“Life is a combination of magic – and pasta,” the Italian film director Federico Fellini once said. And if, like me, you’re a devoted pastaphile, you’ll almost certainly agree with Fellini’s worldview.
For something so very simple – at its base, pasta consists of just two, sometimes three, ingredients: always water and flour made from 100% durum wheat; while egg can be added to make a richer pasta. It has spawned a myriad of recipes, ranging from the easy to the elaborate.
Each region of Italy has its own speciality, with recipes and combinations of pasta and sauces handed down through generations, but also open to interpretation. While there may be no official regulations, ultimately, the best pasta dish is whatever tastes most delicious.
However, we Britons have form when it comes to amending, or even completely reinventing, foodstuffs from other countries. Chicken tikka masala, for example, does not, strictly, hail from India; it started life, legend has it, in a curry house in Glasgow.
Similarly, the perennially popular schoolkids’ teatime fare, spaghetti bolognese is not an officially recognised Italian dish but is rumoured to have been created either by Italians who came to the UK after the second world war or by southern Italians who emigrated to the US early in the 20th century. In Italy, and most particularly in the foodie city of Bologna, in Emilia-Romagna, after which this impostor of a dish is named, its existence is treated with bafflement, if not downright outrage. Why? Because no Italian worth their parmesan would ever think of serving this rather bulky, meaty sauce with a pasta that it couldn’t cling on to.
The informal regulations governing Italian pasta and sauces vary by region, but a good rule of thumb is this: the chunkier the sauce, the chunkier the pasta should be, while lighter, more delicate and thinner sauces are better suited to thinner shapes. What horrifies the Italians so much about our spag bol is that we stubbornly believe that it’s totally fine to eat a dish where each mouthful of pasta is barely coated. Utter sacrilege! Pasta shapes, you have to learn, are not interchangeable, and the key to making the best meal with it at home is knowing what combinations work best.
Here to help is one of Italy’s oldest and best-loved pasta manufacturers, Barilla, with a heritage that stretches back to the late 19th century when Pietro Barilla opened a bread and pasta shop in Parma in 1877. The company has stayed almost exclusively in the family since then and is currently run by the fourth generation, so tradition and authenticity are of key importance.
“At the core of our business is our aim to bring to the world joyful, wholesome and honest food, inspired by the Italian lifestyle and the Mediterranean diet,” says Alberto Costella, export marketing and sales manager, Barilla Group. “We work every day to build on that legacy and being family owned adds an extra level of commitment.”
While it’s said there are somewhere between 300 and 600 pasta shapes in existence, Barilla itself produces more than 160 shapes and sizes, all packaged in those iconic blue cardboard boxes (the colour dates back to a time when blue paper was the cheapest to buy and used to wrap food).
If a shape is made in a certain part of Italy, then it’s more than likely the sauce will be made from something grown in the same area; for example, Liguria is renowned for its basil, which is used to make pesto, and goes best with Ligurian pasta shapes such as linguine or trenette, which are both long and thin.
Let’s briefly get back to that bolognese sauce – in Bologna, there is a recipe for something called ragu alla bolognese, which, at first glance, might not seem dissimilar to our own spag bol, as it’s made with minced beef, tomato puree and vegetables including carrots and celery; but the difference is that there, it’s actually served with tagliatelle, medium-wide ribbons that can take a heavier sauce. Another Emilia-Romagnan speciality, tortellini, is a filled pasta usually served in a light broth or sauce as there’s already a lot going on inside it. Confused? Don’t be. Stick to the rule of thumb and you won’t go far wrong, then experiment and get creative as much as you like in your own kitchen.
Time to talk bigger-bodied shapes: rigatoni, tortiglioni, penne, fusilli … pastas such as these have a larger surface area, and, often, ridges that really help the sauce to stick. You’ll find rigatoni dishes in Sicily, where one of the classics is pasta alla norma: this delicious sauce consists of chunks of fried or roasted aubergine, tomatoes, garlic and grated ricotta salata cheese.
Fancy something creamy? How about comforting pasta alla norcina, which originates from Umbria, and combines penne with local pork sausage, cream, dry white wine and pecorino; or cheesy tortiglioni al forno, popular in Naples and Calabria (though most regions have their own version) – a substantial, tasty pasta bake to which you can add anything from homemade meatballs to mushrooms, depending on your preferences. Just make sure it’s smothered in mozzarella.
If all this has got your mouth watering, you can find more inspiration at Academia Barilla, Barilla’s own gastronomic centre of expertise, which has a variety of recipes ranging from the more straightforward (such as penne arrabbiata) to the gourmet (such as pennette with pumpkin cream, porcini mushrooms and balsamic vinegar), along with online tutorials and techniques.
Now man can not, of course, live by pasta alone (unfortunately), but even if he did, it’s a nutritious foodstuff and one that makes up part of the much-lauded Mediterranean diet with all its health benefits. But we’ll leave you with the words of the inimitable Sophia Loren, who once said: “I’d much rather eat pasta and drink wine than be a size zero.” Food for thought, indeed.