A return to spaghetti days
United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
There was a time when pasta wasn’t pasta – it was spaghetti, no matter what the shape (although the shape was usually, well, spaghetti-shaped). You ate spaghetti with a tomato-based sauce, not with truffle oil or rare mushrooms or squid.
In some Italian-American families, spaghetti was called macaroni, and the sauce was called “gravy.” And that’s what you ate. Spaghetti with sauce; macaroni with gravy.
It’s easy to be nostalgic for days of yore, but we really wouldn’t want the clock turned back – at least not in the kitchen. In the decades since “spaghetti” became “pasta,” we’ve been introduced to more noodle shapes than we dreamed existed; shapes like ears (orecchietti), bowties (farfalle), bells (campanelle) and Rastafarian hairdos (fusilli).
We’ve slurped sauces made with once-exotic ingredients like basil and pine nuts, pancetta, prosciutto and porcini mushrooms. In short, we’ve dined well.
But every once in a while, I get a craving for old-school spaghetti. I want it cooked and tossed with butter and grated Parmesan cheese, or dripping with olive oil and garlic – the classic combo called “aglio e olio.” Or in a simple tomato sauce.
I looked where I always look for good Italian food – to the cookbooks of Lidia Matticchio Bastianich – and found the very dish to slake my craving in her newest book, “Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy” (Knopf, 2009).
This simple dish of spaghetti tossed with oil, garlic and baked tomatoes is lovely now, while there’s still a chill in the air, but I can’t wait for summer, when the tomatoes are garden fresh. It is from the region of Basilicata, which Bastianich locates “in the instep of the foot of Italy.”
SPAGHETTI WITH BAKED CHERRY TOMATOES
3 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
1⁄2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄3 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the cook pot
1⁄4 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes
1 pound spaghetti
10 plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, shredded
1⁄2 cup freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano), plus more for passing
4 ounces ricotta or ricotta salata
Center a rack in the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with baking parchment.
Toss the tomato halves in a large bowl with 3 tablespoons of the oil. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs, salt and pepper flakes, and toss to coat evenly. Spread the tomatoes in a single layer in the prepared pan. Bake until shriveled and lightly caramelized but not dried out, about 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill an 8-quart pot with salted water and heat to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes are nearly done, drop the spaghetti into the pot, stir and return the water to a boil. As soon as the pasta is cooking, pour the remaining oil into a 12-inch skillet set over medium-high heat, and scatter in the sliced garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until sizzling and lightly colored, then ladle in about 2 cups of the pasta cooking water and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring up the garlic. Let half the water evaporate, then lower the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and keep the sauce barely simmering.
As soon as the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven.
When the spaghetti is cooked but still firm (al dente), use tongs to lift it from the water, drain it for a moment, and drop it into the skillet, still over low heat. Toss the spaghetti quickly with the garlic and parsley sauce in the pan, then slide the baked tomatoes on top. Scatter the basil shreds over all, and toss everything together until the spaghetti is evenly dressed. Turn off the heat, sprinkle on the grated cheese, and toss once more.
Mound the spaghetti in a warmed serving bowl. Dollop the ricotta all over the top (or, if using ricotta salata, shred it), and serve immediately, with extra grated cheese on the side.