lunedì 8 ottobre 2012

Pastasciutta Nostalgica

(Per leggere la versione italiana, vedi il seguente post.)

I don’t want to seem overly dramatic and paint myself as a vagabond, wandering and alone. However, it is accurate to say that there isn’t one particular place, either in America or in Italy, that I feel is my “homeland.”

The best candidate is East Boston, in particular the neighborhood called Orient Heights.

In Orient Heights there is a religious center, consisting of a shrine to the Madonna and a nursing home.  This center is the national headquarters of the Don Orione order, the Figli della Divina Provvidenza (F.D.P.), or Sons of Divine Providence.  The shrine is famous for a 35-foot-high Madonna statue, a copy of a statue at the Don Orione center in Monte Mario, Rome.

Twenty-five years ago, at the age of 16, I ate dinner with the F.D.P. priests and consumed, for the very first time, an Italian (not Italian-American) meal. First course, second course, side dish, salad, cheeses, fruit, espresso – this culinary system was absolutely unknown to me.

One evening, the priests’ cook placed before me a dish of spaghetti unlike anything else in my experience.  In my extraordinarily limited Italian I asked, “Come si chiama questo?”  The cook replied, “Pastasciutta” (literally, “dry pasta”).

What was this pastasciutta?  I’d never seen any other dish like it.  Was it a Northern Italian dish or a Southern Italian one?  Though the Don Orione priests were all Northerners, the cooks certainly were not.  This requires a bit of explanation.  During the Ellis Island years (1892-1924), millions of Southern Italians came to Boston.  Sicilians, Avellinese, Abruzzese. I never met a single person, not even one, from Venice or Florence.  And yet I met innumerable people whose parents were from the same little towns.  I’ll never forget the day that I told my father that his parents’ town, Montefalcione (in Avellino), had only 3,500 inhabitants.  He absolutely didn’t believe me.  He said, “I know 3,500 people from Montefalcione in East Boston!”

Years passed.  The memory of that pastasciutta remained in my mind.  But I never saw it at any restaurant. It never appeared on the table of any home where I ate. 

More years passed.  One day I decided to look up pastasciutta on the Internet.  I made the discouraging discovery that the term is completely generic.  It refers to any pasta that’s not in a soup.  There isn’t only one recipe for pastasciutta; there are a billion.  At that moment I lost hope of rediscovering this dish. 

Still more years passed.  Then one day, on a foodblog that was unfamiliar to me, I saw a recipe: rigatoni with ground almonds and datterini (a type of cherry tomatoes).  The blog is called “I Pi@ttini di Drilli.”

It caused me to wonder if that pastasciutta from 25 years previous was, indeed, some type of red pesto.

Then, on another unfamiliar foodblog, I saw a recipe for pipe (a short pasta in the shape of little pipes) with a pesto of almonds and sun-dried tomatoes.  This blog is called “Un Soffio di Polvere di Cannella.”

Emboldened by these two magnificent foodbloggers, I decided to try to recreate this culinary memory, even at a distance of a quarter century.

1 lb. spaghetti
sun-dried tomatoes
c. 6 fresh basil leaves
fresh parsley
pecorino romano
parmigiano reggiano
extra-virgin olive oil
(no onion, no garlic, no pepper, and absolutely no salt)

While the spaghetti were cooking, I put the other ingredients in the food processor.  (The consistency should be a little coarse.) With a rubber spatula, I transferred the pesto to a bowl.  I washed the container of the food processor with a few drops of the cooking liquid, which I then poured into the bowl. 

The resemblance of this recipe with the taste in my memory – it was an emotional experience for me.

I accompanied the spaghetti with a varietal from Salento (in Apulia, at the tip of the heel) called Negroamaro.

Addendum: Twenty-five years ago, the condiment was mixed more evenly with the spaghetti. And I believe — knowing what I know today — that the spaghetti was cooked in the frying pan for a minute or two. But in my opinion, it's better not to cook the tomatoes. Beforehand, one can toast the almonds — or even the spaghetti itself (that is, you toast the spaghetti in a dry pan — no oil, no salt, absolutely a dry pan – until it is golden but not brown, before boiling it).

Pastasciutta Nostalgica, Revisited
29 January 2014

This was the first recipe I ever posted on this blog.  Thus, I feel a double-nostalgia: nostalgia for this post, and nostalgia for the dish that it described, from twenty-five years previous.  

Naturally there are many variants to such a dish. With whole-wheat pasta it is even more delicious. You can add a half of a garlic clove. You can also add a little crushed red pepper.  (I made this today and added those two ingredients.)  In particular, you can experiment with different types of nuts. Surprisingly, even peanuts (which I rarely add to savory dishes) work very well.  The best nut to use, however, is pistachios. This is no way to describe how delicious they are.  Naturally, I am forced to use Californian pistachios, which are very good.  But the pistachios from Bronte, Sicily ...

Experiment also with the coarseness of the grind.  Obviously you can grind it until smooth.  But besides the taste and consistency, a coarser grind is healthier for the body.  The less finely ground the food, the more energy the body uses to break it down, thus the slower the rise of the body's sugar level.  (The same applies to pasta cooked al dente, which is healthier than mushy pasta.)

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