The North American mindset often places value on large houses, fast cars, luxury goods and the ability to make it rain with cash at a hot club or restaurant. We impress each other with our peacock struts in Armani and Chanel suits, seldom stopping on the runway of life for even a glimpse of what is actually beautiful, we fall to our graves never having lived. Maybe I am wrong, and that matters little in the end of ends, but I choose to focus my value on the little things that can lift up our lives for brief moments in lieu of stepping on others to feel like the alpha dog. Hence, my lifelong experience with the simplest of foods: pasta. No, not the tasteless heaps of noodle you might find at a Boston Pizza or Olive Garden or even the children’s special that most restaurants offer up to kids. Nor do I speak of the brilliant, but over-the-top, ravioli one can find in places like Alinea or your top local restaurant. What I speak of is different, and the pasta that I have come to know through a long road of eating mediocrity is indeed magical.
I grew up on a little island off the east coast of Canada. Italians did not populate our shores like they did in New York, Chicago or even Toronto. We knew nothing of pizza or pasta or lasagna until processed food manufacturers realized that they could put spaghetti in cans and lasagna in freezer packs. The late 70s became a brave new world wherein Islanders began trying ravioli from the likes of Chef Boyardee and pizza mixes made by Kraft. When I was a child, lasagna was a big party hit for families wanting to demonstrate that their mom knew how to be a chef. It mattered little that the lasagna came in kits, that the pizza had Parmesan-like product in a pouch or that spaghetti was almost sweet and mushy in a can; we were all Italians at heart. Perhaps it was the Godfather movies or Billy Joel’s “Scenes from and Italian Restaurant”, but Americanized Italy had permeated our hearts and stomachs until it was no longer a foreign food like it had been in the the 70s.
Pasta Primavera was a dish you might order on your first date with a girl to show how suave you were. Pizza by the slice was what you ordered after dancing and drinking in the clubs of Montreal or Halifax. Michelina’s Lasagna was what university-aged girls microwaved in personal portions when they were studying into the wee hours. Every class trip I have ever taken my students on always ends up at an Italian restaurant where they bring giant portions of boiled penne with tomato sauce because it is safe and cheap. While all of these charlatans brought me great new experiences as a young boy and man, none of these are the pasta I sought in my dreams. Indeed, I never tasted great pasta until I happened into Mario Batali’s restaurant, Babbo, in Greenwich Village. It was from here that I began looking for the traditional, authentic ideal of pasta.
Ten years later, and I found myself on a ten day adventure with my wife in Tuscany, Italy. I had been to Tuscany before five years earlier, but food had been hit and miss at best. I had been lucky to find decent gelato or wine in the heat of July, and food in Rome had been a complete disaster filled with tourist traps and wrong turns. Ironically, on this trip we had agreed that unlike our adventure in France the previous year, we would not be spending big money on restaurants. Instead, we would try to find decent places and spend our money on seeing art and cities. With this as our mantra we set out on a food tour of Trastevere upon arrival on our first night in Rome and we never looked back.
Great pasta is not hard to find if you know what to look for: Italians eating pasta. While it may sound obvious, to the tourist it is a difficult path to find where the locals eat. TripAdvisor has changed our travelling world, insofar as it allows the average person to avoid the traps and edge toward the real places. We used it in Florence to check out a place we saw nearby, and it confirmed what we thought. We also used it in Rome to find a decent pizza in the super touristy Forum area in the evening. Still, you had to know what you were looking for, and once you found real pasta, then you felt stupid for not seeing it earlier.
What I have learned through eating ten or so pasta courses in Tuscany is that the sauce is not meant to be plopped on top, overtaking the pasta. The noodle or gnocchi is meant to be the star, which it the complete opposite of North American sensibility. The taste of al dente varies from oseteria to ristorante to trattoria where you take your meal, but none of them ever serve a pasta soft like we might find here. By taking 2 minutes off your normal cooking time of the noodle you will solve most issues with overcooking the pasta. The shape of the pasta completely changes the experience, because you taste the shape when the pasta is not mush. The rigatoni carbonara I had at a Roman cafe in the business district was really al dente, and while I was taken aback at first, I realized that it was what made that shape taste unique and why so many businessmen were lining up to eat at this corner trattoria.
In the end, I came away with a deep understanding of how to completely transform my pasta experience into something extraordinary and magical. Perhaps I will not drive a Lamborghini to the latest club on my way to the opera tonight, but I now have the ability to turn flour and an egg into food to satisfy a hungry soul, and as time passes through my life I imagine that that will be a skill that I can share with all of those who meet my path along the way.