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A Shape to Fill a Lack

April 29, 2014

Spaghetti Bolognese raises my ire. Penne Carbonara makes me uncomfortable. And I don’t know what I’d do if I saw freshly made angel hair pasta tossed with olive oil and sautéed vegetables.

Maybe, just maybe, I can be flexible enough to say that what you do in your own kitchen behind closed doors is fine. Buf if you start taking pictures of your food and posting them on the Internet, it’s fair game.

However, if you are an Italian restaurant, you should know better.

Okay, I know that food evolves. It’s not some static thing that is forever bound to the past. But there is one part of me that does see the chef and the restaurant as institutions with a responsibility to protect a certain culinary heritage. Pasta comes in different shapes for a reason. There are benefits to both dried industrial pasta and the fresh homemade varieties. And the classic pasta dishes are classic in part because of how well the sauce marries to the shape and variety of the pasta.

Sure, you can be a rebel and decide to break the rules. But if you never knew the rules in the first place, then you aren’t a rebel, you’re just a jerk.

So let’s talk about a few of those rules.

To be clear, these aren’t my rules. The following comes largely from Marcella Hazan and her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I’ve recommended this book several times and if you don’t have it, dammit, go out and get it. Marcella is my Italian Goddess of Fussy and the world is less delicious place now that she is no longer with us.

So what does she say? Before even choosing the shape, you’ve got to understand the pros and cons of dried and fresh pasta and how they meld with sauces. Here’s the guiding principle:

Factory-made pasta carries sauce firmly and boldly; homemade pasta absorbs it deeply. Good, fresh pasta made at home has a gossamer touch on the palate, it feels light and buoyant in the mouth. Most olive oil sauces obliterate its fine texture, making it slick, and strong flavors deaden it. Its most pleasing match is with subtly constituted sauces, be they with seafood, meat, or vegetable, generally based on butter and often enriched by cream or milk.

One might not think of Bolognese being one of those subtly constituted sauces, but it totally is. It starts with butter and aromatic vegetables. Then the fatty meat gets simmered in milk. Then it’s simmered in a fragrant white wine. At the end the sauce gets a little bit of tomato. But there is a lot of nuance to a well made Bolognese, and it screams for the broad canvas of homemade tagliatelle.

But let’s say you don’t have the time to make your own fresh pasta and there isn’t a quality producer of the stuff where you live. Even Marcella makes a case for a short factory made pasta with plenty of nooks and crannies that will hold this sauce well. On factory made pasta shapes Marcella lays out the following wisdom:

Spaghettini, thin spaghetti, is usually the best vehicle for an olive oil-based seafood sauce. Many tomato sauces…work better with thicker spaghetti, in some cases with the hollow strands known as bucatini or perciatelli. Meat sauces or other chunky sauces nest best in larger hollow tubes such as rigatoni and penne, or in the cupped shape of conchiglie. Fusilli are marvelous with a dense, creamy sauce…which clings to all its twists and curls.

The thinnest of the homemade pasta, capelli d’angelo or angel hair should be reserved for broth. Fettuccine is almost synonymous with all’Alfredo, the classic butter and parmesan sauce that has been terribly bastardized over the years. Marcella has a peppers and sausage sauce that was intended for broad pappardelle.

There are hundreds of classic sauce and pasta combinations. Detailing them all could be a full-time blog in and of itself. But let me leave you with just a few:

– Tomato sauce with onion and butter on gnocchi
– Penne with mushroom sauce (with ham and tomato)
– Eggplant and ricotta sauce, sicilian style over ruote di carro (aka cartwheels)
– Shells with peas, bacon and ricotta sauce
– Bolognese on fresh tagliatelle
– Spaghetti carbonara
– Fettuccine (fresh) all’Alfredo

Now that you know, keep your eyes open. Maybe you won’t find it quite so jarring to see penne with vodka sauce, but perhaps it will raise a red flag and alert you to lapses in a chef’s judgement. Or maybe you’ll even find some places that make their own pasta and pair them with well-matched sauces. If that’s the case, please rush back and tell me at once.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2014 1:37 pm

    This is so interesting to me! I have a few catered functions this week and asked a ‘chef’ friend to help me during his mornings off. (We can talk about the liberal use of the title ‘chef’ another time)? We got into a conversation about the applications of boiling, braising, steaming, sweating, and poaching and why its important to know each technique and the where/when/why
    they are applied. I have seen cooks boil stew beef in a pot of water to break it down, rather then braise. Why?

  2. April 30, 2014 6:18 pm

    You really ARE FUSSY!! But I think that’s GREAT and necessary to hold our culinary feet to the fire. Happy FB birthday! Don’t stop and don’t ever change!

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