Every pasta shape tells a story, and so does the sauce

Ragu alla bolognese (see recipe below). Traditionally, this sauce is mainly eaten with tagliatelle, sometimes with ...
Ragu alla bolognese (see recipe below). Traditionally, this sauce is mainly eaten with tagliatelle, sometimes with rigatoni or conchiglie, but never with spaghetti. Photo: Anson Smart

Lucio Galletto has been making pasta in Australia for 35 years. In a new edition of his book The Art of Pasta, co-author David Dale explains what noodles tell us of history and language.

There's a playful poetry in the way Italians have named their favourite foodstuff, which makes writing a book about pasta a sheer delight.

Not only do you get to eat magnificently as you test the recipes, but you get to smile constantly at the wit of the unknown geniuses who decided that discs of dough pressed by the thumb would be called "little ears" (orecchiette); flattened thin noodles would be "little tongues" (linguine); bendy tubes would be "elbows" (gomiti); and tiny hemispheres would be "flying saucers" (dischi volanti); and who set a trap for non-Italians by using penne ("quills") for pointy pasta, which needs to be spelt and pronounced carefully in order not to be confused with pene ("penises").

Art of Pasta by David Dale.
Art of Pasta by David Dale. Photo: supplied

The playfulness continues with the way different endings can change the meaning of names. Adding "-etti" or "-ini" or "-elli" to a plural word means a smaller version of the thing named, while adding "oni" means a larger version. So if you begin with the word spago, which means "rope", and add "-etti", you get strings – spaghetti. If you mean thick strings, you say spaghettoni. If you mean thin strings, you say spaghettini. And if you mean a very very thin string, you say capelli d'angelo ("angel's hair"). Unless you'd prefer worms – vermicelli.

Then there's the tortuous path to cannelloni. The Italian word for cane (as in sugar cane) is canna. Enlarge the cane by adding "-oli" and you get a pastry tube that can be fried and filled with spiced ricottacannoli. Add "ella" and you get the word for cinnamon (canella), because the cinnamon bark looks like a thin stick of cane.

Every shape tells a story and so does every sauce. Arrabbiata means "angry", because it contains so much chilli. Carbonara was supposedly created by the carbonari – 19th century revolutionaries who met in coal cellars to plan the unification of Italy, and ate bacon and eggs with their pasta. Puttanesca comes from puttana, which means a loose woman – either because the olives and capers give the sauce an exciting flavour, or because it can be quickly thrown together by a wife who arrives from her lover's house just minutes before her husband gets home for dinner.

The discovery of ancient recipes demolishes the myth that pasta was brought to Italy from China.

The chance to do that kind of eating and laughing again was good enough reason for Lucio and I to take up an offer from Penguin Random House to add a bunch of new recipes and stories to the 2018 edition of our 2011 book The Art of Pasta.

The recipes in the new edition take us from the snowy top of the Italian boot (spaetzle on the Austrian border) to the sunny tip of the Italian toe (Calabrian gnocchi with chilli and almonds). We travelled back in time to 160BC, when Cato the Elder wrote about a sweet version of lasagna he called "placenta" (sauced with honey, cheese and bay leaves, you'll be relieved to hear).

And we took an educated guess at what Michelangelo might have meant when he wrote about a kind of ravioli called tortegli around the year 1500 (no tomatoes, obviously, but likely to have contained such Renaissance favourites as figs, sage, saffron, sultanas and walnuts).

Advertisement

The discovery of the ancient recipes demolishes the myth that pasta was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo in the 13th century. We report in the book that fresh pasta (like laganum) probably originated with the Greeks about 2500 years ago, while dried pasta (like maccheroni) was first manufactured and exported by Arabs living in Sicily in the 10th century.

Back in the 1950s, an industrious bureaucrat in Italy's department of agriculture began a survey to establish how many different types of pasta the nation was eating. The census team stopped counting when they got to 600.

Since then, many more names for pasta shapes have appeared. We don't claim to have covered all 600+ permutations, but we hope the revised edition does justice to the classics.

Ragu alla bolognese - classic bolognaise sauce

"When you see something that comes from Emilia Romagna, you must bow, because it deserves it!" So says Pellegrino Artusi, the patriarch of Italian cooking, in his wonderful cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well). And I certainly bow in front of this delicious ragu, so rich, delicate and elegant – and the basis, in bastardised form, of Australia's adopted national dish, the spag bol. Traditionally, Bolognese sauce is mainly eaten with tagliatelle, sometimes with rigatoni or conchiglie, but never with spaghetti. It is also a vital element of a Bolognese-style lasagne.

