Pasta is, in many ways, a miracle food – and while Elizabeth David may have first introduced the British public to the wonders of spaghetti via her Vogue column in the ’50s, there’s still so much for us to learn about the more than 1,300 varieties consumed across Italy. “It would be frankly insane to try to write a definitive book on pasta,” chef and author Rachel Roddy says with a laugh over Zoom from her apartment in Rome, where the British expat lives with her Italian partner and children. “I had the idea, though, of telling 50 stories about pasta through 50 shapes, which gave me a sort of framework for An A-Z of Pasta. I literally started with alfabeto – which, to many Italians, is not even technically a pastina [tiny shapes of pasta, used in soups or broths] – and moved cautiously along from there.”
Now available to purchase, the finished cookbook is a revelation; a recipe Roddy learned from her Italian neighbour for cappellacci (literally, small hats in Italian) doubles as an introduction to the history of pasta ripiena, or stuffed shapes, in the royal courts of northern Italy; a chapter about tubular paccheri teaches you how the streets of Gragnano in the Gulf of Naples were turned into a vast “open-air drying grid” for pasta from the 1500s onwards; and descriptions of the origins of maltagliati (meaning badly cut) and quadrucci serve to introduce the zero-waste concept of pasta di recupero, a means of using up the leftover scraps after cutting a hand-rolled sheet of pasta.
That’s before mentioning Roddy’s own moreish recipes – all written in a style that calls to mind a friend gently dispensing advice in the kitchen over a bottle of Barolo. Make her impossibly delicious version of Pasta Di Mezz’estate, below, then head immediately to your local bookshop for a copy.
Pasta Di Mezz’estate, Or Midsummer Pasta
This is my harlequin pasta, another recipe from the Italian food writer Rita Pane that has become a summer favourite, especially if we are a big group. The beauty is that the heat of the pasta and vegetables melts and softens the edges of the mozzarella and Parmesan which unites everything. You can roast the vegetables but frying is best. You could do this in advance, but they will need warming through in the oven before you mix everything together. Use loads of basil – the scent should fill your nose and the room. Ingredients
Olive or vegetable oil, for frying
1 large aubergine, diced into 1cm cubes
1 red pepper, diced into 1cm cubes
2 courgettes, diced into 1cm cubes
2 large ripe tomatoes
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
600g mezze maniche, penne, fusilli, rigatoni
100g Parmesan, grated
200g mozzarella, diced
A big sprig of fresh basil leaves, ripped
Bring a large pan of water to the boil for the pasta.
Pour enough oil into a deep, medium-sized frying pan for it to come 2.5cm up the sides and heat until hot. Working in batches, fry the diced vegetables in the oil until soft and golden, then blot on a kitchen towel, season with salt and keep warm. Tip the oil from the pan.
Plunge the tomatoes into the almost boiling water for a minute, then lift them out with a slotted spoon and refresh under cold water, at which point the skins should slip off. Roughly chop the tomatoes.
Put the frying pan back on the heat with 4 tablespoons of new oil and the garlic. Once the garlic is fragrant, add the chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook until soft and saucey – about 10 minutes.
Once the water is boiling, add salt, stir, then add the pasta and cook until al dente. Once the pasta is ready, drain, tip into the tomato pan and toss.
Tip the pasta and sauce into a large bowl, add the fried vegetables, Parmesan, mozzarella and ripped basil, toss thoroughly and serve.