That Italians love their pasta is no news. Few things unite the country like a daily bowlful of spaghetti, and few dishes are so socially and geographically pervasive, and as representative of the Italian food culture, as pasta. And yet, as often happens with Italian food, regional differences are strong and vibrantly alive. Variations arise not just from north to south but also from town to town, from kitchen to kitchen, either in the composition of the dough or, even more, in the sauce dressing the noodles.
Shapes aside, the main distinction in the realm of pasta occurs between fresh and dried. A general misconception has led people to believe that fresh pasta is superior to dried pasta, when in fact the two are very different matters. Dried pasta, made with durum wheat and water – first produced in the area around Gragnano in Campania, and now consumed all over Italy – can be just as excellent. Look out for phrases such as trafilata al bronzo (bronze-die) and pura semola di grano duro (pure durum wheat semolina) as signs of superior quality.
Another, perhaps more fascinating distinction occurs between fresh egg-based and water-and flour-based pasta. Indeed, as you move from north to south you’ll see things changing in a fascinating way. Traditionally, pasta made with plain wheat flour hydrated with eggs is common in northern regions such as Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna. In contrast, characteristic fresh pasta shapes made with just water and flour can be found in Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, Basilicata and Puglia (think of Tuscan pici or orecchiette from Puglia).
Things get convoluted when all these shapes and types become vehicles for sauces. Italians tend to be strict about their food pairings, matching only certain shapes and sauces. And so, ragù alla bolognese is only ladled on to porous ribbons of egg pasta (such as tagliatelle), while clams are tossed with spaghetti or linguine but never penne. I could go on.
Wanting to offer some archetypes of traditional shape-and-sauce combinations, we have selected four pasta dishes – two from the north and two from the south – that represent well what happens across the country when the clock strikes noon. From the mountainous regions of the north comes the recipe for fettuccine with sausage, mushroom and olives – a sauce often referred to as boscaiola. Still from the north but closer to the sea comes the very Venetian salsa of anchovies and onions, tossed with the local pasta shape, bìgoli. Moving down the coast, there comes the classic and much-loved spaghetti con le vongole, with clams. And, finally, from Sicily hails the glorious pasta alla norma, a sauce featuring a key ingredient of southern-Italian cuisine: fried aubergine.
Bìgoli with anchovies and onions (main picture)
Of Jewish origin, this has become a classic Venetian dish that is typically consumed on fasting (meatless) days.
Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen by Valeria Necchio (Guardian Faber)
100g oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained (or 8 large salted sardines)
80ml extra virgin olive oil
2 onions (about 400g), thinly sliced
80ml hot water
400g dry wholemeal bìgoli (or thick spaghetti or thick bronze-die vermicelli)
A pinch of ground cinnamon (optional)
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 If using sardines, wash them thoroughly under cold running water to get rid of the salt. Pat dry and remove the bones. Set aside.
2 Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a low heat. Add the sliced onions and fry gently until very soft and translucent – about 10 minutes – stirring frequently to prevent them from browning. Pour over the hot water and carry on cooking and stirring the onions over a low heat until they have fallen apart – about 30 minutes.
3 Next, add the anchovy fillets (or sardines) and dissolve them into the onion sauce using the tip of a wooden spoon. Cook for 5–8 more minutes, until the sauce looks very creamy — the onions and anchovies should be mingled in a brownish, oily mixture. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
4 Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil. Salt the water and, as soon as it starts boiling again, add the bìgoli. Cook the pasta until just al dente, reserving a glass of cooking water for the sauce. Drain and transfer to the pan with the sauce and set over a medium-high heat. Toss, adding splashes of cooking water to help the sauce come together and coat the pasta. Finish with a couple of turns of the pepper grinder and a pinch of cinnamon, if you like. Toss once more then serve.
Fettuccine with sausage, mushroom and green olive sauce
In this dish from the eastern town of Ascoli Piceno, the sauce is used to dress homemade fettuccine, but fresh, shop-bought tagliatelle is a good substitute.
