“Traditional” Italian pasta? Well, it’s complicated.

When I was at university, I lived in a student house with a chap who really liked pasta. 

He liked it so much that he cooked it for every single meal he ate – and, in what looked like a further deeply misguided display of affection for it, he cooked it for four times as long as the rest of us ever did. As young, single men keen to learn the right culinary skills that would attract young ladies into our orbits, we tried cooking a lot of Italian food … so we knew that good cooked pasta, properly done in the authentic way, was firm, a bit chewy, a little bit of work to get down.

But my housemate knew better. His pasta was lovingly, almost ritualistically boiled for a good 45 minutes before he ate it, creating something between the consistencies of wet cardboard and wallpaper paste, which he’d promptly smother in (*deep breath*) tomato ketchup.. We were constantly amazed that he got enough nutrition to stay upright (although it certainly explained the almost vampiric pallor of his skin). It was amazing in so many ways, and none of them seemed healthy or fun…

Different kinds of Italian pasta
Different kinds of Italian pasta

Now, this is usually the part of the story where I’d perhaps talk about how the Italians have always done it best, all the way back into antiquity. Which of course they have – they seem to have invented the stuff, after all – but in terms of consistency (in both senses), it’s a lot more complicated than most people think. More on that in a moment.

But first, as I explained in a previous piece, it’s always worth remembering that in Italy these days, pasta is a course. It doesn’t fulfill the same role as our other carby accompaniments, like the rice or potatoes sitting alongside meat and vegetables on your plate. Pasta is an entire dish in of itself, and should be described as a complete dish, sauce & all.

This has led to some epic misunderstandings – perhaps the greatest being the classic Alfredo sauce, staple of every supermarket in the States. Only thing is…”Alfredo sauce” doesn’t exist in Italy. It’s actually referring to the dish called Fettucine Alfredo, invented by Roman chef Alfredo Di Lelio in the early 20th Century. As legend has it, the celebrity Hollywood actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks dined at his restaurant and were so besotted with the dish that they raved about it back in America. Rapid copycat commercialisation followed, leading to gloopier, starchier versions, a great deal of experimentation, and the addition of “Alfredo sauce” to types of pasta that had no place in Di Lelio’s original dish.

Fettucine Alfredo, is it overcooked?
Fettucine Alfredo, is it overcooked?

This is one of the two recognised “sins” committed against Italian food being prepared anywhere except Italy: hiding the taste of the pasta with an over-rich sauce, in much the same way too much creamy salad dressing can drown out the flavour of its individual elements. 

And the other – sorry, former housemate – is, of course, overcooking it.

Chemically speaking, pasta is made of starches (the carbs) and protein, in the form of gluten. The proteins are there to hold the pasta together, to keep it stretchy but not limp or (the ultimate pasta disaster) sticky. As it cooks, the gluten absorbs the starch granules, and those granules absorb water, making them swell…at first, anyway. Beyond a certain saturation point, the starch leaks out into the surrounding water, losing not just the pasta’s firmness but a lot of its nutritional content as well.

The correct thing to do, as most modern Italian chefs will tell you, is to undercook it slightly – just enough so there’s a tiny white dot down the centre of a strand of cooked spaghetti if you break it in half. This is pasta al dente (“to the tooth”), which takes longer to digest and therefore doesn’t dump sugars into your bloodstream to give you the classic “hyperactive and crash” energy spike of sugary foods.

The "to the tooth" pasta is considered healthier
The “to the tooth” pasta is considered healthier

So, we’re all doing it wrong. Or are we?

In his 2022 book A Brief History Of Pasta, Italian food historian Luca Cesari takes a closer look:

“What many fierce Italian champions of orthodoxy do not realise is that these two ways of serving pasta were once quite common even back home, and it was from here that they spread abroad over a century ago. ‘Overcooked’ pasta…was standard in northern Italy until the early twentieth century; the fashion of cooking it al dente sprang up in the South, and took a long time to work its way up the peninsula and become the national standard. Just a few generations ago, it was normal for a Neopolitan to cook pasta differently compared to someone in Milan.

The habit of using it as a side dish was also quite common. From the Renaissance up to the late nineteenth century, one finds many cookbooks that suggest covering boiling meat, especially poultry such as duck or capon, with macaroni or filled pasta. In Italy, this custom almost completely disappeared over the course of the twentieth century, as pasta carved out its own place on the manu both at home and in public settings. 

Essentially, when Italians criticise this sort of thing, they are revealing the cultural divide that separates them not only from foreigners, but from their own ancient culinary roots.”

So while it’s easy to poke fun at people cooking things the “wrong” way, it’s probably missing the bigger picture. Food is there to be experimented with – after all, that’s how every now-traditional dish first made its mark –  and if it tastes great, someone did good somewhere. As always, your best bet is to try everything, however weird, and see if it works for you, whether it’s traditional or not…

Who can resist delicious pasta dishes
Who can resist delicious pasta dishes

All that said, I’ll never forget chatting to that housemate one day on the subject of his diet, and hearing him say, “you know, I’m not even sure I like pasta.” (Um – maybe that’s because you’ve never really had it?) 

If ever anyone needed a holiday in Italy, it’s him.

Wheel & Anchor is going big in Italy in 2024, with a 4-week LiveAway in Sicily in March, a LiveAway trip to the Amalfi coast (currently in development here), and two new Sojourn trips to Southern Italy and Sardinia in April, both just announced by Gordon here. Grab your place now before it’s gone! 

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