It can be awful when not done properly, but sublime when cooked to perfection, in its many guises.
Why there's always a place for pasta
I've been to a few beautiful weddings and a few impressive potlucks, but I still carry some residual post-traumatic dread of being asked to attend either.
So when I heard about friends of friends getting married in a nearby town in a combination wedding ceremony and potluck feast for 300 guests, I thanked my lucky stars that I had never met the couple responsible for this cruel and unusual form of punishment. I had a vision of bridesmaids serving themselves from endless mismatched, mish-mashed pasta salads stretching into infinity, like the mirror-lined hallway in a house of horrors.
How does one even begin to tackle the topic of pasta? Pasta, perhaps the most symptomatic food of our time: simultaneously popular, out of vogue and timeless; misunderstood, maligned and molested. So easy to stomach, so easy to spoil, and still totally sublime when done right.
I am talking specifically about Italian pasta. Not rice vermicelli or Japanese noodles - although a lifetime devoted to mastering soba or ramen would probably be a life well spent. Not gloriously silky Korean japchae or fideo or those pretty kelp noodles that are so adored by the caveman diet fan club.
And this is not to say there is not such a thing as great pasta salad, because I've had one or two. My favourite pasta salad is an extremely versatile dish of orzo tossed with Greek flavours: olives, tomatoes, feta cheese, spinach, Greek oregano and a lot of olive oil and lemon juice, served at room temperature. It is nutritious, robust, piquant and intensely delicious. It's good hot or cold, and it is to garden-variety pasta salad what pillowy, homemade tortellini are to ravioli in a can.
The famous spaghetti scene in Disney's Lady and the Tramp shows two dogs distractedly chewing on opposite ends of a single strand of spaghetti until finally meeting in the middle. You've seen cartoony mustachioed guys slurping up huge bowls of pasta with huge bibs around their necks. But it's not that easy to find a huge bowl of pasta in Italy, where it's eaten traditionally as a first course before the main course, usually a protein dish.
Still, there are few things more satisfying to me than a bottomless bowl of pasta. Spaghetti and meatballs at a real "mom and pop" joint with a red chequered tablecloth hits the spot from time to time; more times a year than I would ever admit in writing.
Every once in a while, I can go for an obnoxiously big square of gooey lasagne at a similarly unpretentious little hole in the wall, and preferably with a side of greasy, aromatic garlic bread. As wonderful as ordinary lasagne can be, nothing can beat the rich, complex version typical of the region of Emilia-Romagna — and specifically Bologna - and which I'm convinced is one of the truly great dishes of the world.
In Sardinia, the magically versatile and hardy pani carasàu (music-paper bread, which gets its name from being so thin, you can read sheet music through it) is a staple starch for shepherds. It can also be used as a form of pasta and to make a transcendental lasagne.
In our household, when we weren't eating our default pasta shape of penne, we ate a lot of capellini al pomodoro. I have a special disdain for capellini, and particularly capelli d'angelo, beginning with the grating infantilism of its English name, "angel hair", and compounded by the fact that it seems to go directly from crunchy to overcooked mush in a matter of milliseconds, leaving it fit for a teething bambino.
My most beloved pasta shapes are strozzapreti ("strangled priests") and bucatini, a thick, rounded spaghetti-like pasta with a hollow centre. Both are a complex joy to eat. And while we're on the topic of complex joys, let's address keeping things simple in the cutlery department. There's no reason to use a spoon to twirl your pasta unless, of course, you believe everything you were taught as a child or have the sort of dexterity that also requires you stick with those easy-to-use beginner's chopsticks that connect at the top.
And when you're twirling your noodles, remember this, too: if you can get the noodles to wrap around your fork with ease, they're overcooked.
A few times a year, we pull out the battered casseroles for five-cheese pasta, a rib-sticking family recipe that shows up on occasional rotation during the cooler months. After exactly two noodles, you will feel the immediate compulsion to lie down and take a nap, but it's worth it: baked rigatoni tossed with heavy cream, canned plum tomatoes and fresh basil, strewn with lumps of Gorgonzola, mozzarella and fontina, dotted with butter, showered with pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano, then baked. The end result is a crispy, golden crust, beneath which tender and steaming noodles pour forth their velvety goodness: a pale salmon-coloured basil tomato cream sauce. If there's a better way to mainline saturated fat, I haven't yet found it.