One of my hosts, Lucio, visited Naples for work and returned last night with bucketfuls of amazing cheese. Last night’s dinner and today’s lunch consisted primarily of buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes. We also had some delicious, fresh ricotta that was turned into a very special pasta dish for dinner tonight that I will tell you how to make. Apparently, the cheese is freshly made on the morning of purchase. Naples is known for its cheese, as well as certain types of pasta that are made without eggs. Fun fact: until twenty or thirty years ago, northern Italians ate, for the most part, only spaghetti. The variety of pastas prevalent throughout Italy today, including the north, have migrated from the south.
Last night’s dinner:
Just to note, I have quickly learned the reason Italians do not get fat despite all of the cheese and pasta consumed here. It is a very simple answer — they do not not eat too much. For example, rather than have the mozzarella as a side or an appetizer last night, the cheese itself was the main dish, in lieu of meat. The amazing dinner we had tonight, to be explained shortly, was served in small portions. It isn’t that hard. Eat food, not too much (as Michael Pollan would say, although I am leaving out the “mostly plants” part).
Tonight’s dinner was a type of pasta called paccheri or schiaffoni (same thing, two names) filled with a blend of fresh ricotta (from Lucio’s run to Naples), basil, and a bit of salt. The brand of pasta we used is Setaro, which is a specialty of Naples and can only be found there or in gourmet shops. Outside of Italy, you will have to use whatever you can find.
To start, boil some well salted water (Massi, my other host, tastes the water before adding the pasta to make sure there is enough salt). While the water is heating up, blend fresh ricotta, basil to taste, and a pinch of salt by hand. When the water has boiled, add the pasta, about four pieces for each person, plus a couple of extra in case they break. Cook the pasta for a few minutes (maximum five) so that they are still somewhat raw but a little flexible. Drain the pasta and save a little of the water. Once the pasta has cooled enough to handle it, stuff it gently with the ricotta mixture. If it cooks too much, the pasta is likely to crack and you won’t be able to use it for this dish, which is why I suggested throwing in a few extras as backup.
Heat a pan to medium heat with olive oil and a little butter (to avoid any sticking) and when hot, add a small amount of the pasta water. Place the stuffed pasta in the pan and cover it — you are effectively pan roasting the pasta now, which is why you only want it slightly cooked when you boil it initially.
Once the bottom of the stuffed pasta is lightly browned, flip it over and cook the other side until it also lightly browned. Turn off the heat, grate some fresh Parmesan over the top of the pan, flipping the pasta so that the Parmesan forms a crispy layer on top of it from the remaining heat of the pan. Serve the pasta, approximately four pieces per person, and top with fresh pomodoro sauce and basil leaves.
Following the pasta, we had some parmesan and asiago cheese served with honey, and finally, a bit of focaccia, but not the type you are thinking. This is a sweet, brioche type bread topped with some sugar and almonds. Very good.
Seriously, this country knows what it is doing; why don’t we all eat like this? And for all you skeptics, I weighed myself today and I’ve definitely lost a few pounds since I started this trip, even though all I seem to do is eat. Enough said.