Spaghetti with tomato sauce are the dream of Italian cuisine, a magic mix of ingredients, wisdom and history that a very few other dishes in the world have. Unfortunately this dish is manipulated, tormented and crucified almost everywhere.
–Rosario Scarpato, Honorary President Itchefs-GVCI
Once every year, Rosario Scarpato, Neapolitan-born gastronome, writer, film maker/director, and commander-in-chief of ItChefs-GVCI (Virtual Organization of Italian Chefs) makes a global appeal for the preservation of authentic Italian food by live video conference from the amphitheater of the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York City, reaching 2,000 Italian chefs in 70 countries. “People all over the world are cooking Italian cuisine and yet they are not cooking Italian cuisine,” he says. “Today,” he implores,”the future of Italian cuisine is with the people in this room,” referring to the phalanx of chefs who are his followers and all who will hear him.
The International Day of Italian Cuisine (IDIC) always takes place on January 17, says Rosario, because it’s the feast day Saint Anthony Abbate (Anthony the Abbot), patron saint of butchers, farmers, gravediggers, small animals, and basket makers. It is also the first day of carnevale, one day out of 365 when, according to ancient custom, licit insanire, “anything goes.” The IDIC dish of 2014 is spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, “Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce and Basil,” probably one of the world’s most beloved of all Italian dishes–and one of the most misunderstood.
Accordingly, the maccheroni mayhem began. A trio of three acclaimed Italian chefs, Matteo Bergamini (SD26 in NYC), Enrico Bartolini (Michelin-starred Master Chef, Devero Ristorante, Milano), and Luca Signoretti (Roberto’s Restaurant, Dubai) demonstrated the proper ingredients and preparation of the dish from the amphitheater, a performance that was broadcast worldwide. While the chefs were not allowed to deviate from the official recipe, each could use their own signature “tricks” to make the sauce and cook the spaghetti. At the same time, armed with pots, colanders, spoons, and saucepans, the virtual troops descended upon their patrons in restaurants and home kitchens from Thailand to London, Hong Kong and Dubai, to serve up the true version according to the IDIC official recipe.
Besides spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, the dishes that have so far been studied, dissected, celebrated, and commemorated at the International Day of Italian Cuisines are, spaghetti alla carbonara (2008), risotto alla milanese (2009), tagliatelle al ragù bolognese (2010), pesto alla genovese (2011), ossobuco in gremolata alla milanese (2012), tiramisù (2013). If you are one of those people who just can’t figure out why the Italians are so dogmatic about these things (think Marcella Hazan) you might just change your mind once you try the real thing. And when you eat authentic spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, it will be a revelation. “It is not only an Italian recipe, it is an Italian lifestyle,” Rosario says. “Sophia Loren, wherever she goes in the world, brings her ingredients with her and cooks [tomato sauce] in her hotel room over a burner.”
I look forward to the IDIC event every year because in the company of this crowd, I always learn something I didn’t know before–from Chef Matteo Bergamini, it was how to make a truly great, tomato sauce in two minutes (the secret is in the tomatoes). You might ask, “why worship at the alter of spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil in winter?” Because, says Chef Cesare Casella, Dean of Italian Studies at ICC, “You make the best [tomato sauce] with canned tomatoes from Italy, and you can eat it all year round.”
While the New York conference was underway, Italian food and wine writer Luciano Pignaturo, alongside chefs in Pompeii (Naples), a stone’s throw from the archeological site and cradle of maccheroni culture, were on live video in the amphitheater, cooking spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico from the kitchen at the Ristorante President using different kinds of tomatoes and showing his tricks for mastering the art. It is also the region from whose mineral-rich volcanic dirt the first Italian tomato was spawned, and that produces the San Marzano varieties essential to a proper spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico.
Here are tips for making true spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, straight from the mouths of three sizzling Italian chefs.
On canned tomatoes:
- San Marzano tomatoes (DOP), including Corbara tomatoes (DOP) from Vesuvius/Naples, and Piennolo tomatoes (DOP), were the favorites of all the chefs. Vesuvius’s eruption left many minerals in the surrounding soil, which produces sugary tomatoes with balancing tones of acidity that deliver powerful flavor, linked to the unique Vesuvius terroir. A particular favorite of all the chefs, Piennolo tomatoes DOP are preserved after harvesting by hanging them in ventilated rooms. Because of their characteristic thick skin, sweetness and minerality, they last throughout the winter months and as their water evaporates, their flavor is concentrated.
