a huge quantity of coffee in a relatively short time. He reached his goal as his machine could brew up to 1000 cups in one hour. The main problem was that the machine, that used the vapour to create the necessary pressure, could blow up easily, and was so difficult to manage that most of the coffee produced was extremely bitter.
Some years later, in 1984 in Turin, Angelo Moriondo improved the project and patented his own machine, but decided to use it only in his own shops.
In this period, many began to notice that the espresso machines had not only the ability to make quickly many coffee cups, but they could also produce a beverage with a superior quality of taste, as the pressure and the temperature of the water (that never arrives to boil) made possible to extract from the ground coffee a series of flavoured substances that otherwise never arrived in the cup or were irremediably burnt. This gave the decisive impulse to the development and diffusion of espresso.
So with the new century, in 1901, Luigi Bezzera improves again the Moriondo machine and presents it to the national and international press.
The espresso machine, at this point, still suffers many problems because of its vapour engine, but the diffusion of the idea has become inexorable.
The next year (1902) Desiderio Pavoni commercilized the first vertical machine with a gas burner that made it more stable and manageable. It is a brass machine that soon become a design object too, especially after the artistic touch of Pier Teresio Arduino in 1905.
The problems due to the use of vapour were definitively solved by a new version released by Achille Gaggia, who in Milan in 1938, patented a machine which for the first time used a piston system to create, and better control, the pressure. The next evolution is the adoption of an electric pump that brings to us the modern espresso machine in 1961, thanks to Carlo Ernesto Valente owner of the Faema brand.
A winning combination
As we have just seen, the evolution of the machine that makes possible to produce an espresso was slow and lasted more than one century. But, while the machine is necessary, we couldn't have a good espresso without a good coffee, a correct roasting process, a perfect preservation system for the blend, a great grinder, and last but not least an expert barista that have to produce your cup with his ability to draw together all these factors, playing with them as a scientist and an artist.
The consumer can judge the level of an espresso only by tasting it. A perfect espresso must be "a 25ml cup of coffee adorned by a consistent nutty coloured 'crema' of extremely fine texture. The 'aroma' (flavour) must be intense and rich of notes of flowers, fruits, chocolate and toasted bread. In the mouth the espresso must be bold and velvety, with the right balance between bitter and sour".
At least these are the words of Luigi Odello, president of IIAC (International Institute of Coffee Tasters), and we believe him...
About the variations
In Italy the espresso, or better, "il caffè" can include some variations as follows.
• caffè corto - the normal one (so usually is just called "caffè")
• caffè lungo - the "double shot", around 45-50ml, obtained brewing the coffee for roughly the double of time. It is more bitter, it has less 'crema' and consequently flavours, and has obviously a bigger quantity of caffeine (but not a bigger concentration)
• caffè ristretto - is obtained interrupting the brewing at a quantity of 18-20ml. The risk is that the time was not enough to extract all the flavoured substances and oils
• decaffeinato - The decaffeinated coffee, that in the last years has reached a good quality, often comparable to the normal one.
For the serving:
• in tazza - in the regular ceramic cup
• al vetro - in the small glass normally used for the alcoholic shots
Mixed with milk:
• caffè macchiato freddo - with a little drop of cold ("freddo" in Italian) milk, literally a spot ("macchia in italiano")
• caffè macchiato caldo - like the previous one but with hot ("caldo" in Italian) milk and not cold.
• caffellatte - the english/american "Latte" (which makes not sense as "latte" is the Italian for "milk". Try to order a "latte" in Italy and you'll have a surprise missing the coffee part). Anyway more hot milk than coffee and with no foam.
• cappuccino - So named after the color resembling that of the Capuchin monks' robes. It's an espresso additioned with hot foamy milk. It's the traditional Italian breakfast coffee.
• latte macchiato - a hot foamy milk glass spotted with a drop of coffee (no more than 20ml).
Mixed with alcoholic beverages (corretto)
• caffè corretto con grappa - with addiction of a variable quantity of grappa (typical Italian liqueur distilled from grapes)
• caffè corretto con sambuca - with addiction of a variable quantity of sambuca (typical Italian liqueur flavoured by star anise and other herbs)
Mixed with cocoa
• marocchino - an espresso with addition of bitter cocoa powder (sometimes with melted black chocolate) and topped with milk foam
With the word “Gnocco” (from the Longobard “knohha” meaning knot; the better known and used “gnocchi” is just the plural form in Italian) we usually identify every kind of piece of dough cooked in boiling water or broth.
The first known record has been found in Italy, in the Ledro valley (near the Garda lake), where in the archaeological site of an ancient pile-dwelling village, some little balls made of a mix of water and a sort of cereal flour were found close to a rudimental stone mill.
The concept is so easy and someway instinctive that in many countries such a preparation found its place, even if nowadays it has become a traditional dish (in many various shape and mix of ingredients) in Italy and in most of the Middle and Eastern Europe.
In Italy already in the 16th century were a popular dish, typical of the tables of the poor classes, but anyway mentioned in many old recipe collections. In those times they were called “zanzarelli” and were mainly done of breadcrumbs, milk and dry fruits (usually crushed almonds).
In the 17th century they changed name into “malfatti” (somewhere are still locally called with this name) replacing breadcrumbs and almonds with the more usual flours, and milk with water.
Notice that when we say flour we mean every kind of flour was in use in the various regions, so could be of wheat, corn, rice, semolina, buckwheat, almond, chestnuts, and so on.
In the 18th century eventually potatoes came in, going to change (together with tomato) the European culinary habits together with the recipe of “gnocchi”. The circumstance of the rapid diffusion of potatoes in the old continent kitchens has a little anecdote to be told.
Batteries and potatoes
The first character of this anecdote is Antoine Parmentier a French pharmacist, that was captured during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and interned in Germany where was fed exclusively with potatoes, in those times used only as animal feed. Once returned to France he exalted this food, making his voice arrive up to the court of Louis XVI.
Few years later, in 1801, Alexander Volta was in Paris as a guest, to present his invention of the battery to the Institute of France and to Napoleon. Being a comprehensive researcher and a good gastronome too, when back in Italy contributed considerably to the diffusion of the use of potatoes, above all debunking the myth of its toxicity.
From there to the replacement of part of the flour in the gnocchi making, the step was really short, thanks to a so much lighter result. In the end of the 19th century potato gnocchi had spread everywhere leaving to the previous versions only few local niches.
Old and new traditions
Today gnocchi are a very popular dish in all the Italian regions and in a wide part of Europe. It has been associated to many local traditions in many places.
In Rome a traditional quote says: “Giovedì gnocchi, Venerdì pesce e Sabato trippa” (literally “Thursday gnocchi, Friday fish, Saturday tripe”) giving an idea of how much our dish was popular. Another roman quote says: ”Ridi, ridi, che mamma ha fatto li gnocchi” (literally “Go on laughing, as mom made gnocchi”) showing how much our beloved dish was welcome.
But gnocchi has also become locally a sort of symbol, like in the case of Verona, the town of Romeo and Juliet. The incipit was the great famine of 1531. In that occasion the Town’s Council, led by Tommaso Da Vico, to avoid a popular insurrection, decided to donate to the poorest neighbours of the town a big quantity of bread, wine, butter, flour and cheese in the last Friday before Lent. Da Vico, in his testament, issued that this had to be done in that same day every year to come. So began the tradition of the “Venerdì gnocolar” (Friday of gnocchi) because all the food donations were represented by a dish of gnocchi. And the public figure of Da Vico, probably originated Verona’s Carnival character, “Papà del Gnoco” (Gnocco’s dad), whose sceptre is a great fork with a pierced gnocco.
But the popularity of gnocchi arrived, thanks to the Italian immigrates of the beginning of the 20th century, also to the other part of the Ocean, in all the Latin America, and particularly in Argentina where the 29th day of every month was traditionally called “Dia de Ñoquis” (the Gnocchi day). Usually the day 29 was the day before payday, and gnocchi was a perfect dish in that day, being extremely filling but not expensive.
Not only potatoes
As we already said gnocchi were long time before the coming of potatoes, and though the word “gnocchi” is generally associated to the potato ones, the kinds of gnocchi that survive still today are too many and made with every kind of flour and other ingredients. Here is a regional list only for Italy, probably not complete too. In other countries have more, from Austrian knödel to Lithuanian cepelinai). Just to have an idea of how gnocchi are a whole “universe” for cooking.
