Pasta? Pasta, it’s one of America’s favorite foods. For Italians and Italian-Americans it’s the backbone of our diet of the food of and ethnic heritage of being Italian. Heck we’re weaned on the stuff, as you’ve already read of my first memories of my families food habits, the same as most other Italian-Americans with minor various here and there, depending on the region we’re from. We’re Sicilian, there are Calabrese, and others from Puglia, Genoa, and Abruzzo, while many come from Naples and it’s environs of Benevento, Avellino, Salerno, Ischia and other parts of the Mezzegiorno. Yes we’re weaned on Pastina, and in my case, a little joke I tell people I was weaned on Pastina & Cannolis. Well just the cannoli cream, as the shells are too hard and crunchy for little babies to eat, never-the-less, our mothers would feed us a little cannoli cream if they we’re eating a Cannoli at the time.
So, pasta? It’s the base of our Italian-American cuisine and diet. In fact, we probably eat it more than our Italian brethren back there in Italy. Yes, it’s true! We’re brought up with pasta, eating it several times a week, and always on Sunday, either with or before our beloved Sunday Gravy, the centerpiece of most Italian-American Sunday meals. Pasta, we eat all shapes and numerous sauces dressing it. There are some 300 varieties of Pasta, dry semolina pasta, and the fresh stuff, like; Ravioli, Tortellini, Gnocchi, Tagiatelle, Cavatelli a.k.a Gava-deel and more. There our 300 types, but most people eat about a dozen or so on a regular basis. We love Raviolis which my mother usually served once a week, and she always got both meat and cheese raviolis from the pasta shop that made them fresh, but dressed with my mothers wonderful home-made Sauce. Dry pasta is a staple of every and all Italian homes in both Italy and here in America, the most popular types being; Spaghetti, Rigatoni, Penne, Linguine, Ditalini (for Soups), Pastina (for babies and little children), Fusilli, and Cavatappi. If you’re from Puglia you might be partial to Orecchiette, either store bought or homemade by grandma.
When we were growing up in the 60s and 70s, there was not so many imported pastas as there are these days. My mother usually always bought Ronzoni, which is the most famous American Maccheroni Company in the history of country. Ronzoni started and was made in New York, and being a local company and of such top-notch quality, it was the preferred brand in most Italian households in New York, New Jersey, and the Tri-State area. I used to have to go to the local grocery store to pick up some Spaghetti for my mom, which was always Ronzoni, and I can still hear my mom telling me to get # 9 Spaghetti which was the thicker one, and you could get spaghetti in various thicknesses, thus the numbering of the pasta to signify its size.
Yes, we ate pasta quite a lot. It’s tradition and is part of our everyday lives. It’s inbred that we love our pasta, and some might say that it runs through our veins, as does tomato sauce and olive oil that often dresses the pasta. Sure, Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce is easy to make, you cook up a big batch to make many servings, it’s real tasty, and easy on the old wallet to boot.
We’d eat Spaghetti Pomodoro a couple times a week, and there was always some kind of Meat Sauce as well, of which some called it Meat Sauce and others called it Ragu as it is known in the old country (Italy). We had different types of meat ragu our family being from Sicily. The meat ragu was usually made with ground beef or pork that was cooked with tomatoes and onion. The ragu could be made with a combination of beef & pork or just one or the other. Sicilian meat ragu is not as rich as Ragu alla Bolognese which has more wine and is cooked for a longer time, while often a Sicilian Ragu might not have any wine in it all, or far less than is in the famed Ragu Bolognese. As for Ragu Bolognese, we never even had it growing up, as we were from the south and my mother never even ate it, nor knew how to make this great Italian Meat Ragu, neither did any of my aunts who were great cooks and I had hundreds of meals cooked by them, they never made a Bolognese. I myself never even tasted Bolognese until I went on my first trip to Italy when I was 23 years old. Well, as far as Bolognese Sauce and I go, the rest is history, but we’ll get to that later.
So growing up, we ate Spaghetti w/ Tomato Sauce often. We’d have Lasagna about once a month, and it was always a special day when we did. We ate Raviolis once a week, and there was always Sunday Gravy of Sausage, Meatballs, & Braciole with some short pasta just about every Sunday. The pasta what we’d have with the Gravy was usually Rigatoni or Cavatelli, and it always had to be a short pasta. Or sometimes we’d have Ravioli as an extra special treat with the Sunday Sauce. Aunt Helen would take some of the sauce from the Gravy pot and she’d dress the fresh Ravioli with it. This was always after we had Salad or Antipasti. So we’d have the Raviolis with a bit of sauce from the Gravy pot, and after we had the Raviolis, we’d have the meats of the Gravy with some boiled potatoes on the plate with the Sausage, Meatballs, and Braciole. So when we had the Sunday Gravy, sometimes we’d eat the Maccheroni with the Meats and Gravy, and sometimes we’d have a little of just sauce without meat and have all the meats after the pasta depending on our mood of how we wanted to eat it that particular day.
So, we Italians also have pasta in our soups as in Minestrone alla Genovese, Pasta & Peas, or the famed Pasta Fagioli made with pasta and beans. Most often the pasta in soup would be ditalini, or it could be a mixture of short pasta or broken pasta (Pasta Rotta) from a few different packages of pasta that have already been opened in the house.
Pasta, we loved Spaghetti Vongole which we usually had in restaurants as a special treat. I didn’t get to eat Bucatini Amatriciana until that first trip to Italy where I had it in a wonderful little trattoria in Rome, and I’ve been making and eating it ever since.
Wow, I almost forgot, two of the pasta dishes my mother made most often, along with the Raviolis and Spaghetti, my mom also loved making Manicotti and Stuffed Shells, which are now that I think of it, pretty much the same dish, the only difference being the shape of the pasta which are both stuffed with Ricotta, Mozzarella & Parmigiano and baked in the oven with tomato sauce, and whenever we had Stuffed Shells or Manicotti it was always a special treat.
Excerptd from Mangia Italiano, Daniel Bellino’s new forthcoming book …
photo Daniel Bellino-Zwicke
at a Groceria, Napoli, Italy