Fat Tuesday is called Mardi Gras in French but in Italy it's known as Martedì Grasso. Ash Wednesday--the beginning of Lent and fasting until Pasqua--happens the day before Martedì Grasso, which gives Italians a reason to feast and party. During Lent, Catholics are expected to give up something they love as penance. When I was a boy, the rules were very loose--giving up something you didn't like anyway was a way around the rules. But Italy is a Catholic state and many still observe full sacrifice. While some might replace meat only on Fridays with fish, others give up meat entirely during Lent. (More modern twists are giving up texting, Facebook or TV).
Broken down from the Latin, Canem Levare (meat lift), the festive celebration of Carnevale can literally be thought of as a time when meat is lifted away from meals--as a sacrifice. Carnevale in Italy starts on Giovedí Grasso, the Thursday before Fat Tuesday. During this time Italy celebrates Carnevale in towns like Venice, Viareggio and the Emilia-Romagna town of Cento. But Carnevale is widespread in Italy, just as Lent is... so just before giving up meat, they feast on it...
In Southern Italy, especially around Naples, the end of Carnevale is celebrated by eating Lasagne di Carnevale, a rich lasagna layered with a choice of meats, typically polpette (meatballs), sausage or a meat ragu. If you know how to make a lasagna (here's our Eggplant Lasagna recipe), then you know the basics of making a Lasagna Carnevale. Just layer in small meatballs or cut up large ones in small pieces or slices. You can also include slices of sweet or spicy sausage or a thick meat sauce (like our Bolognese recipe).
Guess what we are eating tonight?
In the small Sardinian town of Nuoro, there are a very few women (you might count them on one hand) who still know how to make what many say is the rarest type of pasta in Sardinia Italy and perhaps the whole world...
Su filindeu (in Sardinian dialect), and in Italian, Fili di Dio, can be translated as either Wires, Yarns or Threads of God. You might think of this pasta as the elevated and rarer version of angel hair pasta.
Filindeu is tied to a religious ritual celebrated in the region of Nuoro in the town of Lula. La Festa di San Francesco is held on May 1st at the Chiesa della Solitudine di Nuoro.
Oddly, this celebration is tied to a murder in the year 800 AD. Accused of murder and being hunted down for his crime, a young man claimed innocence and took refuge in a cave about 15 miles from Nuoro. He was discovered, brought to trial and miraculously (to him) declared innocent. He had prayed to Saint Francis during his time of refuge in the cave and thus built a shrine in the cave in honor of his patron saint. In autumn on October 4th, there is a second procession to the cave and shrine followed by a celebratory feast of filindeu.
The dough to make this special pasta is durum semolina, water and a bit of salt, without leavening. It is then kneaded for a very long time to stretch the gluten, making it very soft with amazing elasticity--the key to making the long strands. The dough is rolled by hand into 8 long, thin snakes, which are folded, halved and pulled, only to be folded and stretched again--32 times in total--resulting in 256 thread-like thin bundles of parallel groups of pasta.
These threads are then stretched across a large, flat tray called a fundu, traditionally woven from leaves of the local asphodel plant (a member of the lily family), often used in basket-making. To aide in the stretching, the dough is occasionally dipped in salt water--the timing of this sensed only by the experience of the artisan making the pasta.
This process is repeated until a single layer of "threads" cover the entire fundu. the basket is then rotated by about 60° with another layers of pasta "threads" laid down. This is repeated a third time creating three crisscrossed layers of "threads". The tray is placed in the sun to dry causing the three layers to stick together while creating a stiff fabric of pasta looking very much like a course textured cheesecloth.
For the feast, the filindeu is broken into pieces and put in boiling mutton broth. Grated pecorino (sheep) cheese is added to complete the soup. I don't know about you, but I've always loved my soup loaded with noodles--perfect for when the cold weather hits.
If you're ever in Sardinia, look for packages of filindeu shards. Some have realized that this is a real Sardinian treasure and are trying to expand the availability of this pasta.
Sadly, this unique pasta technique is in danger of becoming extinct. For example, Only one of Paula Abraini’s two daughters knows basic technique but seem uninterested in continuing the tradition. Abraini also has no granddaughters to pass he skills along to. The two other women in Abraini’s family who still carry on the tradition are both in their 50s and also have no successors to this tradition.
Paula Abriani was so concerned about the techniques of making su filindeu disappearing, that she went to the local government to see if there was some money to open a school. There wasn't. Then she tried to teach young locals to make it in her home--they got discouraged with its complexity and gave up. Luckily, she was invited to Rome by the gourmet magazine Gambero Rosso so they could film her techniques for posterity. She has also started making filindeu for several restaurants who serve her amazing pasta to clients from around the world. The preservation of her tradition is looking a bit brighter!