Piemonte e Valle D’Aosta: Gnocchi alla bava
Piemonte: Dunderet (Strangoiapreve), Ravioles della Valvaraita
Lombardia: Gnoc de la cua, Malfatti, Gnocchi alla lariana, Gnocchi de ‘pa, Pizzoccheri della Val Chiavenna, Capunsei, Gnocarei, Gnòc de schelt, Gnòc de rìh, Gnocchi di zucca
Trentino Alto Adige: Canederli (Knödel, Marillenknödel, Zwetschgenknödel), Spätzle, Knöpfle
Friuli Venezia Giulia: Gnocchetti de gries, Gnochi de pan, Gnocchi de susini
Veneto: Gnocchi con la pastissada, Gnochi con la fioreta
Emilia Romagna: Pisarei e faśö, Malfatti di Borgotaro
Toscana: Gnocchi gnudi, Gnocchi del cicolano, Matuffi
Marche: Gnocchi di Apecchio
Umbria: Gnocchetti alla collescipolana
Lazio: Gnocchi alla romana, Gnocchi de lu contadinu, Gnocchi ricci
Campania: Gnocchi alla sorrentina
Puglia: Triddhi, Pizzua
The origin of the name “Lasagna” (the plural “Lasagne” is more often used) go back to the ancient Greek “lasanon” and to the Latin “lasanum”. Already in that time it represented a piece of wheat based pasta, thin and cut in rectangular shape. One of the first historical mentions of this pasta is in “De re coquinaria” (“About cooking”, 1st century AD), probably erroneously attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the first famous Roman gourmet. In this cookbook we can find a recipe called “Patina cotidiana” (literally “daily pad”) where layers of this pasta are alternated with layers of meat and fish. Both pasta and condiment were cooked in an oven, but the step of boiling pasta is missing.
Centuries pass by and this shape of pasta, still missing the egg in the dough, became really popular to the point where we can find a lot of mentions in the works of many famous scholars, artists and writers. From Jacopone da Todi (“Chi guarda a maggioranza spesse volte si inganna. Granel di pepe vince per virtù la lasagna”, about 1290), to Cecco Angiolieri (“chi de l’altrui farina fa lasagne, il su’ castello non ha ne muro ne fosso”, about 1300), to Salimbene di Adam (“Non vidi mai nessuno che come lui si abbuffasse tanto volentieri di lasagne con formaggio”, 1285) and many others.
With the Renaissance, the popularity of this pasta literally exploded, while the way of cooking it become similar to that we know well today. Water was slowly replaced by eggs in the dough, and the layered structure became a standard.
Obviously, a so widely used pasta has been a perfect base for dozens of local recipes using different condiments and fillings. Meat is still the most used ingredient, it can be minced or in pieces or in meatballs, of beef, pork, other animals or (more often) a mix. And where there’s no meat, we can find mushrooms, vegetables as spinach or turnip tops or cabbage, while between the layers we can find many kinds of dairy products. Mozzarella, scamorza, provola, ricotta in the Southern regions, while cream, milk or the more classy béchamel sauce are preferred in the North. Parmigiano Reggiano appears almost everywhere, at least on top of the layers to create a crunchy crust.
In this confused scenery, we can identify two main traditions, the Neapolitan and the Bolognese.
Then there are many minor local traditions like “vincisgrassi” in Marche and Umbria, “lagane” or “sagne” or “sagne torte” (twirled lasagna) in Campania and Basilicata. Naples had surely the merit to bring inside many recipes of every part of Italy the use of tomatoes and of kneaded-curd cheeses, like mozzarella or scamorza or provola. Already in 1634, Gian Battista Crisci, in his “La Lucerna de Corteggiani”, introduces the use of mozzarella in a lasagna dish. Anyway mozzarella will never have a place in the Bolognese style where the king’s role is for the worldwide famous ragù with the great Parmigiano Reggiano as worthy knight. In the Neapolitan lasagna the ragù is obviously the Neapolitan one, so with the meat in pieces and not minced, the presence of meatballs, more tomato sauce, and mozzarella or provola to melt between the sheets of pasta.
Anyway if we can recognize two some main traditions, and even in the presence of an official, registered version at the commerce chamber of Bologna (“Lasagne verdi alla bolognese” where the pasta sheets are green for the addition of spinach), lasagna can dress so many clothes as the number of Italian families, as each family has its own “special” recipe to proudly put on the table on holidays and weekends.
Melanzane alla parmigiana
Here we are to talk about a famous dish that have an old origin, and, as often happens, an uncertain story. Many claim for its paternity, Sicily, Neaples, Parma, but nothing is sure about it.
Let’s start saying that while the most used name for the recipe is “Melanzane alla parmigiana”, in some parts of Italy it is still called “Parmigiana di melanzane”. This linguistic difference, as we will see, could be determinant to unveil the true story of the dish, but unfortunately still nobody was able to put a definitive word in the quest.
In both versions the words in the game are the same two: “melanzane” and “parmigiana”.
The first, “melanzane”, is just the name of the vegetables that are the main protagonists of the recipe: eggplants or aubergines. The etymon of this word is in their Arabic name “al-badingian”, that in Italy became “petonciana” or “petronciana”, and later was modified in “melanzana” replacing the prefix “peto” (in Italian means fart…) with the less problematic “mela” (apple). Still was for long time erroneously believed that it came from “mela” (apple) and “insana” (unhealthy) because inedible when raw. In Spain “al-badingian” became “albergínia” to pass in France as “aubergine”. Anyway, no mistery so far. But with the word “parmigiana” everything becomes confusing.
There are actually three scientific points of view about it and all could be claimed as valid.
The first tells us that “parmigiana” comes from the Sicilian word “parmiciana” that represents the set of wooden battens of a window shutter, so representing for extension the layered structure of the dish.
Other says that “parmigiana” derives directely from “petronciana” that is still the name of the quality of the eggplant used in Sicily. I personally find this argument a little over the top (in my opinion there’s no reason to call a dish with two words with the same meaning), but I had to mention it.
The third and last, that in the first moment seems more natural, claims that the word means “of Parma”, “in the way of Parma” just like in Parmigiano Reggiano, the real name of parmesan cheese, produced in the zone of Parma. This theory is suggestive, especially because of the presence of parmesan cheese in the recipe, but we will see that is not so coherent as it seems.
The Sicilian origin
One of most reliable theory about the genesis of this dish is that of the Sicilian origin, and it has indeed some strong arguments on its side. First of all, the eggplants arrived in Italy entering in Sicily in the 15th century coming from Persia, with their Arabic name that, modified, still resist as the name of the local variety of the vegetables. While in Sicily slowly entered in the diet of the poor peoples (there are documentary proofs that demonstrate their use already in the 16th century) to have an evidence of their use in other Italian regions we have to wait at least other two centuries.
Second argument is that the probable source for the idea of this dish is a similar Arabian recipe, which inspired also the Greek “Moussaka”, and that arrived surely in Sicily along with the first eggplants.
Third and last argument could be the etymological theory of the name “parmigiana” coming from the Sicilian “parmiciana” as we have seen.
The Napolitan origin
The Napolitan option live on the books and documents that confirm its diffusion in napolitan recipes collections. Since Vincenzo Corrado in his “Cuoco Galante” (1733) where he mentions a “parmigiana” recipe (but based on zucchini), to Ippolito Cavalcanti in his “Cusina casarinola co la lengua napolitana” (1839) where the recipe is already very similar to the modern one. All these writings anyway can probably only testify that the recipe was born in the Bourbon Empire (all the south of Italy, Sicily included) and found its place in the cooking books where the main cultural center was, Neaples.
But the diffusion in the napolitan territory could have anyway contributed to the final version of the dish with the addition of both tomato sauce and mozzarella.
The Parmesan origin
The involvement of Parma in the story of this recipe can have a political base, as in the dance of the alliances of the 18th and 19th centuries the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza was ruled (directly or indirectly) by the same Bourbons of Neaples and Sicily. The trading caused also cultural exchanges that could have brought our recipe in these place for a final set up. It’s the moment for Parmigiano Reggiano to show up on top of our dish. This could be a reason for naming it “parmigiana”, but this name was already associated to the dish long before the use of parmesan in it (originally local pecorino cheese was used). Another link between Parma and “melanzane alla parmigiana” can be found in some dictionaries where “alla parmigiana” (cooking in the way of Parma) meant cooking vegetables in layers.
Whatever the origin, time delivered us a great dish, full of flavour despite its simplicity.
Baked layers of eggplant, tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, topped with parmesan.
Nowadays lots of new versions have born, with the main goal to make the dish lighter, but remember that the true, unique and unforgettable taste is obtained only deep-frying the eggplant slices. And if you are able do it the right way the slices will not absorb a great amount of oil, remaining light and easy to digest.
A variant that is classical and in harmony with the taste is the partial (or total) replacement of mozzarella with scamorza or provola cheese.
Mozzarella is a fresh kneaded-curd cheese. All the other kneaded-curd cheeses are not consumed fresh and go through some ageing procedures that in some cases may last up to many months.
Mozzarella is made mainly from cow’s milk or buffalo’s milk, even if in recent times there were some little productions from milk of goats and sheep.
According to the kind of milk and to the provenience, in Italy “Mozzarella” can be protected under different denominations (S.T.G., D.O.P., …) and assumes also different names (“Mozzarella di bufala campana”, “Mozzarella [brand name] di latte di bufala”, “Mozzarella di latte vaccino”, “Fior di latte” or simply “Mozzarella”).