Of course, there are many versions, even in Bologna itself, so in 1982 a delegation of the Accademia Italiana delle Cucina confined the ingredients to beef, pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, tomato paste, broth, white wine and milk or cream. However, I find that quite boring – and, being a bit of a rebel, here I give you the Bolognese that my mother used to make, which includes three kinds of meat, mushrooms and chicken livers. There are a few things that everybody agrees with, though: onion, carrot and celery in equal quantities; no garlic and no fresh or tinned tomatoes – only tomato paste.

In Bologna, they say that you make ragu col naso ("with your nose"), meaning that you do not use cooking times. From the smell alone, you should know when the soffritto is ready, when the meat has browned enough, when the wine has evaporated, when to add the tomato paste and, finally, when it is ready. But that experience comes with time. LUCIO GALLETTO

INGREDIENTS

60g dried porcini mushrooms

50g butter

100ml extra virgin olive oil

100g pancetta

100g onions, finely chopped

100g carrots, finely chopped

100g celery, finely chopped

4 chicken livers (about 75g), cleaned of membrane and finely chopped

300g minced veal

300g minced beef

2 mild pork sausages, skin removed

2 sprigs each of rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano

125 ml dry white wine

3 bay leaves

3 tbsp triple-concentrated tomato paste

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

150 ml full-cream milk

​METHOD

1. Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in warm water for 15 minutes, then drain, pat dry with paper towels and chop finely. Discard the soaking water.

2. Place the butter and olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan and place it over medium heat. When the oil is hot and the butter has melted, add the pancetta, onion, carrot and celery. Mix thoroughly and saute for about 15 minutes, stirring most of the time, until the vegetables have become soft and the flavours have become one. Remember that particular smell!

3. Now add the porcini, chicken livers, minced meats and sausage meat and stir everything together. Saute for about 15 minutes, stirring regularly, to give the meats time to brown nicely, and to let the water they release evaporate. While the meats are browning, wrap the herb sprigs in a piece of muslin and tye it securely; if you don't have muslin, simply tie the herb sprigs together in a bundle with string.

4. When the meats have all browned nicely, stir in the wine, then add the herbs and bay leaves. Let the wine evaporate for about five minutes. As the wine evaporates, the fumes will permeate the herbs and transmit the aroma into the meats. Try to memorise the smell when the wine has completely evaporated!

5. Now add the tomato paste and 250 millilitres of water, season with salt and pepper, and mix everything thoroughly. Turn the heat down to low and cover the pan with a lid, leaving it slightly ajar to allow the steam to escape. Let the sauce simmer very gently for 1 hour, stirring from time to time and adding more water as necessary.

6 At this point, add the milk and cook for another 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning; discard the bay leaves and herbs. Your ragù alla Bolognese is ready.

Serves 8-10

Linguine with swordfish recipe from The Art of Pasta by Lucio Galletto and David Dale for Good Food extract.

Linguine with swordfish. Photo: Anson Smart

Linguine al pesce spada - linguine with swordfish

In the seas around Sicily, June is the peak season for catching swordfish. One year I was lucky enough to visit Lipari (one of the Aeolian Islands, which lie to the north of Sicily) during that month, and the atmosphere in the village was amazing: there was optimism and serenity all around, just as there is before the harvest of a wonderful crop.

The people knew that after months of hard work and little income, they were finally going to see some money to help them through the next few months. The children would follow their fathers to the docks in the morning and watch them climb into their boats and disappear over the horizon. Then they'd be back in the afternoon, this time with their mothers, when the fishermen were returning like heroes with their boats full of huge flopping fish. The restaurateurs of the islands were also there, waiting to bid for the best fish, which they'd put on a table in the middle of their restaurant and slice to order.

I was staying with a family of fishermen who rented a room in their house to visitors, and that is where I first came across this way of serving linguine. LUCIO GALLETTO

INGREDIENTS

300g mixed-colour cherry tomatoes

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

400g swordfish, cut into 1cm cubes

2 red chillies, thinly sliced

large handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves,

finely chopped small handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped

sea salt

400g linguine

​METHOD

1. Rinse the tomatoes, pat them dry and cut them into quarters. Set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan over low heat, add the garlic and cook for one minute, stirring with a wooden spoon. Increase the heat to high and add the swordfish and chilli. Sear the fish on all sides for about one minute, stirring it through the oil and garlic with a wooden spoon.

3. Turn the heat down to medium, add the tomato and cook, stirring regularly, for about eight minutes. Stir in the parsley and basil, season with salt and cook for 1 minute more, then take off the heat.

4. Cook the linguine in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving a little of the pasta cooking water.

5. Put the frying pan back over low heat and add the linguine. Toss well for about one minute, adding a tablespoon or two of the reserved cooking water if the sauce seems too dry. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

The Art of Pasta by David Dale and Lucio Galleto is published by Penguin RandomHouse ($39.99), photos by Anson Smart.