If you're traveling to Nuoro, search out the women who still make this pasta for a lesson on how it's done. They have learned the skill from their mothers who learned it from their mothers and so on, going back three hundred years. Ask, plead or beg for a lesson from either Paola Abraini, Salvatora Pisano or Grazia Selis. If you're lucky enough to get a little lesson from them, don't forget to say "thank you" in Sarda, the Sardinian dialect... grazie meda! And give them a solemn promise that you will pass along their skills.
You might also be interested in...
How to Cook Pasta: 101
Map of Regional Pasta
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Pasta
Sexy Pasta Shapes!
The LIGHT Way to Make Potato Gnocchi
Canederli: The Italian Matzo Ball
Does Adding Water to a Pasta Sauce Make a Difference?
Making Fresh Pasta: A Family Tradition
Test Driving the Kitchenaid Pasta Extruder
Spaghetti the Grows on Trees?
Growing up, one of my favorite things to ask for when my family went to a restaurant was "meat sauce". Meat sauce on spaghetti. Meat sauce on ravioli. Meat sauce on veal cutlets. I'd even ask for meat sauce on top of chicken parmesan! Well, I've grown up and matured (OK, somewhat). In this article I'll show you how to make a grown-up version of "meat sauce"--Ragù alla Bolognese.
One of the very first meals we had during our Voyage to Italy was Pici al Ragù... a Tuscan version of Spaghetti Bolognese. We had just gotten off the train from Rome in the small Tuscan town of Chiusi Scalo ("Scalo" designates the part of a town that surrounds a railway station). Chiusi proper, an historic Tuscan town with proud roots back to the Etruscans, was up on the nearby hilltop.
We were so weary from having traveled about 16 hours or more, first by air to Rome and then by train from Rome to Chiusi, where we were to pick up our rental car. And at this point we were also famished--needing to re-fuel. When we got off the train, the Hertz office was closed for riposa (a 3 hour siesta), so we had planned to have lunch while we waited. I had already picked out the trattoria that we would eat at, selected weeks before while fine-tuning the details on my Google Earth maps... we would eat our first Italian meal at Trattoria Porsenna, one block from the train station. It was a fantastic choice. With only 12 tables and a casual country style, we order a bottle of gassata for the table and waited for our meals. When the Pici al Ragù came, I couldn't believe how delicious it was.
By the way... Pici is a sort of thick, hand rolled spaghetti. Ragù is basically a meat sauce, the best of which is Ragù alla Bolognese, which originated in Bologna but is found all over Italy nowadays. People will tell you that "spaghetti Bolognese" doesn't exist in Italy--but it does. The sauce will just be called "Ragù" instead of "Bolognese", as in "Spaghetti al Ragù", and typically in place of spaghetti the dish is usually served with tagliatelle, a long, flat, fresh pasta noodle--"Tagliatelle al Ragù".
Historic records even prove that in centuries past, spaghetti (dried) was commonly used with a Ragù sauce anyway. (NOTE: In the weeks that followed, we saw "Spaghetti alla Bolognese" listed on many menus). So, whatever the name, and no matter what type of pasta you put under it, I knew that this was the Ragù I wanted to duplicate when I returned back home.
2 pounds ground beef (80% or less fat)
1/4 pound speck (cut 1/4" thick), 1/4" dice (Speck is a smoked prosciutto)
1 large Vidalia onion (or 2 large yellow onions)
1 teaspoon sugar (for sauteing onions)
4 tablespoons canola oil (for sauteing)
3 carrots, 1/4" dice
3 celery stalks, 1/4" dice
4 garlic cloves, smashed then diced
5 bay leaves (remove after cooking)
1-1/2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1-tablespoon dried basil
1 cup full bodied red wine (Primativo, Montepulciano, Chianti, etc.)
1-28 ounce can Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes
1-6 ounce can tomato paste
1 cup heavy cream
This recipe will make enough Bolognese sauce for several meals. It also freezes very well.
If you would like to make fresh tagliatelle to go with your Bolognese sauce, read Making Fresh Pasta at Home: Not a Necessity, but a Tradition.
Or, try making our Torta Rigatoni Piede Bolognese al Forno - Baked Standing Rigatoni Pie with Bolognese. Or, try Baked Standing Rigatoni in a Mug. It's also wonderful spread on a bruschetta for a small lunch or snack.
