A simple pasta dish can be easy to make, delicious and inexpensive. Master some basic rules and you’ll be eating like a Tuscan in no time.
1. THE PASTA
Dry pasta is a staple for Italians. For a special meal, ready-made fresh pasta is easy to cook (3–5 minutes) and delicious; you can find it around town and especially in the mercati (there’s even a shop in Florence’s central market that stays open until midnight). A 500-gram bag or box of dry pasta can serve up to six people. For a main course, use 100 grams per person. As part of a larger meal, use 80 grams per person. If you are buying fresh pasta, just tell the person at the counter how many people you plan to serve and ask how long to cook it.
2. COOKING THE PASTA
Put the pasta water on to boil first, covering the pot (it will boil sooner and save energy). Start the sauce. Salt the water after it comes to a boil. For pasta with tomato-based sauces, undercook the pasta slightly, drain and add to the sauce to finish cooking; it will be more flavorful. Before draining the pasta, always save a cup of the cooking water.
3. THE SAUCE
Pomarola: Using one small can of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes per four portions of pasta, crush the tomatoes into a pan, add salt, some basil leaves and cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes until the tomatoes fall apart and the liquid reduces. Add 1 teaspoon of butter, stir in the drained pasta and some of the reserved liquid. Serve with grated parmigiano reggiano cheese.
Arrabbiata (also called carrettiera): Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil (to just cover the bottom) in a saucepan, add 1–2 sliced garlic cloves and some dried peperoncino, and turn on the heat. When the garlic starts to turn golden, remove the pan from the heat. Add pureed tomatoes (POMI in a box), guarding for splatter. Return to the heat and cook for 10 minutes. Add the drained pasta and finish cooking together.
Burro e parmigiano: Put 2 tablespoons of butter per person in a pot and add drained pasta and some of the reserved pasta water, mixing well. Add grated parmigiano reggiano cheese and stir again to create a creamy sauce. Or use grated pecorino romano for authentic alfredo sauce (no, it’s not made with cream).
Con panna: A rich sauce made with cooking cream, panna da cucina, sold unrefrigerated. Heat the cream in a skillet in which you have sauteed mushrooms, add a small amount of diced cooked ham (prosciutto cotto) and peas (piselli) and serve with tortellini.
Variations: a bit of panna da cucina mixed into tomato sauce; sauteed or grilled vegetables; cooked pancetta; drained canned tuna; ricotta cheese served on top (to stir in while eating).