Every now and then a new cookbook comes along that stands above the rest. Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen Fant’s “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” is such a book. There’s nothing really new about it, and this is its strength. In an age of obsession for novelty, here comes a cookbook without gimmicks, a handbook for amateurs and adepts alike, a holy writ of Italian pasta cookery that I wish could, once and for all, put to rest the deplorable mistreatment of Italian pasta recipes at the hands of American cooks.
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By Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant
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Brought to you by the authors of the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” and “Popes, Peasants, and Lore from Rome and Lazio,” this valuable work contains a vast body of culinary knowledge that can only be gained from an intimate attachment to the Italian way of life.
No meddling editor’s hand has constrained the writers to Americanize ingredients, simplify techniques or modernize recipes to suit the foreigner. The legendary editor of this title, Maria Guarnaschelli, has shaped other important cookbooks, famously, Rose Levy Berenbaum’s “The Cake Bible” and Diane Kennedy’s “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” and this one is the jewel in her crown.
The best cookbook writers can paint you pictures with their words and draw you into their world of food in a way television celebrities cannot. Cuisine is, after all, not only about recipes, but also about culture, people and where they live, what they eat, and why.
One author is a native Italian with roots in Bologna (coined “the belly of Italy”) who learned pasta-making as a child at the elbows of the sisters in a convent school. The other is an American scholar of classical archaeology who was transplanted to Rome more three decades ago. They take you, forks in hand, through the marvels of a corner of Italy’s cookery that is at once timeless and timely.
A guide to pasta technique
Besides its erudition and charm, this book is a manual for proper cooking technique and the whys and wherefores of matching of pasta shapes to sauces. If the recipes are true to Italian tradition, they are not stale. Most, such as spaghetti with clam sauce, are classics. Some are strictly orthodox, like Bolognese meat sauce, which stipulates no tomatoes and no garlic. The authors tell us that the Bolognese, who are fixated on preserving their glorious cuisine’s authenticity, have gone so far as to register the genuine recipe with a notary.
Others, including chestnut and wild fennel soup, have rarely been tasted outside the Italian kitchen. A few will show you tricks you probably never knew before, like a way of cooking eggplant that reduces oil absorption, learned from the revered, still living, Italian chef, Gualtiero Marchesi.
What makes this holy text fresh is writer-translator Fant’s lively voice and careful research. About the emblematic Sicilian pasta alla norma, she tells us that it was not named for the opera, as every other source will tell you, but after the word for “marvel” in Catanese dialect.
Further, Fant writes, when the original dish was invented by Marietta Martoglio, it was topped with “a snowfall of grated ricotta salata.” With a mere phrase, we are there, gingerly walking across a bridge of nimble words into that early 1900s kitchen, inhaling the aromas of the steaming spaghetti lapped in glittering fried dark-purple eggplant slices and veiled in flakes of cheese.
There are countless other bites of history. We learn that the Pythagoreans, who subscribed to reincarnation, eschewed the primordial staple of Mediterranean peoples, fava beans, because they were thought to nestle human souls.
I have read this captivating book from cover to cover, digesting every phrase, savoring every recipe, relishing all the fine points, ancient wisdom and new visions that make it utterly seductive.
I’ve written five titles about Italian pasta cooking of my own, and for me reading it has been like puttering in the kitchen with two old friends who can all but finish each other’s sentences, yet have so much that is new to tell one another. With its sensitive and rich photography, it makes for a book that is both useful and beautiful, and bound to be treasured, even by the reader with a groaning shelf of other Italian classics.
Amatriciana Guanciale, Tomato and Pecorino Romano
From “Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces & Shapes” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant
The reader ought to go to the recipe in the book for the savory and local history of this popular topping for pasta from Lazio’s northeastern province; it is “one of the dishes self-appointed purists (read fanatics) will fight over to the death, or at least death by boredom,” the authors write. Rarely do recipes for its preparation tell you, as the locals would and which the authors do, that one of the secrets to its success is to toss the piping hot pasta after draining, first with the grated pecorino, then with the sauce; this method gives the sauce a voluptuous consistency.
This sauce is used on flour-and-water shapes. This includes spaghetti or bucatini, of course, but also rigatoni, casarecce or some of the handmade flour-and-water shapes, such as strozzapretti/pici.
For the condimento (sauce):
2½ ounces (70 grams) guanciale [salt-cured pork cheek], cut into thin strips
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion (any kind), chopped (optional but recommended)
1 pound (450 grams) red, ripe sauce tomatoes, broken into pieces, or canned Italian peeled tomatoes, drained
1 small piece dried chile
For the pasta:
1 pound (450 grams) pasta (see suggestions above)
7 rounded tablespoons (70 grams) grated pecorino
1. Put the guanciale and oil in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and heat gently so the guanciale renders some fat and starts to brown. Take a piece to assess how salty it is.
2. When the meat just begins to become crisp, add the chopped onion (if using) and sauté gently until transparent.
3. Add the tomatoes and chile, then taste for salt (how much you need will depend on the guanciale).
4. Finish cooking the sauce, covered, over low heat. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid has thickened somewhat and the fat shows on the surface, about 20 minutes.
This much can be done earlier in the day, but the sauce is not customarily made in advance or kept, except casually as leftovers for the next day.
5. Bring 5 quarts (5 liters) of water to a boil in an 8-quart (8 liter) pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
6. Warm a serving bowl in a low oven. If the oven is not practical, warm the bowl just before use with hot water, even a ladleful of the pasta cooking water.
7. Drain the pasta and put it in the warmed serving bowl. Toss it first with the grated cheese, then with the sauce. Serve immediately.
Top composite photo:
Co-author and translator, Maureen B. Fant and the book’s editor, Maria Guarnaschelli at the book’s launch in New York City. Credit: Julia della Croce.
“Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. Credit: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.