As a particular niche product, also “Mozzarella per pizza” (“Pizza cheese”) can be considered as part of the Mozzarella family, even if the procedure to obtain this cheese has few little but substantial differences, and in the end the result is a completely different cheese.
Through the centuries
But when and where this awesome cheese is born? As always we have to travel some centuries back in the past to find the answer.
Since the dawn of pastoralism, the shepherds had to face the problem of preserving the milk they produced. Butter and, above all, cheese were the solutions to the problem.
That’s the reason for the flourish of many kinds of cheese everywhere in Europe in the first millennium.
In Southern Italy appear the first samples of kneaded-curd cheeses. In a first period was an aged kind, often smoked, as the delivery conditions made difficult to preserve a fresh cheese. This aged cheese was usually named “provatura” or “mozza”. The first name comes from the verb “provare” (“to prove”), and is due to the need to prove when the curd is ready to be kneaded. It will mute in “provola”, and still today is the name of a famous aged kneaded-curd cheese. The term “mozza” had a different fate. It comes from the verb “mozzare” (an archaic form of “to cut”) and identifies the phase of the shaping of the cheese through the characteristic cut done by hand of the melting curd mass. So “mozza”, muted in “scamorza”, identify another cheese similar to “provola”.
But in the end, it was enriched by a diminutive suffix, to become “mozzarella” and to be the name of the fresh cheese that we all love.
The first mention of such a cheese is from a document of the twelfth century, which tells about the use of the Benedictine monks of the S. Lorenzo in Capua Abbey to offer to the pilgrims pieces of “mozza” or “provatura” together with bread “for ancient tradition”. These last words let us think that this kind of productions was already considered something not recent.
These monks settled in Capua (close to Naples) in the ninth century, escaped from the Arab armies that, allied with the Duke of Naples, chased them out of the Monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno, in the middle of the Apennine Mountains in the Molise region. And it’s no coincidence that that region is still famous for the production of Mozzarella.
So, everything seems to suggest that the origin of this superb cheese is to be found around that Monastery in the Middle Ages.
Once the production arrived in the zones around Naples, and more exactly in the provinces of Caserta and Salerno, it had to wait until the thirteenth century for the appearing of the buffalos, imported from the Middle East (they were called for long times “Egyptian cows”). Then with the Bourbon government the dairy production was enhanced and organized, so that mozzarella could be delivered farther, having a big success wherever it arrived.
Already in 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, the chef of the Popes Pius IV and Pius V, included the “fresh Roman mozzarella” in the list of the usual cheeses consumed at the tables of the papal court.
Nowadays mozzarella begins to be produced in many countries around the world, but not always successfully, as the most part of it have really nothing to do with the original one.
So, how to recognize a true mozzarella?
There are some unequivocal signs to identify a mozzarella.
1) The snow-white colour. Every yellowish trace means that the cheese is too old or that it is not mozzarella at all.
2) The extremely soft and elastic texture (even if the elasticity can decrease with the days).
3) Once open and pressed with the fingers, some milky whey has to drop out.
4) The taste is the closest possible to “solid milk” with a possible light touch of acid.
5) The shape, due to the hand cutting is usually a spheroidal one. Really often on the surface there is the sign of the sealing, whose shape depends on the single cheese-maker. Industrial mozzarella usually has minimal sealing signs as the cutting is not done by hand (you’d better avoid to buy it, as industrial mozzarella has not the same intense taste of the “artisanal” one). Anyway in commerce is possible to find a “braid” shape (usually 1Kg) and a “knot” shape (around 50g each) as well as a “cherry” shape (around 25g). If mozzarella has a cuboid shape that is definitely NOT a mozzarella.
6) Once warmed a little piece in hot water for few seconds, mozzarella melts very easily.
If mozzarella has a cuboid shape that is definitely NOT a mozzarella.
Parmigiano Reggiano & Grana Padano
Parmigiano Reggiano since its birth has always been a direct expression of its territory and a powerful vehicle for the Italian culture in the world. Its first steps go back to the Middle Ages when the Benedictine and Cistercian monks started an intense activity of terrain reclaiming and farming, which brought to the birth of the "grancie", local agricultural and breeding plants where the cow's milk began to be produced.
This, together with the availability of the necessary salt from the near mines of Salsomaggiore, made possible for the monk to try to produce a cheese with the main goal of having a long life.
They obtained the expected results heavily drying the curd and gradually growing up the dimension of the wheels. In this way the cheese was able to last longer and consequently to travel far from the production zones, building up its destiny of ambassador of Made in Italy all over the globe. So, already in 1254 a document let us know that Parmigiano Reggiano was well known in Genoa (with the name of "caseus parmensis", the Latin form of "Parma's cheese"). And from the ports of Genoa and Pisa it reached all the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.
The most famous literary mention of the cheese is due to Boccaccio that in his "Decamerone" describes a "mountain of grated parmesan" where people made ravioli roll over.
During Renaissance the production rate increased thanks to the involvement of some aristocratic family, and the dimension of the wheels arrived to 18kg. The production procedures were also improved bringing to the perfection for the cheese made in May (called "maggengo" from "maggio", the Italian for "May").
With the passing of the centuries the economical models changed bringing continuous improvements to the productive process, and leading to the export to France, Germany, Flanders and Spain, but the cheese in itself remained the same produced by the monks in the Middle Ages.
In the 19th century the characteristic octagonal dairy plants, made possible a more efficient productive model, which was improved by the advent of the cooperatives in the 20th century.
The commercial protection
Already in 1612 the Duke of Parma officialized the denomination of "Parma Cheese" to protect the product against other similar cheeses like the "Piacentino" and the "Lodigiano". This was made with a legal act that marks the beginning of the history of the "Denomination of Origin", nowadays developed and legally recognized in all the EU.
But was in 1928 that in the province of Reggio Emilia the "Consorzio volontario del Grana Reggiano" was born, while in the province of Parma the cheese had still the name "Formaggio di Parma" ("Parma's Cheese").
Finally, in 1934 the "Consorzio Volontario Interprovinciale Grana Tipico" started up as a structure voted to protect the product of the entire production zone, adopting for the cheese the mark with the name "C.G.T. Parmigiano Reggiano".
In 1954 the Italian law on the Denomination of Origin see the light, and consequently in 1955 the above mentioned Consortium (changing its name in "Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano"), after the definition of all the production standards required by the law, register the cheese as first in the list.
In these standards the producers asserted once more their choice of banning the use of ensiled food for the cows and of the use of any addictive or preserving substance during the process.
With the emergence of the European Community, the principle of the commercial protection through the Denomination of Origin mechanism takes hold bringing to the approval of the Regulation CEE 2081/1992 (later integrated by the actual CEE 510/2006).
In 1992 Parmigiano Reggiano is recognized as a D.O.P. product by the EU.
That means that nobody else in Europe can use the names "Parmigiano Reggiano" or "Parmesan" for cheeses produced out of the production zones or not under the control of the "Consorzio" and of the external authorities in charge to check the authenticity of the product.
It means also that all the "Parmesan" that is not regularly imported by recognized Italian producers, is not Parmesan cheese, and has not the characteristics of the original cheese. Not the organoleptic ones (the taste), nor the nutritional ones, nor the healthy ones.
Just think that in the USA the Code of Federal Regulations includes in its "Standard of Identity" for "Parmesan and reggiano cheese" the possibility of use of cellulose added as an anti-caking agent, with up to 4% of the total weight.
Process and characteristics
Parmigiano Reggiano is a typical example of double-milking cheese.
Milk from the evening milking is poured into the holding basins, where separation of the cream takes place naturally overnight. This partly skimmed milk is then poured into the copper cauldrons where it is mixed with the whole milk from the morning milking.
After warming the milk in the copper cauldron, natural whey starter is added. This whey is a culture of natural lactic ferments obtained from the cheese making process of the day before.
Natural enzyme rennet is then added which allows the milk to curdle.
The curdled milk is broken down into small granules with a huge balloon whisk called a "spino".
This is followed by the cooking process, a very delicate phase in the cheese making. The heat is skillfully controlled by the master cheese maker to expel water from the granules. Once the heat is shut off, the granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron, forming a compact mass.
Finally the cheese mass is lifted from the bottom of the cauldron and divided into two parts. Each part is placed in a special mould called a “fascera” where it rests for two to three days. Every wheel is the result of the process on about 550 liters.
After few days the cheese is put in basins filled with brine. After that it is ready for the maturation process.
The minimum aging is of 12 months, but rarely the wheels go out of a plant before the 18th month, while the best ones can last up to 108 months. Anyway every wheel is singularly and completely trackable by codes marked on its surface.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard, granular cheese, that is considered healthyer than most of the cheeses. This because its lower fat rate due to the skimming of one of the milking used to do it. And also because it is naturally lactose free, due to its particular productive process.
