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Don’t call it macaroni: There are 1,300 names for pasta in Italy, where regional recipes abound

  • PHOTO BY ROBERT HOPLEY<br/>A pasta shop in Naples, Italy
  • PHOTO BY ROBERT HOPLEY<br/>Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage
  • PHOTO BY ROBERT HOPLEY<br/> Ziti with Cauliflower and saffron
  • PHOTO BY ROBERT HOPLEY<br/>A pasta shop in Naples, Italy

Even in the middle of January, Saturday morning markets pop up in the piazzas Italian cities. Tented with emerald awnings and aflutter with flags announcing a consortium of farmers and food producers, the stalls are bright with lemons, oranges, pumpkins, greens, honey and preserves.

Indeed, all over Europe, as in America, people are emphasizing the superior freshness and special taste of locally produced food. And in Italy that local focus rests not just on fruit and veggies, but also on the country’s must-have fare: pasta.

All the regions of Italy have their favorite sauces. Spaghetti Bolognese is from Bologna, one of the cities of Emilia-Romagna, which prides itself on its gastronomy. The summer combination of mozzarella, sliced tomato and basil leaves, which can appear with pasta as well as an appetizer, is called Caprese, indicating its homeland in the southern island of Capri. We tend nowadays to use the word pesto without an adjective, but if you buy an Italian brand it will include the words “alla Genovese” indicating Genoa, the main city of Liguria, as its source.

But beyond these and dozens more dishes whose names indicate their origin, mainstream pasta manufacturers are branding their pasta with local names. For example, Barilla — a company whose pastas are also marketed in this country — has Cavatelli Pugliese and Orecchiette Pugliese from Puglia as well as Gnocchetti Sardi, Casarecce Siciliana and Reginette Napolitane from Sardinia, Sicily and Naples respectively.

One reason for this is that Italy’s 310 shapes of pasta are known by over 1300 names, which vary from place to place. Cavatelli is also called cavatieddi — plus 27 other monickers. Its regional home is Apulia and Puglia. Bigoli is a Venetian pasta that is like a thicker spaghetti with a thin hole through the center.

In the south of Italy this sort of pasta is called bucatini or perciatelli. Fettucine is the Roman name for flat pasta strips, but in Liguria, in northwestern Italy, it is called trenette and is the traditional pasta for anointing with pesto. Other Ligurian specialties include a sauce of mascarpone with walnuts, and a twisted pasta called troffiette. Bologna claims to have invented tortellini. Sardinia has small pastas called malareddus and a pocket pasta like ravioli, but called culingionis.

Sicily has maccheroni inferrattati, which is made at home by rolling pieces of pasta dough on a knitting needle.

A long knitting needle can be decked with five or six pieces of dough at a time, nevertheless this is a slow way to produce pasta in the quantities needed to feed a hungry family. The time-consuming work needed to form Italy’s myriad pasta shapes helps explain why much pasta is factory made. Extrusion machines fitted with dies of every kind can produce the tons of pasta needed in Italy and other countries that love it.

This may suggest that home-made pasta — like many homemade foods — is better than the factory-made sort. Italian food experts are generally quick to dispel that notion. They point out that the fresh and homemade pasta, which includes eggs, is tender and makes an absorbent foil for creamy sauces or a delicious packaging for filled shapes such as ravioli. On the other hand, factory-made pasta is sturdy, and keeps virtually forever. It stands up to long cooking in baked dishes, and like homemade pasta, has sauce partners that work brilliantly with it.

Legend used to claim that the Italians explorer Marco Polo brought pasta back with him from the East. There’s even a theory that the word macaroni, which once referred to all varieties of pasta, not just elbows, comes from Marco.

Culinary historians now point out that to make pasta one needs flour from hard wheat, and that came to the island of Sicily with the Arabs that ruled there during the Middle Ages. The first references to pasta date from that era, and it is since then that the Italians — architectural geniuses and style mavens par excellence have created their many shapes and varieties.

In Italy, every city has a specialty pasta shop where you’ll find spaghetti and its cousins in the super-long lengths that used to be the norm. You’ll also spot shells and wheels and coils of every thickness and size.

There are colored pastas. The green usually comes from spinach and Romans team green fettuccine with ordinary fettuccine in a dish they call straw and hay. You can get chocolate pastas — sometimes used for desserts — and black pastas colored with squid ink and tasting deeply of the sea, making them just the thing for a seafood sauce. Red pasta is colored with dried tomatoes or beets, and yellow with saffron or turmeric. Using these natural colorings, pasta makers create ribbons or bows and even hats called sombreroni — all of them looking too pretty to eat.

Pastas can be difficult to eat. Consuming spaghetti, for example, requires experience and nimbleness. A tour of Italy’s art museums reveals pictures showing people eating spaghetti the easy way — with their hands. The thing to do was not to grab and handful and approach your mouth directly with it, nor to bend over the dish.

Rather, raise a pasta-laden hand above the head, then looking up, dangle the pasta into the mouth.

To share their pleasure, here are pasta dishes from Italy’s regions.

Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage

Broccoli rabe – a tender slightly bitter green — is called broccoletti in Italian because it is a smaller, leafier form of broccoli. Here it’s sometimes simply called rabe or rapini. Orecchiette — a specialty of Puglia in the southeast — look like elfin-size bowls, though their name translates as “little ears.” Both regular and whole wheat versions work in this recipe.

