Pasta and sauce (or sugu, as my mom called it in Sicillian dialect) is much more than the meaty tomato ragu mama might make on Sunday. Italy has 20 different regions, and each region's specialties are based on the products of that region. In my travels around "the boot" I'm always usually up to trying the local dish (couldn't bring myself to bite into the milza in Sicily). Sometimes they are surprisingly tasty (the offal dishes in Rome), and others, like the Nerro di Seppie, I wouldn't eat again. Below are six of my favorite Italian pasta dishes from six different regions around the boot.
Bucatini all' Amatriciana - This Roman dish is made with guanciale (pork jowl), sweet tomatoes, onions, chile peppers, and Pecorino Romano cheese. The bucatini (meaning little hole) is a spaghetti-like pasta that has a little hole running through it. The hole makes it impossible to slurp up the ends that dangle from your mouth, and leave you spraying your shirt with sauce. The rich sauce melds the sweet and salty guanciale, tomatoes and a hint of heat and leaves you happy to have a few red dots reminding you of your meal, but many Roman trattorie will give you a bib to keep your shirt clean.
Trofie al Pesto - This is a special treat when I'm in Liguria because nowhere else is the basil as sweet and intense. Trofie is a twisted maccheroni-like noodle (without a hole) about 3 inches long. The twists in the noodle help to hold on to the pesto.
Spaghetti con Le Sarde - Moving down the boot and onto the island of Sicily for this pasta of Palermo. The city of Palermo sits between the mountains and the sea. This dish brings the land and sea together, and blends the flavors of Sicily's former Arab conquerers into the dish. Tomatoes, wild fennel that grows in Sicily, Sarde (large version of sardines), pine nuts, and sultanas make this dish.
Bigoli in Salsa - This Venetian dish, traditionally eaten during fasting days of Easter and Christmas, is simple but packed with flavor: Bigoli is a whole-wheat pasta that looks just like bucatini. The sauce is made with onions, anchovies and olive oil. The onions are slowly poached in the olive oil to form the creamy base for the sauce, and the anchoives are added at the end.
Spaghetti Cinta Senese - A truly Tuscan pasta with sauce from its own wild boar, the Cinta Senese. The sauce is mostly meat with a few finely chopped vegetables (carrot and celery), a little broth and herbs. The meat is hearty with a little sweetness to it. It is delicious and a not-to-miss if you're in the Chianti region.
Gnocchi alla Sorrentina - Back down the boot to the Campania region, this dish is made in the "style of Sorrento," one of the towns that winds around the Amalfi coast. Potato gnocchi (pronounced nyoh-key) dressed with a tomato sauce of San Marzano tomatoes and basil. Chunks of fior di latte (mozzarella made from cow's milk) are dropped into the hot sauce, giving you a creamy oozing bite of mozzarella with each taste.
What are your favorite Italian pasta dishes? What dish was surprisingly good or surprisingly disappointing?