Italians Are The Masters Of Spaghetti
Can there be any doubt Italians are the masters of spaghetti? Even discounting the old “Marco Polo” myth foisted off on a gullible American public in the 1920s by a pasta industry magazine, Italians have been cooking and eating the stuff for centuries. There are hundreds of pasta forms and shapes and thousands of permutations on preparation. There are also a great number of perversions that will never be found anywhere except in Italian-American restaurants in the United States or in a trappola per turisti somewhere on the Italian peninsula. Such dishes include spaghetti and meatballs, spaghetti Bolognese, and fettuccine Alfredo. While these may be Italian-ish, Italian-style, or Italian inspired, they are not something real Italians would ever make.
Nobody can point to a plate of pasta and say, “This is how Italians make spaghetti,” because there are limitless variations according to region, province, town, and even street within a town and individual homes on those streets. That said, there are a few basic techniques that transcend boundaries; things everybody does regardless of region, etc. Perhaps the most basic spaghetti preparation, especially in the southern regions of Italy, is spaghetti al pomodoro; plain old spaghetti in tomato sauce.
I mentioned “perversions” in the opening paragraph. I don't care what your local “Italian” restaurant serves on it's “authentic” menu, real Italians don't do spaghetti and meatballs. Period. No further discussion required. Anywhere in Italy, you can order spaghetti al pomodoro and you can order meatballs. You just can't order them together. Spaghetti is a primo and meatballs are a secondo and never the twain shall meet.
Another example would be spaghetti with meat sauce. Okay, there are abundant meat sauces in Italy. They are called ragù and they are wonderfully flavorful, long-cooking sauces usually comprised of meats other than the American standard ground beef. Real Italian cooks wouldn't know what to do with a jar of tomato sauce and a pound of hamburger. And even if they did, they likely wouldn't serve it with spaghetti, preferring to use a flat noodle like pappardelle or tagliatelle or to incorporate the sauce with penne or another tube pasta. The kind of spaghetti with meat sauce served in the US just isn't a thing.
No, most of the time, if you order spaghetti in Italy, it's going to be spaghetti al pomodoro. And it won't be served in the manner you've come to expect in “Italian” restaurants.
My most recent restaurant venture was not an Italian place. I spent a few months helping out a friend who had a struggling little diner. The diner occasionally ran “spaghetti specials” on weekends, and I kept it on the menu when I took over. But I insisted on a twist: there would be no more piling up heaps of naked, under-seasoned, overcooked spaghetti on a plate and dousing it with quarts of runny red sauce. It would be cooked my way – usually by me personally. And it was advertised as “Italian-style spaghetti.”
It was quite a departure for my cooks. I threw out the first batch of pasta one of them prepared in my absence. It was absolutely bland and flavorless. I asked the guy how he had cooked it and he told me he had put the spaghetti in some boiling water with a little oil. After cringing about the oil, I said, “No salt?” “Well, yeah......a little bit.” “How much is 'a little bit'?” “I dunno. A good pinch, I guess.” “Throw it out. We're starting over.” And I proceeded to dump salt into the boiling water before his widening eyes until it got where it needed to be. I handed him a tasting spoon. “Taste the water,” I instructed. “Tastes like salt water,” he said. “Bingo! And that's how I want it to taste every time. And no oil, okay?”
I explained to him how pasta needs lots of room and lots of water to keep from sticking. No oil necessary. All that yields is greasy pasta to which sauce does not adhere. And I informed him as to how pasta releases starch and takes on flavor during the cooking process. That's why generous amounts of salt are essential in the cooking. It's the only chance pasta gets to develop flavor. You can't add salt to badly cooked pasta and get good flavor. All you'll ever get are salty noodles. I had saved a few strands of what he had cooked. I had him taste and compare it to mine. He was amazed at the difference and said, “I'm gonna start making it that way at home.” That's my mission: converting one cook at a time.
The cooks were also accustomed to holding the cooked pasta on a steam table all day. I put a quick stop to that practice, too. After a fairly short time under those conditions, pasta becomes so bloated and mushy that only an American would eat it. Sorry. It's true. The American palate is so adjusted to the texture of Spaghetti-Os that most Americans don't find anything wrong with overcooked spaghetti. I kept a pot of water boiling on a back burner all day. During the lunch and dinner rushes, I bowed to the necessity of par cooking some spaghetti, holding it in a reach in, and dropping it back in the water on order. Otherwise, we made it fresh from package to plate. Whichever way we did it, the spaghetti was always cooked to just short of al dente and then finished in the sauce, another radical departure for non-Italian cooks.
Again, during peak times, I kept sauce simmering on the stove. Off-peak, we pulled it out of the reach in and heated it up. The best way, the only way, the real way real Italians make real spaghetti is by finishing it in the sauce. Only by cooking for a couple of minutes in the sauce itself will the pasta really achieve any depth of flavor. Otherwise, the pasta and the sauce are like an old married couple sitting in the same room but not really communicating, you know? They're both just kind of.....there. A perfect plate of Italian spaghetti can only come about when perfectly cooked pasta is simmered in perfectly made sauce and then served lightly dressed in a perfectly warmed bowl. Just as the greens are the “star” of your salad while the dressing is merely a condiment, so the pasta should be the “star” on the plate, complimented, not overcome, by the sauce. If you're left with puddles of dressing in the bottom of your salad bowl, you've overdressed your salad. If you're left with puddles of sauce in the bottom of your pasta bowl, you've oversauced your pasta. And no way would I ever, ever just slap a glop of sauce on top of a pile of noodles and call it a spaghetti plate. My Italian ancestors would all take turns coming back to haunt me.
Out of dozens of “specials” I served to the diner crowd – people expecting diner fare rather than real Italian cooking – I only got one complaint from a grouchy asshat who was in a bad mood anyway. “Looks like yesterday's leftovers,” was his enlightened comment. Otherwise, the response was tremendous. We developed “regulars” for the spaghetti. One lady, who came in on Friday and came back for seconds on Saturday – asked if she could buy some of the sauce to take home. Another customer said we beat every Italian restaurant in a fifty mile radius. It's amazing how good plain, simple spaghetti can be when properly prepared.
And here's how to properly prepare it at home:
SPAGHETTI AL POMODORO
(Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano tomatoes, whole; (pomodori pelati)
fresh basil leaves, torn
sea salt, for cooking pasta
12 oz spaghetti
2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
1 /4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
Begin by crushing the whole tomatoes, preferably by hand. If you want a chunkier sauce, this is where you stop. If a smoother sauce is desired, puree the crushed tomatoes in a blender or by using an immersion blender.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the minced onion and a pinch of kosher salt and cook, stirring, until soft, 4 or 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook 1 or 2 minutes more. Don't allow the garlic to brown, or it will become bitter. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for an additional minute.
Increase the heat to medium and add in the crushed or pureed tomatoes. Season lightly with kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add in the torn basil leaves. Set aside.
Meanwhile, bring 4 or 5 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of sea salt. Cook the spaghetti to just short of al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of cooking water.
Discard the basil and return the sauce to the heat. Stir in a little pasta water to loosen the sauce and bring it to a low boil. Add the cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce and continue cooking for about 2 minutes, stirring to thoroughly coat the pasta with sauce.
Remove from the heat and add the butter and the cheese. Toss gently until the cheese melts.
Transfer to warmed bowls and serve.
Now that's Italian! Buon appetito!