Come Si Fa
We have come to understand that most Italians we know are not particularly burdened by uncertainty. Firm ideas about come si fa (how it’s done) are routinely offered on a staggering range of topics. From child rearing to olive harvesting, there is little room for doubt here on the correct approach. Confusingly, though, the correct approach varies widely depending upon the advice giver. So we stagger through our days in a valiant effort to make sense of this wellspring of well-intentioned advice, secure only in our conviction that we routinely fail to grasp Italian come si fa in so many fundamental ways.
We know the basics. Never venture outside in the winter with wet hair; it’s an unwanted invitation to a date with pneumonia. Always wear a scarf in the winter, preferably wool and always tied artfully about the throat to ward off unfortunate chills. In the summer, never attempt to swim—not even a toe in the water—within two hours of eating. Everyone knows you’ll sink like a stone. Dearly departed loved ones must be visited at the cemetery on all significant holidays, an activity that is best appreciated when accomplished in a large family group. In fact, all activities are best enjoyed in a group, from going to the beach to going to the market. There is no word in Italian for privacy, which is not a linguistic oversight.
The come si fa about all things alimentary could fill a book. Some of the highlights, though, are ubiquitous and there is little disagreement about their universality. Milk is for babies or at breakfast with coffee, but unwelcome for anyone after 10:00 a.m. Pizza requires beer, not wine, to digest it properly. Cheese and fish must never be combined, except with mussels that are stuffed and broiled. In Puglia, the marvelous brassica called cime di rapa, is revered when served with orecchiette, a kind of handmade pasta shape that resembles tiny ears, but adding cheese is considered abhorrent. Drinking alcohol is accepted and widely practiced, but being drunk ensures social ignominity.
Other advice is more specific and can vary—widely. What doesn’t change is the ring of certainty that informs every new piece of information shared. Never prune olive trees in the winter, except when you do. Plant fava beans before the Immacolata (December 8th). No, it’s better to plant them in January. Always tie a piece of cotton batting around the trunk of newly planted olive trees, or don’t. When grafting fruit trees, stuff the graft with lots of good, red Pugliese dirt and wrap a piece of heavy paper around it to seal everything. Or never use dirt to seal a fruit tree graft; black tar is the only way to go. Don’t use dirt or tar; the best approach uses the modern mastic method. Cover traditional Christmas fried sweets with vin cotto, or never serve traditional Christmas sweets with vin cotto; honey is the only appropriate choice. Our new policy is to cast about for at least three opinions before making major decisions. We average the results and proceed accordingly.
As we bumble along, we’ve found that there is complete agreement about pasta as an indispensable guest at the Pugliese table. The choices are endless, but the presence of pasta at table signifies that all is right with the world. To skip it is deeply disturbing. Long ago, we happily incorporated this dining rule, developing our own favorites and come si fa along the way. Our family’s go-to pasta recipe for comfort, flavor, speed and satisfaction is spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce with olives, capers and tuna. We put it together in no time at all and feel virtuous and pampered simultaneously. We tend to rely on the passato di pomodoro (pureed tomatoes in a jar or a can) version as opposed to the pomodorini (little fresh tomatoes) version since all of the ingredients are pantry items that are always around in a pinch, but if you have access to perfect Early Girl tomatoes at the height of the season, by all means, substitute them for the sauce. In that case, you might also consider substituting the spaghetti for a pasta corta (short pasta) like penne rigate or fusilli. Vegetarians and vegans can leave out the tuna altogether, adding a few more olives for heft.
Spaghetti al Pomodoro, Tonno, Olive e Capperi—Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce, Tuna, Olives and Capers
1 package imported Italian spaghetti (1 lb. or 500 grams); use a great artisanal brand like Martelli, Cavalieri or Rustichella d’Abruzzo for the best flavor and texture
3 Tbsp. high quality extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 small, dried hot chili pepper or peperoncino (or ½ tsp. of hot pepper flakes); optional
One bottle (25 oz. or 700 grams) imported Italian pureed tomatoes or passato di pomodoro (look for an organic brand like Bionaturae)
½ cup pitted imported Italian black olives (Gaeta, Picholine or black Cerignola varietals are great)
3 Tbsp. salt-cured capers (the ones from Pantelleria or the Aeolian Islands in Sicily are lovely, but any salt-packed caper is just fine)
1 can (5 oz. or 142 grams) tuna packed in extra virgin olive oil (look for a sustainable brand like Wild Planet; their tuna is pole and troll caught and approved by Seafood Watch)
Soak the capers in cold water; change the water a few times to extract some of the salt. Drain and set aside. Roughly chop the olives if they’re large; keep them whole if they’re small. Drain the tuna well and set aside.
Meanwhile, pour the olive oil into a large, high-sided skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the roughly chopped garlic clove and reduce the heat, allowing the garlic to gently bubble away in the oil without turning brown (lightly golden is fine); you may need to reduce the heat. If you’re using the pepperoncino, add it to the olive oil with the garlic.
Add the passato di pomodoro to the olive oil and garlic, stir well to incorporate the olive oil and the tomatoes. Allow the mixture to simmer gently, partially covered, for about 15 minutes. When the tomato sauce has reduced in volume and has concentrated its flavor, add the olives, capers and tuna. Simmer the sauce gently for another five minutes or so to combine the flavors. Turn off the heat and cover the sauce.
While the tomato sauce is simmering, place a large pot of water over high heat; bring to a boil. About seven minutes before you’re ready to eat, add a generous amount of Kosher or sea salt to the boiling water. Make sure you add enough; the water should taste like the sea. Place a colander in the sink to drain the pasta. When the water has returned to the boil, add the spaghetti and stir the pot rapidly with a wooden spoon. Make sure the water remains at the boil and stir often in the first 3-4 minutes to prevent the spaghetti from sticking together.
Place a large pasta bowl or individual pasta bowls in a low temperature oven to warm them.
Taste the pasta after about six minutes. If the strand of spaghetti offers a hint of resistance at its core (tiny white dot at the center of a single strand of spaghetti , it’s time to drain the pasta into the colander. First, though, reserve about a cup of the starchy pasta water and set it aside.
Turn the burner on to medium-low heat underneath the tomato sauce. Drain the pasta, give the colander a quick shake, then add the spaghetti to the tomato sauce in the sauté pan with kitchen tongs. Using the tongs, gently toss the spaghetti in the tomato sauce to coat it thoroughly. If the sauce seems particularly thick, add a little of the starchy pasta cooking water you reserved earlier. This is one of the best-kept secrets in pasta because the starchy water causes the sauce to bind to the pasta, rendering the sauce deliciously creamy without losing flavor.
Serve the pasta in individually warmed pasta bowls or in a large pasta serving bowl. Omitting cheese with this particular pasta is come si fa in Italy, but we think you can do what you want.