From shapes to sauces and how to combine them, few platefuls are as regionally particular as pasta. Here a Venetian native introduces us to the typical dishes from four corners of the country.
hat 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.
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