And the taste? Its fantastic taste that literally explodes in your mouth, so rich, sweet and slightly pungent is due to the presence of an high rate of glutamate that gives an intense umami flavour, and of the tyrosine crystals that give their sweet deep flavour and donate a better digestibility.
And Grana Padano?
Yes, Grana Padano, while shares with Parmigiano Reggiano the old origins and very similar taste and texture, is anyway a different cheese. Let's see point by point what make them similar and what differentiate them.
The origin: Both cheeses' history stretch back over the centuries to nearly a thousand years ago in the area of the middle Po Valley.
The appearance: the two cheeses are practically identical in shape, size and weight.
Number of milking sessions: the regulations for both cheeses require that cows are milked twice daily.
Use of same or similar equipment: considering the shared geographical origin, and the traditional nature of the processes employed, it is not surprising that the equipment used are similar or the same.
The use of veal rennet: It is used the same liquid veal rennet for both.
Cheese structure: the official regulations for both cheeses establish that they should have a grainy consistency which breaks down into flakes.
A long maturing period which may be varied to some extent, although Parmigiano Reggiano is normally matured for longer periods than Grana Padano.
Production area: which for Grana Padano DOP includes 32 Provinces and five different Regions, namely Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Trentino South Tyrol (for full list, consult the production regulations). One should remember that the Grana Padano DOP also includes the cheese type called Trentingrana, which is basically a Grana Padano produced in the Autonomous Province of Trentino and which features certain additional specifications regarding the nutrition of the cattle milked and certain aspects of the cheese-making process. For Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, the permitted production zone is reduced to the sole Region of Emilia Romagna, and the right-hand side of the River Po in the Province of Mantua.
Nutrition of milked cattle: for Grana Padano DOP, as well as fresh grass or hay, silage fodder may also be employed (mainly ensilaged maize). The use of silage feed makes it necessary to add lysozyme to the cheese-making procedure: this is a natural protein extracted from hens egg whites, indicated on the label as a preservative. The lysozyme, permitted up to a maximum of 2.5g per 100kg, is used to prevent anomalous fermentation during the cheese’s maturing period, which could otherwise occur due to the use of silage feed. For Trentingrana, the use of silage feed is expressly prohibited, and consequently the use of lysozyme during the cheese-making process is also forbidden. The same prohibitions apply to Parmigiano Reggiano DOP.
Milking: in Grana Padano DOP milk from both the day’s milking sessions, whether used separately or mixed, is skimmed through the natural surfacing of cream. For Parmigiano Reggiano DOP only one milking (generally from the evening session) undergoes skimming, while the morning’s milk is used in its entirety, mixed with that of the evening. This means that milk used to produce Grana Padano DOP has a lower fat content (roughly 2.6%, while Parmigiano Reggiano DOP contains roughly 2.8%). On top of this, Grana Padano DOP, unlike Parmigiano Reggiano DOP and Trentingrana, must observe a regulation parameter establishing that its fat/casein ratio in the boiler must be between 0.80 and 1.05. As a result, Grana Padano DOP has an average fat content that is lower than that of Parmigiano Reggiano and therefore matures more quickly.
Quality inspection and maturing: after nine months ageing, Grana Padano DOP undergoes quality inspection and is then fire-branded with the DOP symbol. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, the quality inspection is carried out at the end of the twelfth month of ageing. For Grana Padano DOP the longest ageing period explicitly foreseen by the Official Regulations is that for "Grana Padano RISERVA - Oltre 20 mesi" (i.e. over 20 months). For Parmigiano Reggiano DOP, the longest ageing period explicitly foreseen by the Official Regulations is over 30 months. But both types of cheese are sometimes aged for even longer periods.
Pasta = Italian?
Pasta is undoubtedly one of the main "trademarks" of Italian cuisine. But eating pasta it's not enough in itself to say you've eaten an Italian dish. It would be like eating bami with carbonara sauce and claiming to eat a South-East Asian
dish. So which are the factors that distinguish an authentic Italian pasta dish from any other?
I will try to answer to this question, even if I for one recognize that it's not easy and that the matter is subject to infinite shades.
What we can surely say, is that pasta, in the end, it's just an ingredient, though it's a "basic" one. So the attention must clearly be laid on the use Italians do of it. And this means to focus on the typical Italian sauces and condiments, the various shapes and kinds of pasta, and their pairing.
Italian style sauces and condiments
While the story of pasta has roots so deep to arrive to the old Roman Empire period, with the already well known and popular "laganae" (forerunners of the today's "lasagne"), the classic Italian sauces and condiments we use in modern days have a more recent origin that we can identify in the last 2 or 3 centuries. Before that time all the Italic pasta was consumed indissolubly paired with only cheese and sugar or honey. Sometimes other spices could be added like cinnamon or pepper, but fundamentally pasta was eaten in that way (often cooked boiling it for much longer time than we are used nowadays). We have not to be surprised of this, because the eating habits until the end of the Middle Ages were ruled by the classic medical precepts of the old Galenic medicine, that was based on the "elemental" (air, water, earth and fire) concept of the phisics, and adapted to the Catholic restrictions on food discipline, which identified for centuries recipes on a holiday/non-holiday basis.
Anyway, with the opening of the new trade routes around the world, new spices and foods showed up on the culinary scene of every country. This and the great influence, almost egemonic, of the modern French cuisine concepts, brought a revolution in the kitchen habits all over the world, and in Italy too.
What anyway began to characterize the Italian style cuisine, in a country so long divided in narrow territories but with a rich trade exchange, was the huge use of local products that quickly spread their diffusion along all the Italian peninsula (and often further).
The difficulties of the birth of the Italian nation, the adversities of the World Wars, and the consequent unifying effort of the first governments made the rest, identifying a cuisine made of cheap, genuine and local ingredients.
Italian recipes are often simple, made with few ingredients, so emphasizing their taste and genuinity. Italians don't like to use sauces or spices more than necessary, because the recipes, however simple they are, are always based on a perfect balance of their few ingredients.
When it comes to pasta dishes it becomes a sort of "religion". Italian people has the deepest respect of traditions and of chef's professionality.
There is a great awareness that traditional dishes, resulting from a long long story, cannot be improved anymore. They are an "as-it-is", a sort of black-box, where every change can only ruin it.
Besides that, there is the greatest respect for the chefs, because whoever works in an Italian kitchen has a deep knowledge of the products, of their potential and of their origin, and they know more than anyone else how to take advantage of their properties. That's why Italians never ask for a change in any dish they order in a restaurant, because they are sure that what is in the menu is the best that the knowledge and experience of the chef can donate to them.
And that's too the reason why Italians don't add extra parmesan, being sure that, if the recipe provides for it, there is already the right quantity, not covering the taste of all the other ingredients and leaving their balance unaltered.
Not mentioning putting parmesan where is not in the recipe. That is considered an unforgivable error, same as adding any spice or sauce that has nothing to do with it.
Pasta shapes and kinds
Talking of pasta we have to keep well in mind that it covers a double role in a recipe. It is an ingredient, and it is a sort of support, of vehicle for the condiment.
We can roughly assert that the first role has to do with it's kind, and the second with it's shape, even if things are sometimes a little more entangled.
For kind of pasta here we refer to its composition and productive process. It's anyway easy to understand that, as an ingredient, the contribute to a dish of egg or durum-wheat or soft-wheat or whole-wheat or potato-based pasta can be completely different, determining great changes in the resulting taste. This involves also the difference between dry and fresh pasta as also the preservation state plays a role in the final taste.
So it's clear that if a recipe says "fettuccine all'uovo" (egg-fettuccine), cannot be done with the normal durum-wheat spaghetti. That's why if you go to Bologna and try to order a "spaghetti bolognese", you are lucky if you can leave the restaurant on your legs...
The shape of pasta is a much more intriguing matter. Maybe it's not well known to everybody, but in Italy we can count more than a hundred of pasta shapes, many of them characteristic of tiny regions and often associated uniquely to a single recipe. They can be divided in two big families, the long ones (spaghetti, fettuccine, linguine,...) and the short ones (penne, maccheroni, fusilli, caserecce,...). This is the main difference, where, generally speacking, the long ones are more fit for creamy or oily condiments, while the short for more consistent ones. But other factors are important, like the presence of holes or recesses able to pick better a sauce or pieces of condiment, or like the texture (due to particular productive processes) that can help in the same way. For example, focus on egg-fettuccine. The good ones are produced by extrution through a copper die that make their texture rough. Perfect to pick up all the pieces of a "ragù bolognese", but not for an "aglio, olio e peperoncino" where they would pick up an excessive quantity of oil with them.
I could bring to you many, many other examples, but the important thing is that every pasta recipe rarely give the same result with different kinds of pasta, and that some combinations are perfect, some can be recommended, some are ok, but some are to be avoided.
Another particular case are the strictly traditional dishes, that being born "around" a particular kind or pasta, should be always consumed following the tradition's precept.
