Long before Brooklyn became a mecca for hipsters, it buzzed with Italian immigrants. Hearing the dialects on the streets of Williamsburg, Red Hook or Bensonhurst, you would have thought you were in Naples or Palermo or Cosenza. Exploring the borough one day to see what was left of the old neighborhoods, I wandered into D. Coluccio & Sons and met Cathy Coluccio-Fazzolari, whose Calabrian parents founded the iconic Bensonhurst grocery.
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TIPS FOR LINGUINE
AND TOMATO LUNCH
To reproduce this simple and astonishingly good dish, you'll need to follow Cathy Coluccio-Fazzolari's instructions precisely.
About the tomatoes:
Use fresh, vine-ripened, fleshy tomatoes, such as Roma types, or some of the heirlooms that you can find in farmers markets. While the flavor of the so-called San Marzano tomatoes in many U.S. climates may disappoint even when very ripe, they sweeten when boiled or roasted. Out of season, you can get good results with canned tomatoes if you stick to the genuine San Marzano (D.O.P) labels.
About the pasta:
The recipe is suitable primarily for dried pasta, either linguine or possibly spaghetti. Fresh pasta won’t do here. The Italians are masters of making dried pasta for its nutty flavor, long-holding pot-to-plate elasticity and al dente properties, which is what we want.
About the olive oil:
The quality of the olive oil will make or break this simple dish. Use only high quality, fresh, preferably extra-virgin olive oil with lively and pungent flavor. Note that olive oil made by reputable producers will come in dark glass bottles, or metal tins to prevent spoilage; anything bottled in plastic will not be worthy of your recipes.
About the pecorino:
Like all handmade products, pecorino (sheep cheese) varies according to terroir and cheese-making tradition. For this recipe, I prefer a semi-aged pecorino such as fior di Sardegna (flower of Sardinia), or a Tuscan caciotta to the hard and salty, ubiquitous pecorino Romano.
Hoping to find a recipe that had never seen the light of day, at least on this side of the ocean, I asked about her family’s cooking. Still, a recipe she described for a one-pot linguine and tomato dish left me dumbfounded. Having spent the better part of five decades crisscrossing Italy, sniffing around every pasta pot I could find, and tasting a thousand versions, I’d never seen anything like it. I knew this heirloom recipe was the mother of them all.
“People didn’t have a lot of pots in the 1880s when my grandmother was growing up in Reggio-Calabria,” Cathy explained. “For this recipe, you don’t need a separate pan for the sauce and it only takes 7 to 10 minutes. Drain it all together, mash up the tomatoes on the plate with your fork, sprinkle with grated cheese and swirl olive oil on top. That’s all there is to it,” she said casually.
Yet out of her mouth had fallen not just a lost recipe for “tomato sauce,” if we could call it that, but the holy grail. This was the DNA of the very first marriage of pasta and tomatoes. What she didn’t say, and what I was to find out, was that it was splendid.
Pasta for the masses in Naples
The blessed union of pasta and pomodoro took place in Naples sometime between Chef Vincenzo Corrado’s experiments with that exotic fruit for the Bourbon court in 1773, and the first written recipe that recorded putting pasta and tomatoes together in the 1839 cookbook, “Cucina Casareccia in Dialetto Napoletano” (“Home Cooking in Neapolitan Dialect”) by Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino.
Sometime between those two events, the notion went viral. Pasta al pomodoro took to the streets. For more than a century prior, Naples, the hub of commercial pasta manufacturing, served up a unique form of fast food to the city’s half-million homeless poor, who lived, and ate, out-of-doors. Legions of maccaronari, macaroni peddlers, sold cooked vermicelli, thin spaghetti, with grated cheese, for only two centesimi. The street-people who bought the hallowed pasta that saved them from starvation, ate it with their fingers — a colorful sight captured by the prolific drawings that chronicled the times.
Then, everywhere in the city — under the maccaronari’s tents, while the vermicelli dangled from posts, kept warm and moist from the steam of the cooking pots below, and with a tower of grated pecorino nearby — ripe tomatoes simmered lazily in a separate pot with nothing save their own juices. For an additional centesimo, these cooked tomatoes were offered to the more affluent customers to mix in to their meal. If not yet a sauce, the tomato became an essential accompaniment.
Meanwhile, the homemaker began putting the tomato to cook in the same pot with the vermicelli, creating the first blueprint for the Coluccio family “quick linguine and tomato lunch.” The dish was dubbed vermicelli “al tre,” “tre” possibly derived from trii, short for itriyah, which is the root word for “threads,” the original term for the long, hollow, dried pasta that the Arabs introduced by way of Sicily in approximately the year 800. Perhaps tre was for the simple trinity of ingredients.
Just as we rename national monuments after our national heroes, so the Italians eventually consecrated the dish vermicelli tre Garibaldi, “Garibaldi vermicelli thrice over” after the dashing red-shirted Italian liberator that unified Italy. As for the Coluccio family recipe, the story of its journey from Naples to Calabria is lost in the mists of time. Somewhere along the way, the trinity was scented with fresh basil and lavished with olive oil.
Taking heirloom recipe home
The fortuitous chat at Coluccio’s took place on a summer day, when the tomato plants in my garden were heavy from the weight of their luscious fruit. In my kitchen, I assembled the ingredients: linguine, good olive oil, several succulent tomatoes I’d just plucked off a vine, a scrap of basil, and a fine hunk of young Sardinian pecorino I’d bought at Coluccio’s. Fifteen minutes later, starting with the five it took to boil the water, and ending with swirling the olive oil over the dish, I was eating one of the most delicious pasta meals I think I have ever tasted.
I made the dish all that summer, and I still do, always planting the tomatoes in May, and harvesting the first fat, ripe fruit by midsummer. In years of blight — there have been a few — I’ve managed to find fine substitutes in farmers markets, so that no summer has gone by without partaking of Coluccio’s linguine and tomato lunch. Besides the joy of its simplicity, the dish presents the opportunity to savor olive oil in its virgin state, untouched by the heat of the pan. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Coluccio Family Quick Linguine and Tomato Lunch
This is one of those quick dishes that is prepared in Italian families almost instantly for hungry children and becomes a fond memory of childhood — and a standby in adult life. It works best in small quantities for a pound or less of pasta. Because some of the pasta water serves as a vehicle for the sauce, the dish needs to be eaten immediately while it is still very moist.
8 whole fresh tomatoes, quartered and seeded, or canned peeled plum tomatoes, drained and halved
6 fresh basil leaves, if available
½ pound imported Italian linguine or spaghetti, broken in half
3 tablespoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano or grana padano
1. Fill an ample pot with 4 quarts cold water and slip in the tomatoes and the basil leaves. Bring it to a rolling boil and cook the tomatoes over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the pasta and the kosher salt to the pot and cook over the highest heat until the pasta is al dente. It is best to go by the timing directions on the pasta box, as cooking times vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Just before draining the pasta, ladle out about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water and set it aside.
2. Drain the pasta and the tomatoes together and while the pasta is still dripping wet, transfer it along with the tomatoes and basil to a warm serving platter. Push the tomatoes to one side and mash them with a fork; toss the mixture with the pasta to combine well. Add about 1 tablespoon, or as necessary, of the reserved pasta water to moisten. Top with the olive oil and cheese and serve at once.
Top photo: Coluccio Family Quick Linguine and Tomato Lunch, from “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton