One of the big surprises for an American visiting Italy for the first time: pasta and its many forms and finishes.
I hesitate to use the word “sauces” for fear of conjuring the image of jars of store-bought spaghetti sauce, or the thick tomato sauce my uncle used to serve when he owned a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska in the 1960s. Dishes the size of serving platters, piled with spaghetti, a few baseball-sized meatballs, all buried in a thick sludge of his home-cooked tomato sauce. Enough for a family of four, if you planned to have a little dessert.
Tasty, yes. But Italian? Not so much. I saw no pasta in Italy remotely like it.
Instead, the traditional second course of Italian meals, pasta is served in more modest portions, keeping in mind that the antipasto has already taken the edge off your hunger, and the main meat course is yet to follow. And pasta is served with a variety of vegetables, bits of meat, nuts, oils—often there is not a tomato in sight!
Soon after I came home from Italy in 2004, I bought a cookbook called Four Seasons Pasta: A Year of Inspired Recipes in the Italian Tradition, written by Janet Fletcher.
Thank you, Janet! I cooked from her recipes two or three times a weeks, allowing me to savor my Italian experience for months longer than I might have without it. I enjoyed things I would never have put with pasta before. Artichokes, peas, beans, radicchio, arugula, kale.
Janet Fletcher acknowledges the help of the Peduzzi family of Abruzzo, and many of the recipes originate in the Italian south. Check out more about her recipes and books at www.janetfletcher.com.
One of my favorites, perfect at this time of year, is Spaghetti con Asparagi ed Uova, or Spaghetti with Asparagus, Fried Eggs, Black Pepper, and Pecorino. This one-dish meal serves two.
1 pound asparagus
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ pound spaghetti
3 tablespoons freshly grated aged pecorino cheese, or toasted bread crumbs, plus more for topping.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.
Holding an asparagus spear in both hands, bend the spear gently. It will break naturally at the point at which the spear becomes tough. Repeat with the remaining asparagus. Discard the tough ends. Cut the trimmed spears on the diagonal into ½-inch pieces, leaving the tips whole. Put the asparagus in a baking dish or on a baking sheet big enough to hold them in a single layer. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake until sizzling and tender, about 15 minutes.
While the asparagus is baking, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. About 2 minutes before the pasta is done, heat a skillet over moderately high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is hot, break in the eggs, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook, without turning, just until the whites are barely firm. The yolks should remain runny.
Drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot. Add the asparagus and any oil in the baking dish, then add the eggs and any oil in the skillet. Toss well, breaking up the eggs as you toss. The runny yolks will coat the spaghetti with a creamy sauce. Add the cheese or bread crumbs, then add a few grindings of black pepper. Toss again and serve immediately in warm bowls, topping with additional cheese or bread crumbs.
I’d love to see comments from anybody who gives this a try!