Italian fresh pasta and tortellini ravioli
Eating In

Italian lessons

On matching the sauce to the pasta

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Petite portions, delicately prepared and aesthetically presented: in every informed image of Japanese food, the same values recur. Like poems of few, well chosen words, or a love-letter made appealing by perfect folding and refined calligraphy, Japanese dishes should reveal their merits only to educated sensibilities and disciplined appetites.

Spaghetti napolitan, however, subverts expectations: a concoction inspired by post-war envy of crude, hearty G.I. rations in an occupied land, too wary of starvation to maintain traditions of affected austerity.

Piles of tomato-tinted noodles slither under lashings of ketchup, garnished with frankfurters — sometimes served whole on top of the heap, like the topmost garnish of choucroute alsacienne. The effect of the clashing colours and synthetic flavours is revolting. Shockingly (because Japanese food is relatively inhospitable to foreign influences), it’s become a standard part of the native repertoire, like vindaloo in England or chili con carne in North Dakota.

It features amongst the cases of the Kamogawa Food Detectives — fictional restaurateurs in Hisashi Kashiwai’s stories, who track down forgotten recipes to appease clients’ nostalgia. Resemblance to spaghetti alla napoletana is more like mockery than flattery, but the origins of spaghetti napolitan are as unmistakable as its perversity is unfathomable.

I have nothing against a splash of ketchup in the sauce, especially if it´s made in Italy from San Marzano tomatoes, but the flavour is too intense to form an unadulterated garnish. I might add sausagemeat; Roman rigatoni alla zozzona features sausages crumbled in a vinous sauce.

But frankfurters are too smooth and slidey to provide a contrast in texture with pasta. And there’s no point in adding tomatoes to tomato-dyed spaghetti, unless in defiance of every principle of art.

The aberrancy of spaghetti napolitan ought to make every pasta cook think about how to combine garnish and staple in ways that make the best of both. Italians did not invent 300 kinds of pasta capriciously. There may be shapes so fanciful as to be justified only in fun, but every traditional kind is perfectly adapted to its garnish.

The basic dichotomy divides varieties made with egg from others. The former are, to my palate, uniquely worth eating, but suit a coating sparingly applied, rather than immersion in sauce or soup.

Other characteristics are similarly definitive: round or flat? Long or short? Ribbed or plain? Hollow or solid? Thin or thick? Regular in shape or contorted, frilled or pinched to accommodate more sauce? Spread for folding or stuffing or layering, or made to let rivulets cling to surfaces, sluice ridges or seep into hollows?

A thoughtful cook will not serve bucatini, for instance, with a sauce too thick to penetrate the almost secretively narrow apertures that distinguish them from spaghettoni. Filigree-like capellini are for very brief immersion in boiling stock and demand a thin decoction, because the twirled forkfuls are too fragile for anything chunky.

Other long varieties need a dense, viscous sauce. The bigger they are, the more solid and substantial the garnish can be.

Spaghetti, for example, tolerates clams, whilst linguine can cope with slivers of lobster, but for mussels or prawns, tagliatelle or papardelle are more proportionate.

The fairly large hollows that gape in penne or rigatoni need sauces of just the right thickness to coat them inside as well as out. Orecchie or farfalle are made to scoop the sauce they’re served with. If the mixture matches the pasta poorly, the dish will disappoint.

For pasta ’ncasciata — which calls for aubergines — or any other baked dish, the secret lies in getting the right balance of viscosity and liquidity: in lasagne, the layers must be discrete; in bakes that use tubelike pasta, the mixture must fill the hollows.

One of the reasons why American-style “mac and cheese” tends to be unsatisfactory arises from the perverse use of melted cheese, instead of a suitably liquescent béchamel, as the basis of the dish: in consequence, the macaroni stay yawningly empty, as if in yearning for fulfilment.

Is there a universal recipe, good for any pasta? As Napoleon said of war, “with everything beautiful and simple, the simplest moves are the best”: a light coating of a vegetable, fresh and so finely chopped that it cooks immediately on stirring into the hot spaghetti, a squeeze of garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, with sprinklings of coarse salt, pepper and parmesan. That may not be all ye know on earth but is almost all ye need to know.

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