Bring the Full Bounty of Italian Cooking into your Home Kitchen
Whenever I think of Italian food in America, I recall a scene from the 1996 film “Big Night” when Tony Shalhoub’s character—an assiduous Italian émigré and chef—throws a world-class kitchen conniption over two American diners’ repeated requests for a side of spaghetti and meatballs. The “seafood risotto” he declares, “is a starch. Spaghetti, is a starch. One does not have two starches!” Yet we can sort of understand where the rude Americans are coming from: spaghetti is a comfort food to rival the best of Southern cooking, and pasta is a tried-and-true method of carbo-loading for serious athletes. But the serious Italianists have a point too. There is a rich, vibrant and endlessly interesting world of Italian cooking that lies beyond the humble meatball and red-drenched spaghetti. These dishes, yes, can be carb-heavy and comforting, but they are also exciting, zipping with new and complex flavors. And the beauty of Italian cuisine: these complex flavors emerge out of beautifully simple dishes.
Take the Caprese Salad. Timed right—at the peak of tomato season, in mid-august for most of the US—the straightforward combination of rich heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, balsamic vinegar and a handful of fresh basil makes for a luxuriously light yet complete bite.
When it comes to pasta, Italian cuisine offers far more variety than Chef Boyardee would allow for. Without a whole lot more difficulty, it’s possible to go far beyond the “boil water-pour box of pasta into water-heat sauce-mix” routine. Consider the classic Pasta e Fagioli:
The base of this dish, rather than the standard tomato, is the underappreciated cannellini (white kidney bean). The beans simmer with a parmesan rind, carrots, celery, garlic and your choice of Italian herbs for a few hours, before being bolstered by a dose of crushed tomatoes and more garlic. For pasta, rather than rely on some pre-shaped boxed stuff, many chefs recommend tearing fresh lasagna noodles into bite-sized chunks. This adds a unique, handmade element to a dish already bursting with intriguing combinations and your own creative additions.
To really up your Italian eats, in true “Big Night” style, you can also make your own pasta—from scratch. While this seems like a daunting challenge, it’s hardly different from most other baking projects you may have taken on (think simple bread doughs, pie crusts etc.) and is absolutely worth the work.
The ingredients list could not be easier to remember. The Il Fornaio Pasta Book of authentic Italian recipes specifies only:
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon olive oil
Check the full recipe for the particulars, but the process generally goes as such: heap your flour; make a well in the flour, into which you’ll pour eggs and warm water; mix flour, eggs, warm water; add additional flour to curb the dough’s stickiness; knead; let sit (20-30 min); roll the dough out thin, until light passes easily through it; let the dough sit till leathery-dry (30 min); cut pasta into desired shapes.
In just a couple hours (most of them spent waiting) you’ll have a fresh pasta that will easily rival the boxed stuff in richness, texture, and general flavor. To keep the creativity flowing, pair this pasta with a sauce of your own making: try this excellent recipe to spice up the old faithful marinara, or this one for a drop-dead delicious pesto.
While the automatic reaction to a film like “Big Night,” or to any overwhelmingly mouth-watering image of Italian delicacies, is to imagine oneself sipping Chianti and carefully selecting slivers of fine bruschetta along a Milanese piazza, it doesn’t take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy to experience the exquisite notes of the Mediterranean nation’s cooking. With a bit of research and some time in the kitchen, you can bring into your home, and into the grateful mouths of friends and family, flavors that far exceed blander Americanized versions of Italian classics. Listed here was only a paltry, palate-whetting selection of what awaits your discovery. For the rest, enjoy finding dishes that excite you and that makes your diners hum with satisfaction.