Sauce or gravy? Oregano or basil? Spoon or no spoon?
Even for those of us from Italian families, the quest to cook “authentic” Italian food involves matters of taste (very important) and protocol (not nearly as important, but fun to argue about), and the fine points of cooking methods and terminology can set cooks to debating for hours (preferably over a glass of chianti and a bowl of olives). Italy was a conglomeration of city-states, rather than a unified country, for centuries, and regional pride still plays a part in Italian identity; one way it displays itself is in how food is cooked and served in different parts of the nation–and by extension, how American families whose roots reside in those areas prepare and serve their traditional foods.
Recently, The Splendid Table website posted an interview with Maureen Fant, a cookbook author who has lived in Italy for the past 35 years. The interviewer succeeded in pinning Ms. Fant down on what we Americans must do in order to cook, serve, and eat Italian food the “right” way. Never, ever use a spoon to help you twirl your spaghetti, she cautioned. Never eat your salad first–it comes after the main course.
I enjoyed the interview and the perspective of a chef who lives full-time in La Bella Italia. But here’s the thing: I grew up surrounded by my father’s Sicilian family, all of whom made food a big part of their lives. The men, too: my Sicilian grandfather, who lived with us, loved to cook but made such a mess that a second kitchen had been installed in the basement to contain him. He and his daughter, my Aunt Lucy (whose given name was Elizabetta Maria), taught my French Canadian mother how to cook like an Italian. And we lived in Copiague, Long Island–at the time an Italian Catholic stronghold. Nearly everyone’s name ended in a vowel. The streets were named Marconi, Vespucci, Verrazano, Garibaldi–and Pio XI Street, after the early 20th century’s Italian Pope. Everybody’s grandmother was making meatballs on Sunday.
So yes–I was raised among the people who know their pasta and their olive oil. Even amidst this seemingly homogenous bunch who all hailed from the same boot-shaped corner of the globe, though, differences in the kitchen were many. My family called the rich tomato mixture “sauce”; my boyfriend’s family, also Sicilian, called it “gravy.” We ate our salad before the main course; my cousin’s family ate it after. Elizabetta Maria taught me to put basil and oregano in my marinara sauce; my cooking-enthusiast friend Frank called that sacrilege and declared that oregano is used only in meat sauces. My whole extended family twirled their spaghettini with the help of spoons; I stopped long ago, but they still do it.
So even among the most authentic of authentic Italians and Italian-Americans, there is often no “right” way to cook and eat. That said, here’s the recipe for the simple and delicious marinara sauce I learned to make as a young child, and which I taught my daughters to make when they were just children, too. It has oregano in it. You’ve been warned.
Pasta With Marinara Sauce Bresciano
enough good quality, extra-virgin olive oil to film the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes*
small handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped
healthy sprinkle of dried oregano
splash of red wine, preferably Italian
freshly ground black pepper
sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes
1 lb. of pasta, your choice of shape
Fill a large pot halfway with water; salt the water and set the pot to boil on high heat. You’ll cook the pasta in this.
While the water is coming to a boil, film the bottom of a medium saucepan with the olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Saute the garlic in the oil until it barely begins to turn golden. Pour in the tomatoes (Use caution; if the pot is too small, the comparatively cold tomatoes will cause the hot oil to spatter, potentially burning you and definitely making a mess of your stove. Use the pot lid as a handy shield if necessary.)
Add the basil, oregano, wine, salt, and black pepper; add the crushed red pepper flakes, adjusting for the level of spiciness you prefer. Stir to blend. Cover and let simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
By the time you’ve made the sauce, the water is probably boiling; toss in a pound of whatever kind of pasta you love and boil it, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. (My favorite is capellini–angel hair. My children are wild for rotini.) Follow the timing directions on the package (different pastas take different lengths of time to cook). I can tell my pasta is done just by the feel of it in the water as I stir it–if olive oil doesn’t run through your veins, though, taste a piece for doneness. It should be al dente – “to the teeth.” Not hard, but definitely not mushy.
When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and put it back in the empty pot; drizzle in a little olive oil and mix it around, to prevent it from sticking together. Pile each serving into a shallow bowl and top with sauce. If you like, grate some good-quality pecorino romano (what my family uses) or parmegiano-reggiano cheese on top. Don’t you dare use the shaky cheese in the cardboard container.
Serve with a salad, before or after. And some olives, and some crusty Italian bread. Maybe a few slices of hard cheese and salumi. Food of the gods.
*I use Hunts brand tomatoes–though they’re not imported, they consistently come in at the top of blind taste tests, and sure enough, I like the consistency and the taste. My sister, however, swears by Tuttorosso, and her sauce is mighty good, too. A recent taste test on public radio named Muir Glen Organic as the best; I went out and bought them and bleah, I didn’t like them at all. Neither did the kids. So try a few brands till you identify your favorite.
And lest you think the regional differences among Italians and Italian-Americans are a thing of the past, consider that last December, while I was shopping at the local market for our traditional Christmas seafood feast, the older gentleman in front of me in the cashier’s line noticed the cans of scungilli** in my cart. “You’re Italian,” he declared, pointing to the telltale cans. “From where?” I knew he understood that I was born in the US–he was inquiring about my ancestors. “From Sicily,” I replied. “My grandparents were from Trapani.” He nodded. “How are you going to prepare the scungill’?” As I detailed the sauteeing and saucing of the briny morsels, his wife joined him, carrying a couple of fat eggplants. “Honey, she’s Italian. She’s making scungill’ for Christmas,” he told her. She turned to me, looked me up and down. She didn’t seem as friendly as her spouse. “Where are your people from?” she asked. “Sicily–Trapani,” I repeated. “Oh. Sicilian,” she responded, with a decided lack of enthusiasm. “And where are your people from?” I countered. “We’re Napolitan,” she answered, giving the word its Italian pronunciation. I just smiled. I’m way too American to begin to try and divine the fine, yet distinctive, lines that might separate Naples from Trapani. And I was way too eager to get home and start my sauce. Otherwise known as gravy.
**Here in Florida, scungilli is known as conch, and is something you make into fritters. Though not Italian, they’re mighty tasty.
Photo credit: By Micaela & Massimo (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons