This discussion is not meant to sway you from any dear ways you may have of Italian pasta. It’s intended to address misunderstood or plain wrong ideas somehow created. It’s about presenting the real Italian pasta as in Italy.
There are misconceptions and beliefs that somehow have become so established that even the different reality in the mother country originator, Italy, doesn’t seem to matter. Or, if conceded, still it’s ignored. You’ll understand as you read on.
I can’t always tell for sure why or how some beliefs and practices originated. Yet there must be some likely explanations to be considered.
As Italy is many in cooking traditions, it is possible that some immigrants from hundred years ago may have started some customs and habits, obfuscated by the passing of time and not copied correctly.
This observation makes me think of when as little kids we played a game we called “telephone” or “telegraph”. At least five of us, the more the better, we stood in line facing. The first one in the line would whisper quickly in the ear to the next one a word or a phrase which then was repeated, passed along the line to the last kid.
The idea was to see how faithfully the word or phrase was received and transmitted. Almost always, the word and phrase received by the last kid in line didn’t match the original or it came to be a guess.
Like in the game analogy, it is very much possible that things passed along from Italian immigrants of a century ago are not the same, lost or not clear, and so educated guesses may have taken place.
When pointing out practices and recipes among other things, my intent is just to distinguish true Italian ones from perceived or even fabricated ones.
An interesting writing on this very subject below: (click second link if first doesn’t work)
Italian Pasta: Facts and Mysteries
I don’t want to diminish any ideas or creations in the Italian pasta tradition. Some dishes may deserve recognition. Then the creations should stand up on their own merits and not lean on a popular name. The idea is to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”.
A couple of examples will explain.
Thought to be Italian originals, these dishes didn’t need to assume an Italian classic recipe name to become popular.
Pasta primavera, a very popular dish, with pasta as first name must be Italian. But don’t be surprised if nobody heard of it in Italy. It was introduced by the restaurant “Le Cirque” in New York. You can read the interesting story here. (opens another window)
Another very popular item on menus everywhere is Caesar’s salad. Mostly everybody enjoys it. I like it too… now. Only, I had to force myself at first to accept the parmesan in the salad. Never Italians would sprinkle parmesan or cheese on a salad. In short, Caesar’s salad is not Italian, even though it’s served in Italian restaurants in America translated into “insalata di Cesare”. It’s an American invention.
You may find more surprises here: (click second link if first doesn’t work – opens another window)
Italy is one and many. There is the north with the vast plain and the crown of the Alps by the borders and the regions past the Apennine Mountains, the Deep South and the big islands of Sicily and Sardinia, all quite unique in culinary traditions and habits, climate, geography and even dialects.
So it is possible that one dish typical and popular in one region may be unknown in another part of Italy. I am from Rome and never had heard of orecchiette, a type of pasta in the shape of little ears (hence the name), popular in Puglia, the heel of the boot shaped Italian peninsula. Not everywhere in Italy people are familiar with pasta alla Norma from Sicily or spaghetti alla chitarra from Abruzzo.
On the other hand, some dishes like lasagna and tortellini from Bologna or pesto and ravioli from Genova are well known and popular even beyond Italy.
Even pasta names may not be the same everywhere. Same pasta may be called a different name in other parts of Italy. Spaghetti of course are spaghetti everywhere, but to my knowledge, there is no uniformity or rules for pasta sizes and shapes. For example: De Cecco rigatoni are larger than Barilla rigatoni. Only on spaghetti and long Italian pasta there seems to be a consensus on their length.
Years ago I used to buy a brand of pasta that advertised cooking time for spaghetti of 12 minutes. Now same brand, same spaghetti have cooking time of 10 minutes. The thickness must have been reduced for sales strategy or other.
One thing is guaranteed by law in Italy: dried pasta, the package, must be made from durum wheat semolina.
Pasta for Italians is not the whole meal. It’s just the beginning, the first course. The normal serving is 100 grams (3 and half ounces of dried pasta). There’s
always something else after that. Italians like a variety in their meals and only pasta, even the best pasta dish doesn’t meet that. Unlike in America, I found out.
The first time I went to America, New York
The first time I went to America, New York, I walked into this restaurant and I was happy to see that pasta was in the menu.
I ordered it. When I saw the size of the dish, I recoiled, in shock. I could not possibly eat all that and the second course I ordered. I thought that was an odd place. I tried another restaurant, but same experience.