3-4 flat anchovy fillets, rinsed

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1 lemon

2-3 teaspoons salt or more to taste

8-10 ounces orecchiette

3 Italian sausage (about 12 ounces), two hot and one sweet or both hot, skinned and broken into small pieces

1 bunch broccoli rabe

½ cup white wine (optional)

Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)

2/3 cup grated Parmesan plus more for serving

In a small bowl, mash the anchovies. Mix them with one of the chopped garlic cloves, the lemon juice and about 1 tablespoon of the oil. Set aside. Bring 3 quarts of water to boil in a large pan. Add the salt and then the orecchiette. Bring back to the boil and cook for 8-9 minutes or according to manufacturer’s recommendations or until al dente. Reserve 2 cups of the cooking water. Drain and reserve the orecchiette.

While the pasta is cooking prepare the sauce. First cut off and discard the bottom inch of the broccoli rabe stems, then chop the remainder into 1-inch pieces. Swish them in a sink of cold water to clean, and then gather them in a bowl. Do not shake off excess water. Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a large frying pan and cook the sausage bits in it until they have browned. Remove them from the pan and add the remaining chopped garlic clove, let it soften (but not brown) for a minute, then stir in about half the wet broccoli rabe. Season lightly with salt. When the first lot of broccoli rabe has softened add the rest. Stir for a minute and then stir in the sausage. Let them cook together for another minute then remove from the pan. Add a cup of the pasta water to the pan along with the white wine (or if you prefer and additional half cup of the pasta water. Boil rapidly for about 5 minutes or until it has reduced by a third.

Add the pasta, sausage and broccoli rabe mixture, the juice of the remaining lemon half and the Parmesan. Stir everything together over medium heat for 3-4 minutes to reheat. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if required, and the red pepper flakes if you want the dish to be hotter. Serves 4.

Baked Cauliflower and Ziti with Saffron
and Pine Nuts

This recipe is adapted from Clifford Wright’s “Cucina Paradiso The Heavenly Food of Sicily” (Simon and Schuster), that explores the food history and traditions of Sicily. Use saffron threads rather than powder if possible as the red filaments look pretty among the pale pasta and cauliflower. Pine nuts are traditional — but expensive. Slivered almonds are an effective alternative.

1 large pinch saffron (enough threads to cover a dime), or 1 package powdered saffron

1 small-medium cauliflower (about 1¼ pounds)

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons pine-nuts or slivered almonds

2 flat anchovy fillets, rinsed and broken in pieces

1 clove garlic, chopped

2/3 cup grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese plus more for serving

8-10 ounces ziti or similar pasta such as penne

White pepper to taste

Put the saffron in a cup and add ¼ cup warm water. Set aside for an hour or longer if more convenient until the liquid looks deeply yellow.

Trim the leaves from the cauliflower, wash it, then put it whole in a large saucepan with enough water to almost cover it and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to the boil, and cook for 10 minutes or until the cauliflower is tender but still firm. Drain, reserving the water and placing the cauliflower on a chopping board. Divide it into florets and cut the stem into half-inch pieces. Reserve.

Grease a baking dish and turn the oven to 375 degrees. Return the cauliflower cooking water to a pan and add sufficient water to make it up to 3 quarts. Add the remaining teaspoon of salt and when it is bubbling stir in the ziti.

Cook for about 6 minutes or until they are just getting to the tender but firm al dente stage. Drain and tip the ziti into the baking dish.

In a large frying pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Stir in the pine nuts (or almonds) and let them cook for a minute or so until they turn a delicate shade of fawn. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add another tablespoon of oil plus the anchovies and chopped garlic to the pan, and stir them around with the back of a fork for a minute to mash the anchovies. Stir the cauliflower pieces and cook for 2-3 minutes. Stir half of this cauliflower into the ziti in the dish along with half the cheese and half the pine nuts. Pour the saffron and its water on top, dust lightly with white pepper (or use black if you prefer) and toss with a fork to distribute it and color the ingredients. Put the remaining cauliflower on top and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese. Drizzle with the last tablespoon of olive oil. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on top of the dish, and bake for 15-20 minutes. During the last 2-3 minutes of cooking time, remove the foil sprinkle with the remaining pine nuts or almonds. Serves 4.

Fettucini with
Mascarpone and Walnuts

This dish is a favorite in Liguria in northwestern Italy — the region that gave us pesto. Some recipes call for mascarpone, Italy’s ultra-rich cream cheese, while others call for ricotta. In Italy, “The Vegetarian Table” (Chronicle Books) by Julia Della Croce has a Sardinian version that calls for a Sardinian cheese called fior di Sardegna. She also notes the importance of using a substantial pasta such as fettuccine or linguine. In “Italian Food” (reprinted by Harper and Row) Elizabeth David has a recipe that suggests small shells rather than a long pasta. Their apertures capture luscious drops of cream sauce and nice bits of walnut.

12 ounces fettuccine

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

8 ounces mascarpone or other cream cheese

1½ cups (5-6 ounces) shelled walnuts, finely chopped

½ cup grated Parmesan plus more for serving

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, add the salt and drop in the fettuccine. Stir then let it cook until tender but firm (al dente), about 7-9 minutes or according to package directions. Drain it, reserving about half a cup of the liquid.

While the pasta is cooking melt the butter in a pan or dish on top of the stove. Keeping the heat low, stir in the cream cheese and let it soften. Stir in about three quarters of the walnuts and half the Parmesan, then add the fettuccine along with 2-3 spoonfuls of the cooking water. Stir over low heat until the pasta is coated with the sauce. Taste and add more Parmesan if you like or additional cooking liquid if necessary. Garnish with the parsley and the remaining walnuts. Serve more Parmesan at the table. Serves 3-4.

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