Ah, spaghetti with clams cooked with white wine from a Venetian restaurant. There is something to be said for eating clams pulled from the sea that morning. OK, there is something to be said for eating pasta in Venice. Period.
Before my first trip to Italy, I had this image in my head about the pasta. I pictured eating in charming mom & pop trattorias, with mamma in the corner rolling out pasta by hand.
I never saw that image come to life. Most of the time we dined al fresco because the street scenes were too compelling. When we did eat indoors, the kitchen was usually hidden behind closed doors.
There are 350 different pasta shapes and I wanted to try a variety of ones I wasn’t familiar with, but in the end, I ordered more for the other ingredients than the pasta.
Many times, I ordered dishes surely made with dried pasta rather than fresh pasta. Nonetheless, I never ordered a mediocre dish.
Even a simple rigatoni pomodoro from a Roman restaurant in the Trastevere area was sublime. It tasted as if it was finished in a seasoned cast iron skillet with loads of garlic.
When we hit Bologna, I was on the hunt for authentic bolognese, and below is four samples of this classic meat and pasta sauce.
All four were different, yet all were the same. Eat enough bolognese, and you can recognize the taste with your eyes closed — meaty and less tomato-y than you’d think.
One of my favorite dishes was spaghetti carbonara from a Roman trattoria. The egg was barely cooked, resulting in a silky texture, and the salty pancetta cut through the richness.
Siena is known for pici — thick, hand-rolled pasta that looks like bloated spaghetti strands. This version was served with wild boar ragu — and a glass of Chianti, of course.
In Castellina in Chianti, north of Siena, we slurped on spinach ravioli (top left) and in Parma we had the only lasagne (spinach) of the trip.
In Florence, we ducked into a tiny trattoria on a narrow side street and had cheese tortellini with black olives (bottom left), and in Venice, we tried ink squid spaghetti at Alla Madonna, but only because it was what the gondola guys were eating.
I kept wanting to close my eyes to eat it — and it should never be eaten when wearing white — but I would order it again in a heartbeat.
In Vernazza (Cinque Terre), we tried another version of ink squid pasta, only this time, it was black chittara (square spaghetti) made with squid ink, tossed with tomatoes, garlic and minced clams.
At an upscale trattoria in Bologna, we had rigatoni with canocce, a sea creature that resembles a cross between a crayfish and a lobster. The little suckers were chopped with the shells on, so it made eating it awkward. The server assured me that I was to pick them up and gnaw on them. I was more than happy to dive into the deeply flavored dish and lick my fingers clean.
I kept wondering what kind of pasta home cooks used, so in every town, I’d duck into the grocery stores and take a look around.
Every grocery store had rows and rows of shelves dedicated to dried pastas. The brand I saw most often?