This is the third one of a series of long articles, written in my clumsy English, which I formerly called “Luca’s lengthy treatise on Italian pasta”, from now on rechristened “Luca on Italian pasta”. This article focuses on sauces (in Italy we call them sugo, salsa or condimento - pl. sughi, salse, condimenti). The previous installments dealt respectively with pasta shapes
and with the ingredients used to produce the various pasta types
Tomato or not tomato?
Tomato or not tomato, that is the question:
Whether ’tis tastier in the mouth to devour
The drops and morsels of this reddish fruit,
Or to take arms supporting a whiter shade,
And by enjoying just oil?
The Bearded Buffoon feat. The Bard of Avon
As you can understand from those abominable verses of mine, we could draw a big distinction between tomato-based pasta sauces and sauces without tomato. But this distinction is not a reasonable one, in my humble opinion, since each and every Italian pasta sauce was developed in a specific area, using specific products, to complete and enhance specific kinds of pasta, and not to fight a battle between pro-tomatoers and anti-tomatoers. Furthermore, during the last century, many Italians moved to different areas of our country, carrying their cooking style to new and foreign places. Therefore, today tomato and its absence are mixed up and interspersed in pasta recipes across Italy, because we’re Italians and we love chaos and confusion and creativity.
Pasta and sauce marriage: questione di gusti
I firmly believe that picking the right pasta for the right sauce is a matter of taste (questione di gusti
However I could suggest you my first commandment: delicate pasta calls for delicate sauces, strong pasta calls for strong sauces. So, long shaped, stout types of pasta (vermicelli, bucatini, spaghettoni) can be married to robust sauces, while long shaped, slender types (fidelini, spaghettini, linguine) are more properly mixed with gentler sauces. The same principle can be applied to short pasta, with farfalle or sedani in the delicate club, and rigatoni, paccheri or conchiglioni in the strong posse.
And I could also suggest you that the runnier the sauce, the coarser the pasta. Pasta with a coarse, maybe even ridged, surface, like penne rigate or rigatoni, could be more effective in holding the sauce then a smooth one. But in my personal experience, a good quality pasta will always hold a properly made sauce: pasta is not a piece of plastic, and even the smoothest one must always be more than able to grab and carry its dollop of good sauce.
Anyhow, it must be said that there are some pairings which are so well established to be considered quite sacred, like penne all’arrabbiata, trofie al pesto, spaghetti aglio e olio, tagliatelle ai funghi and so on. But no force on Earth can stop me if I want to prepare and eat trofie ai funghi or penne aglio e olio... You just have to try, taste and approve or reject, according to your own (and maybe your guests...) best judgment.
Roundup of Italian pasta sauces
Breadcrumbs and cheese, cream and eggs, fish and seafood, game and poultry, herbs and spices, meat, mushrooms and salumi, vegetables and nuts, wine and liquors... All sorts of Italian (and sometimes foreign) food are used to create pasta sauces, in all sorts of mixes, using all sorts of pasta. You’ll never end tasting new pasta recipes.
The simplest pasta sauce I can think of is pasta in bianco: pasta flavored only with oil (or butter) and grated Parmigiano or Grana cheese. The longest to prepare was a sauce with horsemeat and tomato, which was cooked for hours by the grandmother of a friend of mine. The heaviest I’ve ever tasted are pizzoccheri, a kind of pasta made with buckwheat flour, then garnished with potato, Valtellina cheese, grated Grana cheese, butter, garlic and chard.
And now let’s cut an impossibly long story short.
You can have pasta sauces with tomatoes or without tomatoes, indeed. You can use whole tomatoes, or ready tomato sauce, or tomato paste. The preparation of sauces with and without tomato usually starts from a soffritto (usually onions, garlic, celery sautéed in olive oil), which will be the base of the sauce.
In meat sauces, meat is usually cooked for a long time and turned into a ragù, or at least broken in small pieces, like in some pork sausage sauces. This is true for game and poultry, goat and sheep, beef and horse. Salumi, like guanciale or pancetta, speck or prosciutto, are usually cut in pieces or small stripes, or diced, then sautéed and mixed with other ingredients.
Fish and seafood maybe cooked and served whole with the pasta, producing a fancy visual effect with prawns, lobsters or mussels, or cut and cooked in pieces, like salmon, or used to produce a smoother sauce, mixed with other ingredients, like in meat ragù.
Cheese can be the ubiquitous Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana padano cheese grated and added in the final stage of a recipe, but can also be the main ingredient, like in cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper).
Breadcrumbs can be fried in olive oil in a pan with anchovies and broccoli, or other greens, to create some tasty simple sauces, to use with some short pasta.
Vegetables can support other ingredients or dominate a dish, like fried aubergines in the Sicilian pasta alla Norma, and eggs are needed for one of the most famous Italian recipes across the globe: pasta alla carbonara.
Mushrooms are traditionally appreciated in those (many) areas of Italy where they can easily be found: it is better to eat a pasta coi funghi in a hillside or mountain scenario, so maybe the mushrooms really come from that same place.
Nuts are sometimes used to garnish, to finish, or to give a crunchy texture (I hate this habit), but they can also be key ingredients, like pine nuts in the world-famous pesto from Liguria.
Herbs and spices are used, usually sparingly, to enhance the flavor of a sauce, while cream generally serves to bind and thicken a recipe, and wine and liquors strengthen the fragrance of a recipe, almost unobtrusively.
So, my final rule about pasta sauce is...
There is no rule, use what you can, follow your heart and your wisdom, love yourself and your guests, and don't study it, just eat it!