We all have days when we don't know the answer to the question, "What's for dinner?" Busy papa, busy Mama, busy Nonna... stuff happens and we forget to plan ahead. But even if you are a newcomer to the Cucina Italiana, there are always simple, quick meals that you can throw together without any pre-planning, as long as your Italian Pantry is stocked with essentials.
Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil) is one of the simplest, yet fulfilling meals any Italian can make. The cooking time is little more than the time it takes to boil your dried spaghetti and can be a base recipe for adding ingredients from leftovers. Even the most basic Italian pantries should have a box of spaghetti, extra virgin olive oil and garlic...
Serve with slices of crusty bread and some Chianti for a simple and tasteful meal.
This recipe is certainly a classic from Naples, but you can think of it as a base recipe for adding other ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, diced prosciutto, capers, olives, etc. Don't ever hesitate to be creative with Italian recipes!
Outfit made from dried pasta seen in a kitchen supply shop in Florence, Italy
(The hair gives new meaning to Angel Hair Pasta!)
Beef Ragu over Cheesy Polenta
A rustic, belly-filling recipe from simple ingredients. The cook time from pan to table is under an hour, so it's great for a quick family meal during the workweek...
I remember one of the first times I had potato gnocchi (pronounced "NYO-kee"), was at a New Jersey, Italian-American restaurant when I was a teen. I wasn't impressed. They were gluey and heavy. Perhaps they were frozen, but more than likely they had lost something in the translation from the old country. Still today, people in New Jersey might still pronounce them, "Nocky". In our family, we didn't have gnocchi until I was older. I remember one of my sisters making them on occasion. We nicknamed them, "sinkers" because they were so heavy.
Well into my 30s, and after I had learned how to cook pretty well, I asked my mother to teach me to make gnocchi--especially after learning that her mother, Nonna Mariantonia, had taught her. When I asked why she never made them when I was a kid, she just shrugged and said, "Sure, with all the free time I had raising five kids plus working all day?" She's right. She worked in a factory as a supervisor her whole adult life, yet somehow still managed to put dinner on the table for us after she got home. Better late than never, and I was eager to learn...
Ingredients (for two batches: one for eating fresh, the other for freezing)
4 pounds of Yukon Gold or similar yellow potato--stored 1 week in a dark place before using
1 egg yolk
2 whole eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons sea salt
"00" Italian style flour - 1/4 cup per pound of potatoes (or more, depending on humidity)
("00" makes a more tender gnocchi.)
a Gnocchi board, or fork, fingers, or the back side of a cheese grater
(each makes a different shape/texture)
2 half sheet pans
(For drying and for freezing half the batch)
Potato ricer (Do not use a masher)
cotton kitchen towels or parchment paper
My Mom didn't use a gnocchi paddle, or rigagnocchi. She used her fingers and the back of a fork. She actually taught me two methods for two different shapes--the back of a fork and her first two fingers. The fork makes ridges on the back side---good for holding a thick ragu. The two fingers made a sort of cavetelli shape, by taking a small cylinder of dough and pressing into it while dragging toward herself on the work surface. This made one smooth side and a little cave in the other--good for cream and thinner sauces. I can still remember Mom's bent, arthritic fingers rapidly producing them one by one. In this recipe, I'll be shaping with a fork and gnocchi board.
As you shape your gnocchi, place them (not touching) on a cotton kitchen towel spread on top of a half sheet pan. Let them dry for 15 for about 1 hour before cooking. Then place them into a large pot of well-salted, rapidly boiling water, give a couple of gentle stirs, then cook until they all float to the top.
After all are floating, cook for another minute, then drain in batches using a spider, placing them into either a saucepan containing your preferred sauce, cooking and turning gently for a minute or two until the gnocchi have absorbed the sauce's flavors. Turn out into a pasta bowl, and top with your favorite cheese--Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, cacciocavallo, etc.
Freezing the Second Half of The Gnocchi
After the first half of your dough is finished, repeat and fill a second sheet pan, then let dry as with the first batch. The second pan can then be placed immediately into a freezer for a future meal. (If a half sheet pan won't fit, place the gnocchi on smaller trays that will fit).
After they are frozen rock solid (at least 10 hours), immediately place them into a large zip-lock plastic bag, squeeze to remove all the air and zip it closed. To prevent against freezer burn, place it into a second bag.
Once you hone your gnocchi-making skills, you can experiment with all sorts of different types--pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot, ricotta and more. Gnocchi are great with both simple sauces (like butter & sage or olive oil, garlic and pepperoncino) or complex sauces like bechamel, pestos or even ragu Bolognese.
Enjoy, and don't forget to let me know how yours turned out!