It seems that although I have promised to divulge the many aspects of my life here that are not typical, there is one subject that bears repeated discussion: tomato sauce. I don’t claim to trump anybody else’s recipe for the perfect sauce, but I have nailed down a few trusted rules that, if followed religiously, will result in a delicious and authentic plate of pasta with tomato sauce. The way they do it here, in the south, in Basilicata, in Bernalda, to specify. It isn’t Milano, or Bologna, and yet we are proud!
1) When I am at a restaurant in the United States, and here I am obviously generalizing, it is my pet peeve that any plate of pasta ordered will have a primary, and devastating, defect: the water it is cooked in is not salted! Any pasta should have a flavor that is good enough to eat with no sauce at all, and to achieve its full flavor—and the pasta itself contains no salt—the water must be liberally salted, preferably with the non-iodized variety. I proselytize for salted water in restaurants, much to the embarrassment of my dinner companions. My husband learned long ago that ordering an item off the menu that he believes will be simple for the typical American chef to master, such as cappellini al pomodoro, will invariably result in a dish he can’t eat. Better for him to order something with all the bells and whistles, where insipid and tasteless pasta isn’t so noticeable.
2) Second rule: The sauce is about the flavor of the tomato. Start with decent tomatoes, and if you can’t find any then maybe you should make something else today! With or without the peel, it isn’t important which kind of tomato you use—and discussion of types of tomatoes can be interminable—but it should be flavorful. This seems obvious, and yet…The same rule applies to the olive oil used; it should be a good one, and that means extra virgin. We use our own oil that comes from our trees, so we know exactly what is in it, bugs and all. If you want to be sure of getting the good stuff in the U.S, buy an Italian import such as Bertolli, and never their specific product “for the American market.” . Keep in mind that after the yearly pressing there are always leftovers, and where do you think these inferior products end up?
3) Throw out all dry spices. Better yet, throw out spices, period. Well if you must, a little fresh basil or thyme can add something, but only in very specific cases. And of course, garlic is often a tasteful addition, but not always. As is onion. Don’t even consider using oregano, fresh or otherwise, for anything but roasted meat! I have never encountered any self-respecting cook here who will use a dried spice in a sauce.
4) When serving pasta, it is always better to put the drained pasta into the pan with the sauce and give it a swish over the flame. No one in these parts would ever put a plate of drained pasta in front of someone with a dollop of sauce balanced on top of it! As to cheese, we like Grana Padano because it is almost identical to Parmigiano Reggiano, and it costs less at our market. Or a good Pecorino, depending on your tastes. Either way, you are not going to use any cheese with a fish-based sauce, are you? I don’t think so!
To sum up: keep it simple! There is a reason why tourists who come here have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the food, and this is more than likely due to the quality and simplicity of the ingredients used. Of course in this case I am talking about the simplest tomato sauce, and there are endless more complicated recipes for pasta, but these rules will help anyone to establish a baseline of respectability in the pasta kitchen.
painting: “Side Salad” oil on canvas, (top and bottom parts) 2008