Besides pizza, the quintessential food everyone associates with Italy is pasta. If a visit to Italy is in your foreseeable future, or you are cooking for an Italian or you just want the inside scoop on how Italians eat pasta then read on!
This post is not a dis on how us Americans make and eat pasta. The United States is a melting pot of cultures which means we are a melting pot of cuisines. It’s quite normal that traditional dishes that were brought to the U.S. evolve and change over time. That being said, when I moved to Italy and starting dating my (now) Italian husband I thought it would a good idea to learn how to cook and make pasta the traditional Italian way. You know how the old saying goes…”When in Rome?” Well, in this case, it was literally when in Rome!
After several years of learning how to cook pasta the traditional Italian way, I have discovered, sometimes the hard was, that these are the top ten cardinal sins of cooking pasta; at least according to Italians and my husband:
1. Breaking long pasta in half to fit into your pot of boiling water.
2. Adding oil to your pasta walk to keep it from sticking together. Makes sense right? At one time in my life, I thought I was being super “chefy” by adding a little oil to my pasta water only to come to find out that by doing this all of your sauce slips right off the pasta instead of sticking to it. Instead, add a little cooking water from the pasta to your sauce before combining it with your pasta of choice.
3. Rinsing your pasta after it is cooked. Yes, I was also guilty of doing this. To be honest, I am not really sure why I thought this was a good idea or where I “learned” to do this, but when you do this it actually washes all of the starch off of the pasta having the same effect as if you put oil in your water; the sauce won’t adhere to the pasta.
4. Eating meatballs on top of your spaghetti. In Italy, the meatballs are simmered in a tomato sauce, but eaten separately. Italians will make pasta and combine it with the tomato sauce and have this as their “primi” or pasta course and then move on to the meat course or the meatballs.5. Not salting your pasta water enough. This is the only chance you get to enhance the actual flavor of the pasta so no skimping.
6. Twirling your pasta with a spoon. Now, I ALWAYS did this before I moved to Italy. Heck, I thought I was being super Italian by doing this only to come to find out that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The first time I went with my husband to visit his Mom we had pasta (of course). She saw that I was struggling eating my pasta and she asked me if I would like a spoon. Looking around the table, I saw no one else was using one, so I politely said “Non, grazie.” The trick to eating pasta is twirling it with your fork directly on the plate. And don’t worry if you slurp a little or bite off the pasta…it just means you are enjoying it!
8. For the love of god, NEVER and I mean NEVER overcook your pasta. I have definitely come a long way, but I am not 100 % there yet. It is important to note that al dente to us Americans is definitely not al dente to Italians. When they say toothsome meaning it should have a bite…it really should have a bite. I have also come to realize that when you cook pasta al dente in not only gives your pasta dish more texture, but the pasta actually tastes like something.
9. ALWAYS mix your pasta and sauce together so that it is well combined. Add a little pasta water to the sauce before you toss everything together and it will adhere much better to the pasta. The pretty little photos you see with a mound of sauce perched on top of bare pasta…No!
10. Last, but not least, there are certain pasta sauces that go with certain pasta shapes. For example, you would never serve pasta carbonara with a short pasta. Typically long ribbons, like tagliatelle or pappardelle work best with rich meat sauces. Twists like fussilli or strozzapreti go well with lighter, smoother sauces which will cling to the twists such as pesto. You get my drift.
I can say with complete certainty that I am guilty of all of the above at one point or another in my life; much to the dismay of my Italian husband. He has, though, been extremely patient with my learning curve and I must say since moving to Italy, I have made quite a bit of progress. Enough so that I now have the confidence to actually cook pasta for his Mom when she comes to visit…and that’s saying a lot!