Easy to say pasta
It's easy to say pasta, but it's really a huge universe to discover, with it's rules, it's secrets, it's legends and it's treasures.
What I can add to the argument, as an Italian chef, is that maybe we (Italians) may sometimes appear a little too fanatical about food, and some "rules" are funny and maybe stupid. But for us all this is simply "culture", it's part of all of us, and it's important. Every time we see a "spaghetti bolognese" we have a bump in our heart, not mentioning some "carbonara" with cream or mushrooms and so on... So forgive us if we seem to be foolish talking about our food, but we live all those "distortions" as a disregard for our culture and for our country.
Pasta al pesto
Nowadays when we say “pesto”, everywhere in the world, we actually refer to “pesto alla genovese”, that in the end it’s just “a” pesto. Yes, because the world “pesto” in Italian means “pounded in a mortar”, so that everything that is pounded in a mortar can rightly be called “pesto”.
And there are indeed many kinds of pesto all along the Italian territory, like pesto trapanese, siciliano, calabrese and so on. But when we say just “pesto” we can agree we are all talking of “pesto alla genovese”, in other words “pesto genoese or Genoa’s style”.
Story of pesto alla genovese
Pesto can claim origins that go up at least to the Roman empire. While some gastronomes trace its line back to “garum” (a pounded mix of fermented fish, probably derivated from a greek condiment, that survives in similar forms like “colatura di alici” in Italy, “nuoc nam” in Vietnam, “plara” in Thailand…) a more legitimate ancestor seems to be the “moretum”, a paste made of pounded cheese, garlic and herbs that was popular in the times of Roman empire as documented in the “Appendix Virgiliana”, a collection of short poems formerly attributed to Virgil himself.
Among the ancestors of pesto we can surely find the “agliata”, a mortar and pestle sauce based on garlic, used since the thirteenth century to preserve some foods. The presence of garlic in pesto is in fact surely a consequence of its properties as a natural preservative that made it popular especially among the seafaring towns, and Genoa in the late Middle Ages was a Maritime Republic, a seafaring town par excellence.
Basil and modern pesto
So far we can find the traces of some pesto-related food containing garlic and sometimes cheese and/or herbs. Genoa rivaled with Venice for many years, but the commerce of spices remained almost continuously in the hands of the venetian republic. So, in Genoa only the richest of the people could make use of spices for their food, while in the traditional food herbs where mainly used as a cheaper option. Among the other popular herbs, used for centuries, like parsley or marjoram, slowly found its place a herb coming from the Arabian and Indian countries: the "Ocimum basilicum", literally the royal herb: the basil. The unique flavor of pesto is mainly due to the presence of basil, and more exactly three cultivars of basil: genovese gigante, genovese nano and genovese comune.
With the widespread availability of basil, pesto recipe become rapidly fixed and codified.
In 1863 Giovanni Battista Ratto writes in his “La Cuciniera Genovese” the first known version of pesto, that found its definitive recipe in a revision from Emanuele Rossi in 1865. After that, pesto shortly became a staple in the Ligurian culinary tradition first, and then in the Italian one too.
Uses and variations
Pesto is mainly used to season pasta, usually “mandilli de sæa” (literally "silk handkerchiefs" from Genoese dialect), trofie, linguine or trenette. In the old tradition, potatoes and string beans were also added to the dish, boiled together with pasta, as they were cheaper than pasta itself. Moreover pesto is used in some versions of “minestrone” and also to season gnocchi.
Although the recipe of pesto is well codified, a couple of variations are in use and someway tolerated. The first is about the use of peanuts, cashewnuts, walnuts or almonds instead of pine nuts to solve the problem of their rarity and high price. The second is the balance of the cheeses in the sauce. Tradition says that should be around 25% Fiore sardo (a sheep cheese from Sardinia) and 75% of Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan), but very often these proportions are changed to fit the taste of the consumers.
Pasta alla carlofortina
The story of "Pasta alla carlofortina" is the story of its birthplace, the little town of Carloforte, the only town of St. Peter's Island, a unique place for culture, language and... cooking!
St. Peter's Island (Isola di San Pietro), so called because a legend tells that the apostle repaired here during a tempest on his trip to Rome, belongs to the Sulcis archipelago, in the south-western corner of Sardinia, a gorgeous Italian island and region in the middle of Mediterranean sea. It was uninhabited until 1738, when a ligurian (Liguria is the Italian region of Genoa, the old Maritime Republic) community arrived here from Tabarka, a little island along the Tunisian coast that in the 16th century was colonized by the Lomellinians, powerful Lords of Pegli, a neighbourhood of Genoa. In that period Charles Emmanuel III, King of Sardinia, realized a repopulating politics in the region, so he willingly accepted the request of the people living in Tabarka, tired of the continuous problems with the Tunisian authorities and with the pirates, to establish in the little St. Peter's Island. They so founded a new town which, to honour the King, they called Carloforte (the Fort of Charles). To live they dedicated to coral fishing, their main activity when in Tabarka, but they begin also to develope the production of salt in new built salt mines, and above all the tuna fishing, that still today is a particularly prosperous activity for the population of the island. Giant red tuna, with their exquisite flesh, between May and June, get into the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Strait of Gibraltar and remain entangled in the "tonnara", a gigantic fishing net settled between the northern point of the island and a group of three huge gypsum rocks.
So Carloforte became prosperous, whit many vessels stopping by its port feeding up its commercial net. Nowadays the town have less than 6500 inhabitants, and is an extraordinary example of coexistence of three different cultures, languages and tastes of three different populations: Here people still speaks the tabarkin language, a sort of genoan dialect enriched with sardinian and north-african accents and terms, while in the kitchens we can find ligurian specialties (e.g. "farinata di ceci", "fugassa"...), but also the "cashcà", a couscous variation done with steamed semolina and vegetables.
As the main character of the local production and gastronomy is tuna, cooked in many and many ways, both fresh (in the right season) and preserved (canned tuna in oil or brine), it couldn't be but one of the main actors in the "pasta alla carlofortina" scene too. This dish is a perfect tasty and flavoured mix, ideal for a summer dinner or lunch, where fresh tuna meats the creamy texture of pesto and the sweetness of ripe tomatoes.
Fresh tuna can be replaced by canned tuna, possibly an high quality one. The kind of pasta is not fixed and can vary in almost every shape, both long and short, but traditionally the most used shapes are "trofie" (short, thin, and twisted ligurian pasta) and especially the "cassulli", a meeting point between pasta and gnocchi, belonging to the sardinian tradition, often containing saffron in the dough and better known as "malloreddus" or "gnocchetti sardi".
Possibly to be paired with a generous glass of white "Vermentino" wine.
Pasta alla norcina
Norcia, from the Latin name Nursia, is a little town in the center of the Italian peninsula, along the Apennine mountains. It's economy in the last centuries has been indissolubly connected to some resources of its territory (truffle, lentils, mushrooms...), and even more, to the traditional know-how in pork meat processing.
One need only think that the Italian word "norcineria" it's a synonym (mostly used in Rome) of “salumeria" as shop and artisanal laboratory for pork products like salami, sausages, cured ham and so on.
This is partly due to the unlucky location of the town that is sited in one of the most active telluric zones of Italy (Norcia was involved also in the earthquake of 2016 that hit also Amatrice and other minor towns in that area).
The frequent earthquakes caused the massive emigration of experts in pork meat processing in big waves during the last centuries, bringing most of them to Rome, so greatly (and deservedly) widening their fame.
Anyway the town is still today a great center for the production and commerce of sausages, salami (corallina, ciauscolo...), guanciale, pancetta and the cured ham that since 1998 benefits of the status of IGP (Protected Geographic Indication).
Such a town was bound to be the cradle of a great dish of the Italian regional cuisine. A dish, "pasta alla norcina" that has a unique property...
A split personality
If you happen to go in a restaurant in Norcia, as in every other Italian town, and order a "pasta alla norcina" you could be totally disappointed, and your expectations totally destroyed. Why? Because you could be served with a completely different dish from what you expected!
Yes, because actually there is not only one "pasta alla norcina" but two!
One starring the typical sausage of Norcia, together with onion, pepper and cream. The other lists as main ingredients truffles, anchovies and garlic.
Two tasty, harmonious recipes, completely different, but both inspired by the resources of the territory where they were born.
There's no way (documented or by oral tales) to know which one was born first, and how they could happen to share the same name.
So, if you happen to go in a restaurant in Norcia, as in every other Italian town, and order a "pasta alla norcina" you'd better ask for the ingredients of the dish, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Recipes, variations and a synthesis?
Now take a closer look to the recipes and their ingredients. As there is no document to record the evolution of this "double" dish, we cannot talk of any proper "authentic" recipe, but we still can identify what is permitted and what is forbidden (usually all the rest).
For the first kind, that is probably the best known and the one that is more commonly called "norcina", we start with a "soffritto" of chopped onions or chopped garlic or both in evo (Extra Virgin Olive) oil. Then there is the main charachter, the sausage, the classic "salsiccia di Norcia", with its meat cuts of first choice.
The counterpart of the sausage is the cream, that nowadays is widely used, even if it's generally assumed that originally this role was played by "ricotta" (the "not-cheese" obtained from the left-over serum of the cheese processing).
A little of white wine to degrease the sausage is recommended. Then a sprinkle of ground black pepper (the quantity depends on the amount already present in the sausage), and optional grated cheese, better pecorino cheese than Parmigiano Reggiano.
Somewhere is possible to find some mushrooms added. While the harmony of the dish is not harmed by mushrooms (especially if of the "porcini" or boletus aedulis kind), it could result a little too rich, so this option is really rare.
Pasta is almost always a short shaped one like "penne" or "mezze maniche" or "tortiglioni", more suitable for this kind of seasoning.
The second "personality" dish, lives on the grated truffle slightly coocked in a pan with evo oil, chopped garlic and anchovies. The truffle can be of two qualities: Tartufo Nero Pregiato di Norcia (tuber melanosporum Nursiae), the most exquisite, or the more common Scorzone (tuber aestivum). Sometimes the truffle is finely sliced, totally or (more usually) partially.
Being truffle really expensive, it is anyway very often replaced with the truffle paste, where grated truffle (or its essence oil) is mixed with mushrooms, olives, anchovies and garlic, all gently cooked and reduced to a thick paste.
Here too, grated cheese is optional (the purists don't put it), and frequently finely chopped parsley complete the dish, not only as a decoration (purists don't put it too...).
Pasta is always a long shaped one, very often "spaghetti", that are fit for an oily condiment like this
Now, as you can see the dishes are really different, and for what is my personal opinion, whose value is in the fact that I personally lived in the zone of Norcia for some years, the name of "norcina" is far more an attribute of the first one, while the second althought present in the territory is usually called "pasta al tartufo" (pasta with truffle) or in similar ways.
Another nice thing is that you can try to "merge" the two concepts in a unique dish putting all together (save for the anchovies, and trying to avoid the cream that would give a too heavy texture), optionally adding mushrooms too.
It's a good attempt to have a synthesis of the two dishes, celebrating the best products of a beautiful little town (well worth a visit) and of its territory
Pasta alla Norma
The roots of pasta alla Norma (“pasta ca’ Norma” in Sicilian dialect), one of the best known masterpieces of Italian cuisine, are closely tied to those of another great masterpiece of the Italian culture. We are obviously talking of “Norma”, opera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini written in 1831, and first produced at “La Scala” theater in Milan on 26 december of the same year. This opera, after a not so happy debut, became a leading example of the “bel canto” genre, inspiring the best soprano voices like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé. While a suggestive legend tells that also our pasta dish had its debut in the same day of the opera, just to honor its first public performance, a more reliable tale links the name of this dish to the musical masterpiece.
We are in Sicily, exactly in Catania, in an autumn evening of 1920: Nino Martoglio, Pippo Marchese and Peppino Fazio were invited for dinner by Angelo Musco, e Donna Saridda, who served this dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce, basil, fried eggplants and ricotta salata (salted ricotta cheese). After the first forkfuls, Nino Martoglio, famous sicilian comedy writer, exclaimed: “Signura, chista è ‘na vera Norma!” (literally: “Milady, this is a true Norma!”), meaning that it was a true example of perfection, and so giving the name to the recipe.
Reliable or not, anyway both the opera and the recipe are two milestones in their respective fields of the Sicilian and Italian culture.
The original recipe, the documented one, born in Catania, is clear and simple: pasta, tomatoes, basil, ricotta salata and eggplants cut in slices (sometimes in stripes) and fried apart.
If you happen to go traveling around Sicily anyway will likely find a lot of variations, some little, other more significant. Already in Messina (a town north of Catania, far less than 100km) our dish is prepared with the eggplant diced and not sliced (but this makes just a little difference in the texture), and often topped with baked ricotta and not the salted one. This makes a great difference in the taste of the dish.
Some other variations are the addition of capers or anchovies to give a more intense taste, or the use of grill the eggplant instead of frying it, making it healthier, but less tasty.
Go out of Sicily and will find more and more little variations, but usually remaining in Italy the recipe hasn’t gone under many changes. Going out of Italy we arrived to find a menu of a restaurant in Philadelphia were pasta alla Norma included also shrimps and soy sauce, that testify just the need to use a best-seller name for something completely different.
The only thing that is never under discussion is the kind of pasta. Penne, tortiglioni, maccheroni, caserecce, fusilli, any kind of pasta is welcome while it’s a short one. But NEVER a long one like spaghetti, vermicelli or linguine.
Pasta alla puttanesca
Among all the sauces used to season pasta, the "alla puttanesca", from the neapolitan tradition, is one of the best known. It has been the argument of poems (like that of Eduardo De Filippo), and mentioned in many movies. It's a simple and popular dish, prepared with very few ingredients and able to bring everybody together.
As often happens its origins are uncertain. We can find the first traces of a similar dish in the early nineteenth century in a book from Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, cook and writer. In his compendium "La cucina teorico pratica" he mentions a recipe based on olive oil, olives and capers. The absence of tomato should not surprise, as its regular use in the kitchen is relatively recent despite it was introducted in Europe and Italy soon after the discovery of the Americas. Actually it was during the nineteenth century that Neapolitans discovered its deliciousness beginning to cultivate it in the plains between Neaples and Salerno where the "red" cultivars were born to be used in the experimentation of many recipes. So it's really probable that, from the Cavalcanti's recipe, new versions were born with the presence of tomato, up to arrive to the most plausible ancestor of "alla puttanesca" sauce, called "alla marinara" or, in neapolitan dialect, "aulive e chiapparielli" (meaning "olives and capers").
The legend of the name
The etymological roots of the name are cloaked under a shadow of legend. The word "puttanesca" comes directly from "puttana" that means "whore", "prostitute", so that the recipe is literally of a sauce "in the manner of a whore". For such a curious name, many more or less creative stories can be found to justify it. Here is a list of the most recurring.
- In the neapolitan slum called "Quartieri spagnoli" the owner of a brothel used to offer to his customers this pasta, calling it "alla puttanesca" because of its many colours recalling the colourful lingerie of his girls.
- Some authors mentions a prostitute of provencal origin, Ivette, working in Naples that used to prepare this dish for her customers.
- Edoardo Colucci, a painter living in Ischia island, had the habit to host many friends in his home to spend the night. One time he discovered that his kitchen pantry was almost empty, but his friends asked him to prepare anyway "una puttanata qualsiasi", a typical italian way to say "any kind of rubbish". The rubbish obviously was our beloved dish...
- A similar story is told with other characters, Sandro Petti (nephew of Edoardo Colucci) owner and chef of the restaurant "Rancio Fellone" in Ischia, and his customers.
What's mandatory in the "puttanesca" sauce? Extra virgin olive oil, olives (better if Gaeta's kind) and capers (the "aulive e chiapparielli" of the origins). To these we can surely add tomatoes (as "passata" tomato sauce or cooked from fresh Pachino or cherry tomatoes), garlic and parsley. Optionals are onion, basil and oregano. Who likes a spicy sauce can add ground pepper or, better, dry chilies.
An important variation that has become really usual and appreciated (and comes from the roman tradition) is the addition of anchovies in oil, that give a stronger taste to the sauce.
Can be used almost any shape of pasta, but for the best result we should use a long one, like spaghetti or vermicelli. Anyway pasta have to be rigorously dry and of durum wheat.
The origin of pizza is lost in the mists of time. The first mention can be found in the opera of Vincenzo Corrado, napolitan philosopher, great chef and gastronome, who in the 1773 wrote about the habit of Naples' people to season pasta and pizza with a tomato based sauce.
But only in 1889, with the official visit of king Umberto I and his wife Margherita, pizza had its chance to enter in the Hall of Fame of italian kitchen. In that occasion, the best "pizzaiolo" (pizza chef) of Naples, Raffaele Esposito, was requested to cook some samples of pizza. He prepared three of them, one of which was seasoned with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves (so representing the three colors of the Italian flag). The Queen was so impressed by this one that wanted to thank personally the chef with a letter. In return Esposito gave the name of the queen to his pizza, that since that day is worldwide known as "pizza Margherita".
The fame of pizza spread in the italian territory before, and then even beyond the national borders becoming soon a symbol of Italian kitchen in the world.
The diffusion of pizza in Italy, created a certain number of regional variation of the original napolitan recipe, and in particular two different kinds of pizza took hold, the original napolitan one (Pizza Verace Napoletana), and the Roman one (Pizza Romana), born in Rome after the Second World War to rapidly spread across the country.
What kind of pizza?
The differences between the two kinds is substantial.
The characteristics of Pizza Napoletana are:
- A very soft dough (water is 70% of flour and more).
- Has a border (called "cornicione") high and soft thanks to the air trapped in it during the dough handling.
- The regular "ball" of dough necessary for one pizza is around 250 grams.
