Every so often if you like to cook and you cook a lot (I admit to both), you discover something memorable. That happened to me a bit ago thanks to Giuliano Bugialli, esteemed Tuscan chef and cooking teacher (the New York Times dubbed him “Champion of Italian Cuisine”*). On page 100 of Bugialli on Pasta** next to the recipe for Maccheroni all Marina (Pasta with Marinara Sauce), I scribbled “Wonderful!”
Backing up a bit, I was in my thirties when a friend of my parents, widow of a diplomat who served in the American consulate in Naples before and after WWII, sent me her cherished Neapolitan recipe for Marinara Sauce. “It’s just tomatoes simmered down, Sylvia,” she said. I didn’t believe her because in those days, no sauce of any worth could reasonably be so simple. I sort of made it, didn’t understand it, and threw the sauce and Clemence Jandrey’s neatly typed recipe out.
It’s a good thing that, when one ages, one acquires wisdom. Taste. A modicum of good sense.
So here I was with The Great Bugialli saying the same thing as Clem Jandrey. Oh yes, Bugialli added a soupçon of garlic and parsley, but no onions, no carrots, no ground beef in his marinara sauce.
There are only four ingredients in this great sauce: olive oil (your finest extra virgin), fresh garlic, fresh rosemary (my call–to my palate, parsley is sharp and near-bitter whereas rosemary may have an edge of sharpness but finishes soft and perfumed). And plum tomatoes. Bugialli suggests fresh tomatoes, but I find it a treat to open a big can of plum tomatoes from Italy–why are they so beautiful? Because they’re plum tomatoes that were grown and simmered in Italy. That’s why. And in processing, their essence has already begun to be concentrated.
My dear friends, here is a dish to make for a languid Sunday supper. You set the makings a’simmering while you pour yourself and your company a glass of wine, prepare an interesting salad…decide whether or not you’re going to have dessert. Here is a dish to make when you’re in a mood to appreciate harmony…flavors in beautiful balance. Here is a dish handsome to the eye–shades of rich reds interwoven with creamy ribbons… And easy! Three or four minutes’ fine chopping is all the effort–but the fragrance of the bulbs and leaves as you mince is so sensual it’s a treat rather than a chore.
Re: marinara sauce, the scholarly Bugialli informs us, “The pairing of pasta and tomatoes is legendary, yet it has existed only since the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It occurred, as one might guess, in and around Naples: the earliest printed recipe I have found is Maccheroni all’ Ultima Modo 1841 alla Napoletana.”
Now in his pasta book this recipe is representative of dishes of Campania, southern region with the bay of Naples (Capri, Pompei, Herculaneum) and the Amalfi Coast (Amalfi, Positano, Ravello, Salerno). Bugialli calls for the pasta shapes vermicelli or perciatelli. Both are long and spaghettilike, a shade thicker than spaghetti***, perciatelli has a very small hole down the center. But I find the perfect companion for this sauce is tagliatelle, long but flat noodleish shapes. I love the way the sauce clings to the sides instead of sliding off as it does in rounded shapes.
Oh, and Bugialli–classically–sends the finished creation through a food mill. Me, I find nubbins of tomato more interesting than a smooth sauce.
So there you have it. A harmonious sauce of just four ingredients that can be put together with your back mostly turned to the stove.
As for a finish, Bugialli ignores cheese. This is what he sniffs:
“The greatest distortion of ‘alla marinara’ is to add cheese, whether grated Parmigiano or pecorino or mozzarella, coarsely grated or in slices. In Italy, it is always understood that when you order ‘alla marinara,’ whether pasta or pizza, cheese is not an ingredient. And, of course, grated cheese should not be served with any dish in this category.”
I forget the rationale, but in my experience most Italian cuisine classicists disdain cheese over pasta…does it fall under the esthetics of When it comes to perfection, a little more is too much? Fortunately we Americans are egalitarians and consider a drift of grated parmesan or pecorino over a dish of pasta its crowning glory.
As for the cheese for my marinara, thinking of the “wonderful” I wrote on the page, going marketing I decided to track down a cheese I’d seen in Italian recipes but never at the market. I thought ricotta salata might be a variation of the bland cottage-cheeselike cows’ milk cheese we buy in tubs. Not. Ricotta salata, originally from Sicily, is firm, aged, salty…classed a pecorino cheese because pecora is Italian for “sheep” and ricotta salata is from sheep’s milk****.
I did find it. Snow white, beautiful when grated, slightly nutty, I think it a perfect complement to this sauce. Or just grate some good pecorino.
Surely you’ll find more wonderful Bugialli-inspired recipes in his Fine Art of Italian Cooking.
Tagliatelle Alla Marinara, Wonderful!
(Inspired by Giuliano Bugialli)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons (5-6 large cloves) finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary or parsley leaves, no stems
2 28-ounce cans Roma tomatoes, preferably organic from Italy
12 ounces dried tagliatelle or perciatelli, preferably organic from Italy
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 or more ounces grated ricotta salata, pecorino, or parmesan cheese
Ideally using an 11- to 12-inch non-stick skillet, set it over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Let the oil heat for a minute while you chop the garlic (don’t use a garlic press–tiny bits will be more noticeable) and rosemary. Send the two into the oil and stir, the garlic will quickly brown. Add the entire cans of tomatoes, breaking the fruits into smaller pieces with the sides of a spoon or knife or scissors. Stir all well, set a timer for 25 minutes.
Now set a large pot with 3 quarts of fresh cold water over highest heat. Bring to a boil then add a scant 1 tablespoon coarse salt.
Adjust the burner under the sauce so the edges around the skillet bubble merrily (heat will depend on the shape and composition of your skillet). Every five minutes or so, give a blending stir around the sides and across the bottom with a broad rubber spatula or wooden spoon.
When the sauce timer has about 10 minutes to go, add the pasta to the boiling water, stir well, and cook according to package directions–usually around 10 minutes to al dente, which is what you want. Set a second timer for the pasta.
When the pasta is tender to the teeth, lift into the marinara sauce–bringing along a little pasta water is fine. Grind in your best black pepper. Stir gently but thoroughly. Turn the burner to lowest and let the pasta absorb the sauce for about 5 minutes, a crucial step (with any pasta dish).
Serve with large spoons for twirling and pass the grated cheese you choose. A crisp tossed salad with a few bitter greens (dandelion, arugula, endive, frisee) is lovely on the side.
*Alas, we lost Bugialli in 2019.
**Bugialli, Giuliano. Bugialli on Pasta. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
***In this country, vermicelli is still shaped like spaghetti but has evolved to be much thinner.
****”Ricotta” is Italian for “re-cooked,” “salata” means “salted.” Both fresh ricotta from cow’s milk and aged ricotta from sheep’s milk are produced from curds produced from whey remaining from a previously made cheese. The witty resourceful Italians.
*****3 ounces dried pasta is considered the serving size for “a trencherman.”