Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion celebrating the publication of the Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated into English by Maureen Fant. Also in attendance were Sheila Levine, the editor from UC Press, who co-founded that wonderful magazine, Gastronomica, which features stories about the intersection of food and culture; and Chris Boswell, the sous chef here at the American Academy, a former Chez Panisse chef who is passionate about things like heirloom wheat varietals, and who cooks us amazing dinners here five nights a week. He co-founded the Rome Sustainable Food Project with Mona Talbott.
The highlights of the discussion were the humorous bits. The hundreds (or more?) of pasta shapes which have evolved over the past few centuries have names which carry stories—many of them humorous, and sometimes with political overtones, such as strangulapreti (priest stranglers), and sometimes simply naughtily ridiculous, such as cazzetti d’angelo (little angel’s balls). Oretta’s book combines the lore and history of all of Italy’s known varieties of pasta, which she learned mainly through personal conversation and perusal of personal recipe collections. Part of the value of the book, then, is that it captures in text an oral and manual tradition that is beginning to be lost to convenience foods. There are also instructions for making all kinds of pasta, and descriptions of how they are traditionally served.
Oretta also has some strong opinions about historical chronology. She said that not only were Italians making pasta two hundred years before Marco Polo was born, but that when Marco Polo got back from China, his mother probably served him a big bowl of pasta—an assertion she delivered with her characteristic exclamatory tone and gestures.
Then, we ate five or so takes on pasta for lunch. My favorite was the lasagna—made with incredibly few ingredients: house-made lasagna noodles separated by thinly sliced, narrow zucchini and pulled smoked scamorza, a spun cheese like mozzarella but more flavorful. It was a taste sensation to remember.