- It's classic dough do not contain any kind of added fat (only water, flour, yeast and salt).
- It's baked in the oven at high temperatures (430-480°C) for a really short time (50-90 seconds) to avoid to dry the dough mantaining a soft texture.
The characteristics of Pizza Romana are:
- A very thin and crunchy base (sometimes it's called "scrocchiarella", a roman slang word meaning "crunchy").
- Has a low and extremely friable border (same level as the rest of the base)
- It's classic dough contains water, flour, yeast, salt and is often addictioned with some oil (olive oil or seed oil) to make the dough more crunchy after baking. Even the ratio water/flour is somehow lower for the same reason.
- The regular "ball" of dough necessary for one pizza is around 200 grams.
- To spread the ball of dough is often used a rolling pin ("mattarello"), because the dough is tough enough and it's difficult to widen it using only the hands (dough spread and twirled by acrobatic pizza chefs is of napolitan style or anyway more hydrated)
- It's baked in the oven at lower temperatures (350-400°C) for a longer time (3-4 minutes) to dry the dough reaching the right crispness.
Not only an assembly work
With regard to the seasoning, while a great variety of combinations can be found as every pizzaiolo is free to experiment, we can still identify a group of classic pizzas like Margherita, with normal mozzarella or buffalo one, Marinara, Napoli (with anchovies), Capricciosa, 4 stagioni, 4 formaggi, Diavola, ecc. Obviously these kinds too can vary from region to region and from pizzaiolo to pizzaiolo, but mantain a certain identity all over the italian territory.
Anyway, in no case pizza is served in the topping-choosing style, but the combinations of toppings are those in the menu. Motivated variations are someway tolerated, but personal combinations are not considered because the pizza chef is not a simple "assembler", but is a "chef" and guarantee for his own recipes.
Italian pizza has been copied and cheated all over the world, for this reason Pizza Napoletana has been registered in EU Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG) list. Unfortunately outside Europe no law can be applied to protect the authenticity of the product. This brought to a lot of variations that sometimes have nothing to do with the original one but the name.
The Italian word "Ragù", comes directly from the French term "ragoût" that derives from the verb "ragoûter" meaning "awaken the appetite". In France a "ragoût" is a sort of slow cooked stew, and as a stew to be eaten as a condiment found its place in the traditional Italian cuisine.
It happened at the turn of 19th century, when the chefs of the royal courts, traveled to follow their kings and exchanged their knowledge and experiences. And so, while Alberto Alvisi, chef of the Cardinal of Imola in the end of the 18th century (about 30km from Bologna) was the first to cook the "ragù alla bolognese" with a recipe so close to the actual one, in the same period in the court of Ferdinand I, Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies, "ragù alla napoletana" showed up on the tables of the aristocracy in Southern Italy.
They both were originally "expensive" dishes, using the best parts of the meat of beef and porks, but the slow cooking style begin to be adopted also by the poor people to get all the taste out of the meat they used to have. And in both the areas, the Bolognaise and the Napolitan, it became the perfect condiment for pasta during the holidays.
We talked about this two kinds of ragù because are the most known, but we should also mention other local variations, like the "ragù di Potenza" (locally called "'ndrupp'c") with the "salame pezzente", or the "ragù sardo" (of Sardinia) prepared with pork sausages, and many others.
Now take a better look to the two main kinds.
Ragù alla napoletana
This kind of ragù (called "o rrau'" in napolitan dialect) is probably the most similar to the one originating in France, with the presence of various cuts of beef and pork, but in pieces and not minced, and with a large amount of tomato sauce.
For this ragù the cooking time is traditionally longer, at least 6 hours, during which the sauce have to "pippiare" (onomatopoeic verb referred to the sound of the slow cooking sauce doing minimal bubbles).
This is the main reason for still being a traditional "Sunday" dish, because usually the preparation begins in the night of the Saturdays to be ready the morning after, leaving also the time to optionally prepare the homemade pasta.
Anyway the traditional pasta kinds to be paired with this sauce are "paccheri" (a short big ring shaped one) or "ziti" (a long and tubular shaped one, usually crushed in two by hand).
Ragù alla bolognese
This is maybe one of the most famous sauces in the world, mainly under the name of "Bolognaise" (or similar...). It is prepared with minced meat (beef and pork in a 2/1 or 3/1 ratio), chopped vegetables and a little of tomato sauce (often concentrate) and an optional addition of dairy cream coming from boiled milk, or milk itself.
As it is a so famous sauce, it is also one of the most faked, with unreal amounts of tomato sauce (a deeply red bolognaise is NOT a real ragù alla bolognese!) or with the wrong ratio in the meat parts (the taste results totally different) or with no "soffritto" (the chopped vegetables part) or with other changes and additions (vegetal industrial, and disgusting, cream instead of dairy cream or milk). Who know the real one can distinguish its taste from the fake ones, and will not forget it.
Another important point about this ragù is the pasta used with it. The traditional choices are: Lasagne, tagliatelle (or fettuccine) and tortellini (typical "navel shaped" pasta stuffed with a mix of pork, cured ham, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano, nutmeg and egg). All this kinds of pasta are fresh (or semi-fresh) and egg-based, and the hard wheat kinds of pasta are never considered because only the egg-pasta has the right texture to capture the kind of sauce of ragù alla bolognese.
Spaghetti, linguine or even short shaped hard wheat pasta are too smoothand slippery and are not good for this kind of sauce. "Spaghetti alla bolognese", so usual in the rest of the world, are not a traditional Italian dish and never to be found in the menu of a restaurant in Italy. So when you see them in a menu, you can also be wary of the authenticity of the sauce too. Rarely you will find an Italian chef willing to "torture" a good ragù, pairing it with spaghetti.
Risotto alla milanese
Symbol of the Milanese cuisine
“Risotto alla milanese” is a first course typical of the town of Milan. There they usually call it, in their dialect, “risott giald”, literally “yellow risotto” to point out its particular golden colour due to the use of saffron. Over the years, the recipe has changed many times, arriving to a definitive version only in the past century. Let’s go to take a closer look to its story.
The “official” legend about its creation gives us an exact birthday, on 8 September 1574.
In that time lots of artisans with their teams were in Milan to cooperate to the building of the gothic Milan’s cathedral called “Duomo”. Among these professionals there was a Belgian expert of glass who was in charge of the design and creation of the wide coloured windows. His name was Master Valerius Fleming, and in his team there was a young assistant with the nickname of “Saffron”, as he always added this spice to realize brighter colors for the glasses. In the day of the marriage of the daughter of Master Valerius he put some saffron into the boiled rice served in the wedding feast. That golden rice surprised with the colour and the taste all the guests having a great success.
I called this legend “official”, because it appears in the municipal act that in 2007 recognized “risotto alla milanese” as a traditional local product to be protected.
So far goes the legend, but probably the real history is a bit different.
Both rice and saffron arrived to Italy from the Far East, respectively from China and from India. Rice entered the country imported by the Arabs in the first 13th century, while saffron was already well known among ancient Greeks and Romans, but in the middle ages was imported by the same Arabs. So both of them arrived in Italy from Sicily. And there is enough evidence of the presence of a kosher recipe in the South of the Italian peninsula called “riso col zafran”, probably related also with the creation of Sicilian “Arancine”, traditional rice balls with saffron coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
Rice arrived quickly in the North of Italy and there found a perfect environment for its production (in this region is still produced 50% of the European rice). So already in the middle of the 16th century we can find a document from Bartolomeo Scappi, chef of many cardinals and of a couple of Popes, about a local Milanese rice dish. This was a slightly yellow dish due to the use of egg and “cervellata”, a typical Milanese salami spiced with saffron.
Anyway, until the end of the 18th century all the documents mention only one cooking technique for rice dishes, boiling in water, so that we still cannot talk of a “risotto”.
Then in 1779, a gastronome published "Il Cuoco Maceratese", where for the first time rice was shortly fried in butter and then slow cooked in broth. Risotto was born.
In 1809, an anonymous chef published his opera “Il Cuoco Moderno” where appear for the first time a recipe of our dish under the name of “Riso giallo in padella” (“Yellow rice in pan”) where there is still the use of “cervellata” sautéed together with chopped onion and marrow.
In 1829 Felice Luraschi, a famous Milanese chef, for the first time used the word “risotto”, and in the first years of the 20th century Pellegrino Artusi, one of the most famous Italian chef (recognized as the father of modern Italian cuisine), added the white wine, removed “cervellata” and made marrow optional.
The modern “Risotto alla milanese” is still that one, and, with the “Ossobuco alla Milanese”, has become the main ambassador of the Milan’s cuisine in the world. This is so true that traditionally “Ossobuco” is served with the yellow risotto as a side dish (it is the classic exception, as otherwise risotto is ALWAYS a first course and NEVER a side dish).
