In June, I was returning from a week in southern Italy, during which (don’t judge me) I ate pasta every day, with an indomitable urge now to err on the side of extreme caution in eating it. cooking myself; to serve my orecchiette and cavatelli as I found them in Lecce and Matera, that is to say: on the soft side. Since then I’ve lost a minute, at least, of all my old time, and the result is bravissimo. Restraint on the hob doesn’t just translate to better-to-eat pasta (a good thing in itself as well as a vehicle for sauce). It’s so much more satisfying. I find I want less, which helps both the rear end and the budget.
Pasta really makes sense now, doesn’t it? The prospect of winter to come is frightening, if not downright terrifying, and pasta is comforting and filling, relatively inexpensive, and almost endlessly versatile. In the wee waking hours, when my brain is buzzing, I often think about it: a shape, a sauce, a bowl. Regular readers of this column will know that I have a soft spot for American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, and once I’ve dealt with supper (currently, garlic, chili, and zucchini penne seem like a plan), I inevitably start to fantasize about sugo d’arrosto he describes in The man who ate everything – a Piedmontese sauce whose traditional ingredient, beef jus, he substitutes (of course he does) with a delicate homemade broth. It’s a fantasy because, given the price of gas, no one will want to cook anything for two hours this fall. Two minutes will seem sinful and decadent.
But back to the texture. In fact, the pasta was not always served al dente. According to Luca Cesari, an Italian food historian, this is a relatively recent development, born mainly, but not exclusively, from an increase in gluten (before pasta was made only from durum wheat, it tended to be softer whether people wanted it that way or not). I discovered this fact, and about a thousand others, in Cesari’s new book, A brief history of pasta, who, attentive as he is to the origin stories, and therefore to the essentials, couldn’t make for a more appropriate read right now if he tried. Pasta may have become more luxurious over the past 30 years; I love white truffle shavings as much as the next oligarch. But essentially, it’s a simple thing. Some of the old recipes Cesari has collected – some date back to the 16th century – are so minimalistic that it’s a wonder anyone ever thought to write them down.
In the chapter dedicated to spaghetti al pomodoro – pages that I practically inhaled – Cesari explains that the “Copernican revolution” in the world of pasta took place in 1837, when a Neapolitan chef, Ippolito Cavalcanti, included “vermicelli co le pommadore” in a section on home cooking in his book, Kitchen Theoretical-practical. This is, he writes, the birth certificate of al pomodoro: the moment when what was until then a tomato soup became a sauce designed especially for pasta. By the end of the century, the combination was popular throughout Italy, and made all the faster to prepare thanks to canned tomatoes produced by Francesco Cirio, who seized on its immense potential (the Cirio company, still as strong today, was founded in 1856).
A good tomato sauce is so easy to make, and inexpensive even if you use Mutti’s polpa. (I once discussed them with Yotam Ottolenghi and, like me, he thinks they are some of the best canned tomatoes money can buy.) For maximum deliciousness, I think such a sauce requires – hang tight, purists – a tiny bit of sugar, a little chicken or other meat broth (assuming you’re not a vegetarian) and a squeeze of lemon juice. I don’t want garlic, or even herbs, specifically, but I do want onion – use an unchopped half and remove before eating – and a dash of chili pepper. Also, pepper and salt. Do a lot at once and save some for later. That way – how I wish I didn’t feel the need to write the next few words! – the 40 or so minutes it takes for such a combination to become a thing of alchemical beauty will hardly seem extravagant.