I feel very much at home in the kitchen. I always find myself glazed over, gazing at an oven or a chopping board, excited and full of hope – as though epic and beautiful things were just one chop or glug of olive oil away. Because they are, aren’t they? I come from a very food-fixated family; we were brought up to believe food solves everything. Yes – EVERYTHING. But if you wanted your recipe choice to win kitchen time you had to come up with something so scrumptious and promise that the time from ‘recipe pitch’ to ‘fork in mouth’ was so brief that no other dish could be considered.
Just yesterday, I may or may not have spent 15 minutes fogging up the glass of a kitchenware store on Via dei Banchi Vecchi, eyeing off a whisk and a stainless steel pasta maker. The guy in the store thought I might be in ‘difficolta‘ and came out to check my physical state “Tutto bene signorina? Ti senti male?” No, I don’t feel unwell, grazie, I just died a little thinking how fast egg whites would become glistening clouds in a stupidly oversized bowl pressed hard against my hip. The truth is, it would be my first time with a pasta maker – I’ve come this far in life rolling pasta dough with wine bottles, jam jars and rolling pins. Yeah, I’m provincial.
Enough With The Reverie, My Date Is Waiting…
But enough utensil fantasies. We’re here to talk about how you can cook your way into a loving passionate relationship with an Italian. Yes, I know I wrote ‘lover’ up there in the title. But I’m an idealist, I don’t see why your lover who ravages you ‘a letto’ shouldn’t also want exclusivity and a real fidanzamento. Besides, you don’t need a recipe to get an Italian into bed… you might need one to keep them faithful though. 😉
Whenever I cook for a boy I’d like to kiss here in Italy I have a minor panic attack. Theoretically, I should be fine. I’ve only ever cooked for gentlemen who would compliment me regardless, I grew up on Mediterranean food, I cook every day for myself, I’m the one who begs them over for dinner because I adore preparing dishes all day in anticipation. They see me smile so sweet and domestically collected, perhaps even imagining me in some bucolic vignette doing nonchalant things with a cheese grater, HOWEVER, from the moment that invite is articulated, inside my head there’s a violent war of indecision erupting between cacio e pepe and ossobuco, a debate of political magnitude between letting my palate and instincts govern and diving sensibily into the trusted confines of their region, their childhood, their mother’s piatti. Either way you’re screwed. You know that, right? Don’t read this article thinking I’ve worked out how to introduce new flavours to an Italian, even a well-travelled one, OR emulate what they’ve been eating every Sunday their entire lives.
But here’s a dish that could give it a damn good shot. I’ve thought long and hard about this recipe choice and trust me, I really want things to work out for you guys. I think you’re cute together. And no, I don’t think he/she just likes you for your clumsy grammar and the fact that you’re new in town. You guys could TOTALLY be grabbing caffè and cornetti and reading La Repubblica together at Bar Farnese on Sunday morning out in the piazza.
Have You Had Results?
I cooked this for a boy and he fell in love. Or maybe he was already in love and so he granted me culinary clemency. I should Whatsapp him and ask. Nonetheless, I made this pasta al forno on a chilly winter evening, wearing a Ferragamo cashmere maglione, with a cat weaving between my legs and my lover sat at a heavy antique timber table, his eyes on every part of me as I moved around the cucina. This is important. You want a recipe you can prepare with an audience because you may wake up together, you may be delirious from sleep deprivation and ravenous from hours that felt like seconds stolen for kisses. And suddenly you emerge from the bedroom and remember that eating is a glorious thing and will give you energy to wrap yourselves up in lenzuola again… He/she offers to duck down to the alimentare and you will need something that doesn’t look like you’re showing off, something that won’t make you sweat and stress, that isn’t heavily focused around the hot plates because time in the oven = more time with your hands free for kissing up against the oven. You see, I’m thinking of your needs.
Showing them you understand how to bring out an eggplant’s sweetness without creating soggy oily melanzane is key to them realising you’re probably fit for raising their unborn child.
When Does It Get Sexy?
So it’s pasta in the oven – you’re wondering how it gets its magical love powers, right? Okay so buffalo mozzarella is that friend that makes you look more attractive than you actually are. It melts in such a provocative fashion and is so rich in flavour that it gives the illusion you’re highly adept in the kitchen when actually it’s nothing to do with you – mozzarella’s magnificence is impossible to mess up.
But we’re going to make it a slight tribute to a pasta alla Norma, which has chopped eggplant to give it something more exciting than just tomato sauce and show your would-be lover that you’re making an effort. This makes it much more substantial – plus showing them you understand how to bring out an eggplant’s sweetness without creating soggy oily melanzane is key to them realising you’re probably fit for raising their unborn child. It’s that simple.