Classic Food of Northern Italy by Anna Del Conte (Pavilion)
Fresh fettuccine (or 300g dried egg tagliatelle)
20g dried porcini mushrooms
225g coarse-grained pure pork sausage – Italian or French
1 tbsp olive oil
60g unsalted butter
90g brown mushrooms, thinly sliced
Salt and black pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp zest from an unwaxed lemon
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
12-18 large green olives, pitted and cut into strips
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 If you are making your own pasta, do this first. Cover the porcini with boiling water and leave to soak for about an hour. Drain, rinse under cold water and dry them. Chop them coarsely and set aside.
2 Cut the sausage into thin rounds and put in a frying pan (skillet) with the oil. Fry for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
3 Meanwhile, in another frying pan large enough to hold the cooked pasta later, sauté the mushrooms and the porcini in the butter for 5 minutes over a lively heat. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the parsley, lemon rind and garlic. Cook for 1-2 minutes and then add the sausage. Turn the heat down and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
4 Add the olives and cook for 1 minute. Taste and check the seasoning. Meanwhile, cook the fettuccine in plenty of salted boiling water.
5 Drain the pasta, but reserve a cupful of the pasta water. Turn the pasta into the large frying pan and pour over the extra virgin olive oil and about 2 tbsp of the pasta water. Cook for 1 minute, tossing constantly and lifting the strands up high so that they are all glistening.
6 Serve immediately from the pan.
Spaghetti with clams (spaghetti alle vongole)
There used to be a restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York called Sette MoMA that overlooked the peaceful oasis of the sculpture garden. I would often go there to write. Without fail, I would have this dish. I loved the way they prepared it: with a touch of fresh tomato and peperoncini (chillies).
The Tucci Table by Stanley Tucci (Orion)
1kg fresh clams
1 tbsp cornmeal
About 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, cut into slivers
2 to 4 small dried Italian peperoncini
Salt and black pepper
1 large handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more for serving
1 First, clean the clams, discarding any with broken shells or that won’t close when you tap them. Put them in a large bowl of cold water with the cornmeal for about half an hour. Then drain and rinse to wash away any grit or sand.
2 Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the package.
3 Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the garlic and the peperoncini, and cook until the garlic is fragrant but not coloured. Raise the heat to medium and add the clams, shaking the pan and stirring to coat them in the oil and garlic.
4 Add a good amount of salt and ground pepper. Add the parsley and toss to coat the clams once more. Put the lid on. Cover and cook, shaking the pan every so often until the clams are open and cooked – about 3 minutes. Discard any that don’t open.
5 When the pasta and the clams are done, drain the spaghetti and add it to the clams, tossing the pan. Garnish with a little extra chopped fresh parsley and serve at once.
Pasta with aubergine
This recipe is known as pasta alla Norma in the Sicilian town of Catania in honour of an opera of the same name by composer Vincenzo Bellini, one of the town’s most celebrated sons. It looks rather undistinguished on paper, but when the ingredients are at their best, their flavours combine into a truly sublime pasta dish.
Sicilian Summer: An Adventure in Cooking with My Grandsons by Mary Taylor Simeti (Silverwood)
2 medium aubergines
Salt and black pepper
At least 300ml olive oil
2 garlic cloves
720ml (about 3 small mugfuls) very ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 580ml tomato sauce
675g spaghetti or penne
About 235g salted ricotta, grated
A large handful of fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1 Wash the aubergines and cut them, unpeeled, into 5mm slices (Palermo style) or into finger-size sticks (more common in the east). Sprinkle with abundant salt and allow them to dry for a couple of hours. Rinse them well of the salt, drain, pat dry, and then fry the aubergines in lots of olive oil until golden brown on all sides. Drain on kitchen paper.
2 Saute the garlic cloves and the tomatoes together with very little salt and the pepper, in about 5 tbsp oil for about 15 minutes.
3 Cook the pasta in abundant boiling salted water until al dente, then drain. Toss it in a serving bowl with half the ricotta on top and sprinkle with the rest of the ricotta.