The Campania region and other parts of Southern Italy was (and in general still is) the stronghold of dried pastas made from hard (durum) wheat. The north favored fresh and often stuffed pastas made with soft wheat or a mixture of the two types. Eggs were normally added to fresh but not to dried pastas. Dried pastas once dominated the export trade because they could be stored for extended periods. Due to development of vacuum packaging, fresh Italian pastas are now widely available on foreign markets.
Pasta in its innumerable forms and uses is inextricably woven into the fabric of Italian life. This food product has played a vital role in the country’s diet (and imagination) at least since around 1299 when Marco Polo was apparently released from wartime captivity in Genoa and the story of his travels, written with the collaboration of Rustichello of Pisa, began to circulate. In the extant texts, Polo says he saw the Chinese eating vermicelli. He does not explain what vermicelli is, apparently assuming his readers would know what he meant. He does not say he brought any pasta back with him from the East and he gives no recipes for the making of pasta or information on how it should be cooked and served. Some experts argue that the Arabs introduced pasta in southern Sicily around the beginning of the second millennium. Others say the Etruscans were making and consuming some types of pasta more than a thousand years earlier. No doubt pasta was “invented” numerous times in many places but the Italians have done more than most peoples to develop and exploit it.
In general, Italian pasta is made from wheat, although buckwheat (grano saraceno) is extensively used in Lombardy’s Valtellina and other regions of northern Italy.In the past, each area of the country had its own types of pasta and its own ways of preparing them.
Modern transportation systems have expanded distribution so that specialties of one area have spread to others or throughout Italy.
There is a great variety of Neapolitan pastas. Pasta was not invented in Naples, but one of the best grades available is found quite close by, in Gragnano, a few kilometers from the capital. It was here also that the industrial production of pasta started, with the techniques to dry and preserve it. The main ingredient is durum wheat, harder to manipulate to soft wheat, so the industrial production had greater success than in northern Italy, where home-made pasta is more popular. Traditionally in Naples pasta must be cooked “al dente”, while soft pasta is not tolerated.
The most popular variety of pasta, besides the classic spaghetti and linguine, are the paccheri and the ziti, long pipe-shaped pasta, broken by hand before cooking and usually topped with Neapolitan ragù. Pasta with vegetables is usually also prepared with pasta mista (pasta ammescata in Neapolitan language), which is now produced industrially as a distinct variety of pasta, but which was once sold cheaply, made up of broken pieces of different kinds of pasta.
Hand-made gnocchi, prepared with flour and potatoes, have become a popular method of overcoming the Neapolitan disdain for potatoes. In 1949 W. H. Auden wrote Igor Stravinsky from Forio in Ischia, “Forio thinks us crazy because we eat potatoes, which are to them a mark of abject poverty.” In reporting this, Francis Steegmuller, a longtime resident of Naples, remarks on the French-inspired gattò, in which “the potato complement is nearly overwhelmed by cheese, ham and other ingredients”. Some of the more modern varieties of pasta, like the scialatielli, are also becoming popular.
From the classic “pummarola” (tomato sauce) to the simplest aglio e uoglio (garlic and oil), down to a wide variety of sauces, with vegetables or seafood, up to the ragù, southern Italy’s creativity enhances its pasta dishes.
Pasta dishes of the poor – Cuisine traditionally attributed to the poor often mixes pasta with legumes. The most popular are: pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans), sometimes enriched with pork rind (cotiche), pasta e ceci (pasta with chickpeas), pasta e lenticchie (pasta with lentils), pasta e piselli (pasta with peas). Nowadays cicerchie (Lathyrus sativus) have become very rare. Similarly to legumes, other vegetables are associated with pasta, like pasta e patate (pasta with potatoes), pasta e cavolfiore (pasta with cauliflower), pasta e zucca (pasta with pumpkin). The most traditional cooking method consists in cooking the condiments first, for instance, pan fry garlic with oil, then add steamed beans, or fry onion and celery, then add potatoes cut into little dices; then, after frying, water is added, brought to boiling temperature, salted, and pasta is added and stirred frequently. While cooking with all the other ingredients, pasta does not lose its starch, which would have lost if cooked separately in salty water and then drained. Cooking pasta together with vegetables makes the sauce more creamy (“azzeccato”), and is a way of preparing pasta distinct from the tradition of “noble” cuisine, which prepares similar dishes in a way more similar to broth or soups, adding pasta after cooking it separately. One more nutritious dish in the cuisine of the poor is pasta simply cooked with cheese and eggs stracciatella (pasta caso e ova). Spaghetti, dressed with tomato sauce, black olives from Gaeta and capers are called spaghetti alla puttanesca. An imaginative recipe was created on the tables of the poor, where the expensive shellfishes were missing: spaghetti, dressed with cherry tomatoes sauce, garlic, oil and parsley are called spaghetti alle vongole fujute (spaghetti with escaped clams), where clams are present only in the imagination of the people eating the dish.
Frittata with macaroni – The frittata can be prepared with pasta leftovers, either with tomato sauce or white. Pasta, cooked al dente is mixed with raw scrambled egg and cheese, then pan fried. It can be enriched with many different ingredients. Must be cooked on both sides, flipped with the help of a plate. If well cooked, it is compact, and can be cut into slices. It can be eaten during outdoor lunches.
Richer pasta dishes – The aristocratic cuisine used pasta for elaborate recipes, like the timballi, rarely used in everyday food.
Richer sauces, more elaborate than the vegetable pasta dishes mentioned above, that are frequently used to dress pasta include:
* The Bolognese sauce, vaguely inspired by the ragù emiliano, prepared with minced carrot and onion, ground beef and tomato
* The Genovese sauce, not inspired by Genoa in spite of the name, but prepared with meat browned with abundant onions and other aromas
With the Neapolitan ragù the most traditionally used pasta are the ziti, long macaroni, that are broken into shorter pieces by hand before cooking. The Neapolitan ragù is also used, together with fiordilatte, to dress the gnocchi alla sorrentina, then cooked in oven in a small single-portion clay pot (pignatiello).
Seafood pasta dishes, Spaghetti alle vongole, Spaghetti alle vongole, Spaghetti, linguine and paccheri match very well with fish and seafood. From this union come the dishes typical of important lunches or dinners (weddings, in particular). The most typical ones are:
* Spaghetti alle vongole or other shellfishes (clams, mussels, and other)
* Paccheri con la zuppa di pesce (scorfani, cuocci, tracine and more)
* Pasta con i calamari, with squid sauce, cooked with white wine
There are many more varieties, for instance spaghetti with a white sauce of mediterranean cod. Sometimes the traditional dishes of pasta with legumes can be mixed with seafood, so there are, for instance, pasta e fagioli con le cozze (pasta with beans and mussels), or other more modern variations, like pasta with zucchine and clams, that lose any traditional connotation.
Pasta – Tomatoes – Olive Oil – Vegetables – Legumes – Mozzarella – Cheese – Anchovies – Tartufo Nero – Chestnuts – Hazel Nuts – Figs – Torrone – Wine – Limoncello ____________________________________________________
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