The pot in which you boil the water and cook any pasta must
be big enough. Pastas need to boil in plentiful water. This is the first mistake most
foreigners do: they put too little water because they think that it is just the same, and
so they will save time.
When should you put salt in the water? Italians don't agree on this point, like on
many things about how to cook pasta (and especially the sauce). There are many point of
views, and sometimes you have the impression that every Italian has a personal opinion,
which is very typical of the Italians in general. On the other hand the Italian cuisine
follows a traditional outlook of life and very specific customs, rules and principles.
Curious isn't it?
I (Mauro - son) prefer to put the salt just before the water boils, because if you put it
before it makes the pots become brown. Half tablespoon of salt for every 100 gr. of pasta
(the usual quantity for one person) should be enough. Then of course you put the pasta
(spaghetti or other sort) and you must stir: continuously for the first minute or two, and
after every now and then (in Italian: "girare la pasta"). If you don't do it the
pasta pieces will stick between them, and to the pot.
Every type of pasta has its cooking time. Generally it is
indicated in the package, but don't take it as word of the Bible. The Italians consider
the correct procedure that of evaluating when it is "al dente" (literally
"to the tooth").
If you know this expression Italians will have a high opinion of you. If you don't, they
will think that you know little about pasta, and remember that the Italians, unlike many
other populations, are not nationalists, but there are two things or three about which
they believe they are the best and, conversely, about which they think that the others
hardly understand anything. These things are: pasta, caffè (coffee), and pizza. If you
will ask a pasta "al dente" you will impress them a lot.
So when is pasta "al dente"? At a certain stage when it boils, as you know, it
becomes a bit whitish and softer. At this point you must take a piece with a fork, and
taste it using your incisors (so you understand the expression now). With the incisors you
must perceive that the pasta is soft outside and hard inside, *never* all soft. In the
latter case it would be "scotta" (overcooked), and never offer it to an Italian,
as it would be like offering a charred pancake to an Anglo-American, or a hot beer to a
German. If you have doubts, it is better that it remains a bit raw rather than
"scotta". Some Italians think that it is "al dente" only when it is a
bit raw (I agree with them).
At this point you must take the water away using a
colander, without insisting too much in taking it all away. Especially, *don't rinse it*
(i.e. don't wash with water)! Generally the Anglo-Americans and the Northern
Europeans do it. Don't! It changes abruptly the temperature and it interposes a water film
so that the pasta will not absorb the sauce. This is a technical explanation. To the
Italians it will simply seem something barbaric. The ones who rinse pasta say that they
want "to take the starch away". This consideration is wrong and not really
intelligent: pasta is mostly made of starch - which is healthy!
As usual, there are many opinions and family traditions.
Every family has its own say. I tried many variants, and made some experiments too.
Finally I decided that my mother's recipe was the best. Here it is:
- the tomatoes (app. 800 grams - nearly two pounds - or two little cans for 4 persons)
must be peeled. *I prefer the ones sold in bottles where the pulp is very visible. Do not
use the "passata di pomodori", which is basically the same but with filtered
tomato pulp. Buy good brands: Cirio, Star, Valfrutta, or your sauce will be tasteless
(just like with the pasta: buy the best brands: Voiello, Barilla, Buitoni, De Cecco and,
in general, the Southern Italian ones).
Sometimes I add a bit of concentrated tomato to make the sauce smoother.
- put the garlic, by *cutting into little slices* one clove.
- *do the same with the (a quarter or one half) onion - my mom does not use it -. Cut it
the "Italian way", i.e. into slices while you have it in your hands, which is
better than the "French way", i.e. into very fine slices on a cutting board.
- you should also add 2/3 (two thirds) teaspoon of sugar, which contrasts the acidity of
the tomatoes. Most cooks forget this essential detail!
Let everything cook at low fire, covering - although not
entirely - with a lid, and stirring every now and then, for about 7-9 minutes. *One minute
or two before turning the fire off put the basil leaves in the pot. My mother puts it at
the beginning. Others put it at the end when the fire is turned off. I belong to the
majority who believes, as mentioned, that one must put basil just before turning the fire
At this point let it rest a minute. *I put salt at the end and no olive oil. My mom puts
the salt at the beginning, and a splash of extra-virgin (and possibly Umbrian or Ligurian)
olive oil (not too much!).
Entries marked with *are my (little) variants from my mom's recipe. The brilliant idea she
has is to cook the tomatoes as above mentioned. Most people put the olive oil in the pot,
together with the garlic and onion (and some add celery), and they brown them before
adding the tomatoes. I think that the sauce cooked this way is heavy and not as good.
Mothers are always right, aren't they? I prefer as mentioned not to put olive oil, not
even at the end, my mom is more normal as she puts it after it is cooked. Then of course
serve the sauce on the pasta (don't put too much), and add the blessed grated Parmesan
cheese ("Parmigiano" in Italian). Sometimes other cheeses are preferred, like
"Pecorino romano" (salty and tasty), "Ricotta salata" (salted dry
ricotta, I love it), particularly if you add fried zucchini slices, or fried aubergine
slices on top of the pasta (which is then called "Pasta alla Norma"). Some
prefer to add grated Grana Padano (similar to Parmigiano, but with a less sharp taste).
BUON APPETITO - HAVE A NICE MEAL!