Aspetta, hold the telefono. Did you say you were cooking for a boy? Yeah, you’ve been involved in heavy petting almost all day – he’s going to be hanging out for a bistecca but he likes you, he thinks you looked super carina in that dress you wore the other night at Sharivari, so he’ll wince then feign delight when you suggest a decidedly meat-free pasta dish. Quell his fears with the hypnotic aroma of frying, popping, salty pancetta. Yeah, I went there. It’s not traditional but it’s going to flavour the whole damn dish and give a welcome diversity in texture when the pancetta’s all crispy and divine hidden in amongst rich tomato sugo and eggplant morsels all sweet and chillied. Oh, sorry. Forgot to mention we’re going to make this piccante. You guys can take it, and your lips will be swollen and adventurous anyway.
The Crush Just Wrote On My Date’s FB Wall
You were probably thinking of frying up that eggplant in a frypan, weren’t you? Why would you do that? With the casa smelling of pancetta and garlic and tomatoes we’re effectively eliminating from the game that bothersome crush from highschool who knows the famiglia, has holidayed with your date at that same beach in Forte dei Marmi for two decades and always speaks to you in loud ‘idiot English’ straight after you’ve told them you speak Italian – subtext: hey native Italian childhood crush, this foreign fling will never really get you in Italian like I do.
Sorry, back to eggplant. Sure, pan-fried eggplant is yummy but throw finely chopped pieces in a shallow baking dish covered in olive oil and sea salt and you can step away and, as mentioned earlier, look cool calm and kissable. No one looks pretty sweating over a hot pan, and it’s a lot of eggplant so you’ll probably have to do two batches or else you’ll try to do it all at once and look clumsy when hot oil spits on your Intimissimi lingerie and errant eggplant cubes go flying onto the floor. The slow roast means they cook well through without relying on a litre of olive oil in the pan to lubricate things.
Oh, you think a pasta al pomodoro would have been easier? Getting the pasta al dente that first time is crucial for a foreigner in the business of seduction. Pasta al forno takes that pressure away because it’s not as obvious if you’ve overcooked slightly. Swathe your pasta in rich tomato sugo and let the tops of the rigatoni poke out and become croccante in the oven covered in cheese.
Will I Live Happily Ever After In Rigatoni Heaven?
When it’s all in the pan we’re going to introduce mozzarella to parmeggiano and see how deeply THEY fall in love with each other in a crispy cheesy golden love affair that unfolds in your forno. Meanwhile you thrill your date with a crisp salad of radicchio, lattuga and rucola with lemon and oh-so-little salt and extra virgin olive oil as a clean start for the palate in preparation for the hot spicy heaven you’re about to dish out in greedy messy portions that say: “I want to warm you and take care of you and make you happy because mi piaci tanto, sai?”
- olive oil (if you MUST buy it from the supermarket, I’ve found Gentili from Despar is peppery and has a delicious depth)
- pancetta (as much as you can find – one of those little tubs from the supermarket or a nice piece from your local salumeria)
- 1 large onion chopped (try red Spanish onions because they’re a little sweeter and look better with your dish)
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped (so many Italians seem to hate the taste of garlic so you can always throw the full clove in to flavour it and then lie to your date and remove the evidence)
- 1 can tinned tomatoes
- 1 litre tomato passata
- chilli flakes (NOT the type you have to chop up just the ground or finely flaked chilli – you don’t want to be touching chilli at all with the type of night you’ve got in store)
- pinch of fine sea salt
- pinch of white sugar
- rigatoni (yeah, put the whole packet in – if they stay the whole weekend you’ll have amazing leftovers to eat out of the pan)
- 2 medium eggplants diced (the smaller you cut them the more surface area will be golden and roasted)
- buffalo mozzarella sliced into rough strips (as much as you can afford – two big glossy fat rounds should be the bare minimum)
- parmiggiano (it’s a bonus for the topping really so don’t freak out if you forgot this ingredient)
- flat leaf parsley coarsely chopped to serve
Method (Including Baci Time):
- Fry off your pancetta. While it’s cooking get a pot of water on for the pasta and pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees.
- When it’s almost done add in your onion and when that’s transparent, throw in the garlic.
- Add canned tomatoes and tomato passata and lower heat so the sauce thickens and intensifies in flavour.
- Prepare you eggplant in a shallow oven pan so that there is only one layer and all pieces are exposed ready to go golden and delicious. Drizzle over olive oil and sprinkle a pinch of salt but keep in mind you can add more oil later if they need it. Pop pan in a hot oven.
- Season your sauce with chilli and salt if it needs it, although the pancetta should be sufficiently salty. A pinch of sugar will bring out the flavour of the tomatoes. You can add some dried herbs at this point to make it feel more homey and wholesome.
- Put on your rigatoni and take them out when they’re still quite undercooked because you should have enough liquid in your sauce for them to continue cooking later in the oven.
- Take out roasted eggplant and add them and the rigatoni to the tomato pancetta sugo.
- Spoon a shallow layer into a rectangular over pan and place strips of mozzarella over the whole pan. Add another layer of pasta and top with more mozzarella and parmesan.
- Place in the oven and cook until golden and melting and irresistible but the WONDERFUL news is that you can’t mess up the cooking time because ultimately everything is already cooked!
- Write and tell me whether your date fell in love with you after two large pieces.