In the last years, the famous Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, first Italian 3 stars on Michelin guide, passed in the end of 2017, paid homage to this great simple dish creating an extraordinary variation using an edible gold leaf (24K) for his “Risotto, oro e zafferano”, a masterpiece of cooking and art.
Also Massimiliano Alajmo, another Italian 3 star Michelin chef, for his restaurant “Le calandre” propose a variation based on the addition of licorice essence, that is in perfect harmony with the rest of the dish.
Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino
Despite many regions claim their paternity, the “spaghetti aglio e olio e peperoncino” is almost universally considered a typical recipe of the neapolitan cuisine, more specifically of that heap of popular dishes of the so-called “cucina piccina partenopea” (literally “neapolitan little cuisine”). In this group of recipes it is maybe one of the oldest, and probably was born as a poor version of the already poor “vermicelli con le vongole fujute” (vermicelli with fled clams) where instead of the clams the cook used to put some sea stones in the pan to give the “clam” flavor.
As it’s one of the first documented popular pasta recipes, it gave the chance to many gastronomes to argue about the original kind of pasta that was used. While some of them, like Jeanne Caròla Francesconi in her “La cucina napoletana”, support the theory that the first kind of long shaped pasta was a sort of handmade linguine, many keep on associating this recipe with vermicelli, a pasta shape with a slightly wider section than spaghetti.
These academic disputes anyway are not so interesting, and usually nowadays the recipe is cooked with spaghetti, but the main argument for the vermicelli option gives us a chance to unveil a curious story.
The fork as we know it
The recognized and documented original name of the recipe was “vermicelli alla borbonica”, thanks to Ferdinand I, Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies (better known as Ferdinand IV of Neaples), who gave to this dish the dignity of a food suitable for the aristocracy. Spaghetti until his reign were eaten using the hands, and so their target was extremely popular.
Table fork was in use since the times of old Greeks and Romans, and with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire its use was limited to the oriental provinces. At that times forks were bigger than the today’s ones and had two (rarely three) sharp prongs.
In the middle ages fork was reintroduced in Europe by the Venetian Republic, but the Church stated it to be a “demoniac” tool, so it’s use was openly opposed, particularly in the courts of the aristocracy (the poor people had no money for such luxuries…).
Anyway, slowly, especially thanks to the presence of Catherine de Medici as Queen in France, the use of the fork took root even in the European courts.
But when the first attempts to eat spaghetti with those forks were made, the result was a catastrophe. So we arrive to the Bourbon king of Neaples, and to his chamberlain Gennaro Spadaccini, who redesigned the fork, bringing the prongs to four and making it smaller and more handy.
So, in the end, eating a good spaghetti dish was possible for kings and queens too.
Obviously, the preferred spaghetti dish of King Ferdinand was our beloved “spaghetti aglio e olio” that was so named in his honor.
The recipe today
Today, the addition of chilies to the original recipe is a regular use, so “spaghetti aglio e olio” has become our “spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino”. The ingredients are all in the name (if we exclude a usual spread of finely chopped parsley) and its simplicity and poverty of ingredients make it the classic last-minute dish all over Italy.
But, as often happens, simplicity is not equal to ease. Browning the garlic and chilies to the right point is not so easy as it can seem, and is often used in the Italian restaurants as a test for young chefs. And there are also other two or three tips about preparing this dish, but let them remain secrets of the chef.
Spaghetti alla carbonara
In 1930, the Italian gastronome Ada Boni, in her famous book “La cucina romana”, a sort of bible of roman cuisine, never mentions the existence of such a typical dish, neither with its current name nor with another one. This is the only staple in the evolution history of this beloved dish.
Obviously there are many hypotheses about its creation, but as often happens, probably the truth is a mix of them.
There is a close ancestor coming from the Apennines mountains, where the woodsmen used to cook a pasta called spaghetti “cacio e ova” (literally “cheese and egg”) with the resources they brought with them when working far from home. It’s quite easy that this recipe can have met the presence of “guanciale” in those situations, giving birth to “carbonara”. A first point in favour of this hypothesis is that in the same region and in the same period another similar dish has born to become famous, spaghetti “alla gricia” (the ancestor of “spaghetti all’amatriciana”), that while not having the egg among its ingredients yet have guanciale. Another point is that very often those woodsmen were also coalmen, and that’s exactly the meaning of the Italian word “carbonaro”.
Another suggestive and realistic option is the meeting of “cacio e ova” with the American troops in the central Italy area during the World War II. Those soldiers had with them the K-ration containing bacon, and could have suggested its use as an addition to cacio e ova, in their craving of home breakfast taste.
Last hypothesis that’s worth to be considered is a possible napolitan origin, as in the Neaples area the use of egg and cheese condiment is used in many traditional dishes.
As you can see, while there’s not a trace of what is the actual path that leads to its creation, and all these hypotheses appear to be plausible, “carbonara” is here now, it’s a fundamental dish of traditional roman kitchen, and its recipe now is no more discussed, in spite of all the hundreds of variants present all over the world. Because, if it’s true that you can found it in the menus of restaurants in every corner of the globe, it’s just as true that there are errors in preparing it that are to be absolutely avoided.
Dos and don’ts
First of all “NO CREAM”. If it’s surely easier obtaining a creamy texture using cream (or milk, or similar…), it ends up with a taste completely different from the desired one. No onion, no parsley, absolutely no mushrooms or other vegetables (but a vegetarian version can be made using zucchini instead of guanciale, even if the result should not be considered the same dish…). Only oil, guanciale, egg yolk, pecorino (sheep) cheese and ground black pepper.
Variations that can be considered valid are: pancetta instead of guanciale, but absolutely not bacon or pancetta affumicata (smoked), and absolutely no ham. Whole eggs instead of only yolks, but it’s far better using only the yolk of at least the half of the necessary eggs. Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan) or Grana Padano instead of pecorino cheese. This last variation makes a big difference in the final taste, but in many, many families the habit has become to put half and half. Anyway better pecorino than parmesan. Black pepper is to be considered an ingredient and not a seasoning, so pepper is mandatory and not chilies or nothing at all. It is possible, if not recommended, to simmer guanciale in dry white wine until reduced.
For the technique, is to be avoided the egg completely raw, but even the “omelette” effect, the coagulation due to an excess of heat. A good chef knows how to manage the pasta out of the fire and make it assume the right consistency and creaminess.
Spaghetti all'amatriciana is one of those recipes whose story goes beyond the official mentions in old culinary documentations and books. So, if it's true that the first mentions are of the early eighteenth century, the recipe is probably much older.
The only event that shakes the solid tradition of the dish is the addition of the tomatoes that, arrived from the "New world", found a wide use as a condiment only after the Napoleonic Campaign in Italy (1798-1814).
Yes, because before this dish was "white", and it is still possible to find it this way under the name of "Spaghetti alla gricia". "Grici" was the name used to identify the shepherds of the mountains close to Rome, of the region of Amatrice, a little town dramatically affected by the big earthquake of 2016, and "Spaghetti alla gricia" is a pasta dish made with just "guanciale" and "pecorino".
"Guanciale" is a cured meat product prepared from pork cheeks (cheek is "guancia" in Italian). "Pecorino" is a hard cheese made from sheep milk. The long shelf-life of these two products made them ideal for the shepherds to bring in the long periods they spent far from home in the mountains, where they used them to season their spaghetti.
These shepherds, during the winter were used to bring their herds down to the plains around Rome, taking the chance to go to the town to sell the products of their territory. And this is the reason why this dish has become an icon in the culinary scene of the town to such an extent that other stories are born to justify the assumption that Spaghetti all'amatriciana are born in Rome. What is surely true is that the recipe in Rome sometimes undergoes some little changes, causing the spreading of many variations.
The original recipe
As said before, the recipe has really few ingredients and in the end it's really simple, but owes its success to the quality of those ingredients. Guanciale is a fat cut of pork meat, particularly hard and tasty, and its flavour and texture are fundamental in the balance of the dish. Pecorino too, with its typical salty taste is necessary to obtain the right result.
Obviously, while guanciale can be done pratically everywhere with satisfying quality, pecorino from the zone of Amatrice is different from that one frome the Roman countryside that is different from many and many other cheeses produced with sheep milk.
So, really often it's possible only to get close to the desired taste, but never to the exact one.
Furthermore, in Rome the contaminations are sometimes bigger, allowing the use of onion and garlic in the sauce, of "pancetta" (a cold cut of pork meat similar to bacon) instead of guanciale, and of "Parmigiano Reggiano" (the only authentic parmesan...) instead of pecorino. Some of these changes are more tolerable, some other really bring to a dish with a comlpetely different flavour (like parmesan instead of pecorino). For example, in our restaurant we use homemade guanciale and pecorino Romano to be in the orthodoxy, but we add some garlic to the sauce to reach a taste more similar to the original one, because we don't use much garlic in the seasoning of our guanciale, anyway less than usual. Well, nobody is perfect. But we do our best to bring to you the authentic traditional taste of this masterpiece of Italian cuisine.
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