“I think of her as a kind of Julia Child,” said Mona Talbott, the executive chef at the American Academy in Rome and coordinator of its Rome Sustainable Food Project, founded by Alice Waters. “Julia Child demystified French food. Oretta demystifies pasta.”
Indeed, in its 300-odd pages, the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” ranges from abbotta pezziende, a short pasta that means “feed the beggar” in Abruzzo dialect, to the zumari of Puglia, a long pasta traditionally added to vegetable soups. In between there are the corzetti of Liguria and Piedmont, the little stamped-out coins; pi fasacc of Lombardy, which look like little babies in a papoose; avemarie, which cook for as long as it takes to say a Hail Mary; and several dozen variations on macaroni and ravioli. Each illustrated entry lists ingredients, provenance and how the pasta is traditionally served.
The range of shapes shows that cooking “was a way of self-expression for women to show their creativity and imagination with little or no resources,” Ms. Talbott said. She cited gnocchi ricci, or curly gnocchi, a specialty of Amatrice in Lazio, the city famous for spaghetti all’amatriciana, which are made by kneading together one dough made with flour and eggs, another made with flour, boiling water and salt.
The book also explodes a few myths. Do not think of mentioning the popular belief that Marco Polo had a role in the history of pasta. “Ma no,” she said in a jovial paroxysm of outrage. “When Marco Polo came back they had been eating pasta in Italy for 200 years!”
Instead, she notes in her encyclopedia, dried pasta made with durum wheat was found in Italy starting around A.D. 800. It was spread by the Muslim conquerors of Sicily, and by the 12th century the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa marketed dried pasta.
“Documents exist to prove this, should there be anyone left — and it appears that there is — who still believes that Marco Polo introduced noodles into Italy in 1296 on his return to Venice from China,” she writes.
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If I didn’t know better, I’d think I had Italian DNA coursing through my body. Wine, pasta, espresso, poetry, what more could one want?