- Chef Luca also uses the sweet and meaty Datterini tomatoes (“baby plums”) from Sicily whose flavor some chefs think even exceeds the San Marzano varieties. He recommends using your hands to squeeze the tomatoes into the sauté pan–“it gives them something.”
Chef Matteo sautés his favorites, the Piennolo, in the olive oil for no more two minutes to “keep their clear flavor,” adding a touch of crushed chili pepper to the oil as it warms.
To chop or not to chop the garlic?:
- Chef Enrico chops it and warms it gently in the pan with the olive oil.
- Chef Luca and Chef Matteo used whole, bruised garlic cloves, but avoid over-cooking it–and ruining–the olive oil with too much exposure to heat in the hot skillet.
Olive oil preference:
- Do we need to say there is only one kind in Italian cooking–extra-virgin?
- All three chefs prefer Sicilian olive oil for making the sauce. Chef Matteo’s relies on Manfredi Barbera. Two out of three added a “thread” of olive oil to the sauce when it’s done.
About salt, it was unanimous–all the chefs were hooked on Sicilian (Trapani) sea salt.
On the matter of basil (fresh, of course):
- “You know great basil from the smell. You don’t get it from green house basil.”
- Chef Matteo only adds it at the very end, just when the sauce is done, to keep its intense flavor [intact].”
On the pasta:
- Chef Matteo uses the La Molisana brand exclusively, specifically the spaghetti alla chitarra shape for spaghetti al pomodoro–“Because [the strands] are square it takes the sauce nicely.”
- Chef Luca’s choice was De Cecco spaghetti. He cooks the pasta only half way in the water, then drains it and adds it to the sauce in the sauté pan until it finishes cooking.
- Chef Enrico adds the tomato water to the pasta cooking water for added flavor.
Cheese or no cheese?:
- Grana Padano DOP, made in a similar tradition to Parmigiano-Reggiano®, a popular condiment, was a sponsor of the IDIC , but not traditional for spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico.
- Chef Luca scatters a layer of freshly grated Grana Padano over the spaghetti and the sauce in the sauté pan to absorb excess tomato juices and leaves it untouched until excess water is absorbed.
- Chef Matteo never adds grated cheese because he finds it interferes with the flavor of the tomatoes. If people ask for it in the dining room, he lets them have it.
As for wine, Alessandra Rotondi, Italian wine expert and IDIC Master of Ceremonies recommended Lacryma Christi (literally “the tears of Christ) from Campania, from a grape that grows in the same Vesuvio terroire as the San Marzano tomatoes.
Source: Piennolo and Corbara tomatoes are available retail online, or wholesale through Gustiamo, exclusive importers of the Pomodoro del Piennolo DOP from the Casa Barone farm, Vesuvius district.
THE RECIPE: SPAGHETTI AL POMODORO CON BASILICO “AL DENTE”
(AL DENTE SPAGHETTI WITH TOMATO SAUCE AND BASIL)
Chef Mario Caramella´s version of this year´s recipe, adapted for American readers
1 pound (1 package) durum wheat imported Italian spaghetti
2 28-ounce cans of Italian peeled tomatoes in natural juices (San Marzano DOP), or substitute 600 gr tomatoes from piennolo
fresh garlic cloves to taste
5 tablespoons best quality extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste
several fresh, fragrant Genoa type basil leaves
- In a large pan lightly brown the fresh garlic in the extra virgin olive oil (avoid burning it or it will taste bitter and not right)
- Add the tomatoes, cook at medium heat for 8-10 minutes
- Cook the spaghetti al dente, drain them and toss in the tomato sauce for 1-2 minutes over medium heat
- Put the spaghetti in individual previously warmed plates; add some sauce, a few drops of extra virgin olive oil and a couple of fresh basil leaves on each plate
- Serve warm
You may add some grated Grana Padano DOP cheese, a rather common habit in some Italian families, but the original recipe didn’t include it.