Eventually I discovered the huge portions were meant to be the whole meal. But just pasta, even in the best recipe is boring, as it would for example be the best huge steak and nothing else (my opinion).
Even good Italian restaurants gave in and embraced the practice. One common accepted, customary way to get around this problem so to have a diversified meal is to share the dish.
Here is an interesting article from the New York Times by Nancy Harmon Jenkins on this practice and more facts on Italian pasta that may surprise you: (click second link if first doesn’t work )
To be noticed, this use of serving huge portions of pasta is easy profits for restaurants. This could be a reason why the practice survives.
An average pasta dish may cost you around 15 dollars. The house cost for the huge serving, one pound of dried pasta, or close to it, is less than 1 dollar,. Consider 2 dollars more for the addition of the sauce, which can be from a gallon can and somehow retouched and upgraded. Add cheese (parmigiano Reggiano?), 1 dollar more. I’s an estimated total of less than 4 dollars. Of course, labor and other overheads are there, but so for a steak.
Another thing that struck me is that pasta in America is served with an abundance of sauce in a rather liquid state. It is easy, especially with long pasta, to get splashed when fishing from the swampy mess.
After all, the sauce is being wasted, as at the end there is a puddle of it left in the plate. In Italy sauce is intended to be just enough to coat the pasta. In fact it is called “pastasciutta”, a contraction from “pasta asciutta”, meaning “pasta dry”.
In Italy long Italian pasta (spaghetti, linguine fettuccine…) in the best restaurants, is served only with a fork. Many think that the proper elegant Italian way is to roll the spaghetti against a spoon. Where, how this idea originated, I’m guessing.
The use may have originated long ago when spaghetti where dried in the open and were much longer, or it may have been imported from certain places in Italy where it may still be alive.
I learned of the dish “spaghetti meatballs” in America. This combination in Italy is unknown; certainly not served in the same plate. Italians like to eat things separately. So they would eat first spaghetti and as a second course a serving of meatballs.
Italians eat pasta in a plate by itself. They eat one course at a time. Never the plate is crowded with several items. Even on big holidays when there is an abundance of food, after pasta, generally no more than 2 items at a time occupy the plate. Dinner plates are not oversized.
Taste should be varied and so appearance. In Italy, referring to food, they say: “L’occhio vuole la sua parte” (the eye wants its part).
Imagine you have spaghetti with a marinara sauce to start, then steak pizzaiola with a tomato salad, you’ll be blinded and bored by the same red color and loss of excitement by your taste buds.
A good alternative after the red pasta would be by having the steak grilled or done in a mushroom sauce accompanied by some greens. Besides the alternative to taste, other ingredients will give you other nutrients and different colors will please the eye too.
In Italy families at home eat pasta in a deep plate and so it may be served in some ordinary places. But in an elegant restaurant, pasta is served on flat plates. Deep plates are reserved for soups.
the argument for the flat place can be for a more tasteful presentation and on account of the residual heat present in the freshly cooked pasta. In a flat plate heat will disperse more quickly and the al dente cooking won’t be compromised.
Also, if you can’t finish your pasta or dinner, which is unlikely as portions are manageable, the words “to go” are foreign in Italy. Restaurant are not organized with containers to satisfy the request.
For more on Italian pasta myth and truth and more surprises, check here:
Fettuccine or Fettuccini? Linguine or Linguini?
The confusion has to do with the English pronunciation of the vowel e. In fettuccine and linguine, people may pronounce e sounding like i. From there it’s easy to imagine how it becomes i even in writing. So salame is pronounced “salami” and it’s written the same way. Fettuccine and linguine become “fettuccini” and “linguini” for the same reason.
The right spelling is: fettuccine and linguine.
Zucchine is another word commonly misspelled is as from the above explanation becomes zucchini. I kept this spelling in recipes. The right spelling in Italian is zucchine.
There are some pasta brands (not Italian) displaying the wrong spelling in their packages. It comes to think how anyone can trust the product quality from manufacturers who don’t know what they are selling. For the same reason a restaurant with the wrong spelling on its menu can make you think they may have the recipe wrong too.
E in Italian stays with the same pronunciation always. So the second e in fettuccine is pronounced the same way as the first one. In Italian e is pronounced even at the end of a noun. So minestrone is not pronounced “minestron”. It has an e at the end and if it’s there, it is to be pronounced, same as the first one.