This past spring published an article aimed at showing readers how to pair pasta shapes with sauces.  The Washington Post did the same thing with a big diagram.  The bottom line in the CHOW article is that “delicate noodles are for delicate sauces while heartier noodles are for heartier sauces.”  Then CHOW says “it’s not always that simple”, so let’s take a closer look.

Every one agrees that there are no hard and fast rules about what sauce goes with what pasta shape.  I think that personal taste should always come first when making food choices.  However, in the world of pasta there are some guidelines that are just too old to mess with.  For example, it is always fettucine alfredo, and parmesan does not belong on fish pasta.  There are good reasons behind these two traditions; fettucine was used by the chef who invented that dish.  The flavor of cheese can overpower seafood.  Then there are some ‘rules’ that have no logical explanation–why should you make tomato sauce with a wooden spoon?  Because that is just the way it is done.  And by the way, don’t add the salt until the end.  I’m just saying.

Let’s get the other ‘MUSTS’ out of the way; spaghetti goes with bolognese sauce, bucatini is the pasta for al’amatriciana, pesto matches trofie and linguine goes with vongole.  Those combinations have regional histories, an important factor to consider when matching sauce to pasta.  Only Ligurians eat trofie.  Basil pesto is from Liguria.  So, I recommend you trust the Ligurian tradition of pairing a little twisty pasta with pesto.  Trofie can be hard to find; fusilli, gigli, rotini, or gemelli are fine substitutions.  And really, if you like linguine then make linguine, but know that in Liguria they prefer trofie.  Another super-regional pasta shape is orecchiette, it is only eaten in Puglia.  The same goes for malloreddus from Sardinia.  The Setaro pasta brand from outside Naples doesn’t make either of those shapes.  They just don’t eat them.

Pesto, like butter and sage, oil and garlic are thin sauces, these are very flexible because they cling to any shape.  Pasta with a hole in it, like rigatoni, would be superfluous for a thin sauce.  Pasta with a hole in it is more suited to thicker cheese sauces and sauces with small diced vegetables or meat because the pasta can catch those pieces.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but thin sauces with peas or a small amount of chunks like prosciutto and peas, shrimp and peas, or al’amatriciana are best with long pastas.  It is easier to eat the little pieces of peas or whatever if you fork them after twisting up the pasta.  That is the idea, anyway.

Wide, flat pasta is good with thicker meat ragus because the braised, raggedy pieces cling to the face of the pasta.  By the same token, thick cheesy sauces do a nice job coating the pasta surface.  Wide flat pastas include pappardelle, tagliatelle, and  fettucine.  To me, the thicker the sauce is, the wider the pasta should be.  But again, some people like to have maccheroni or rotini with this type of sauce.  I think it is some kind of “mac and cheese” habit but I prefer maccheroni only when the sauce is really chunky or if the whole thing is baked.  [Again, some things can’t be explained!  Where did mac and cheese come from??]

Very short pasta like tubetti, ditali, stelle, riso, orzo or acini di pepe are good for soups (thick or thin) and pasta salads.  The main reason for this is that the little pieces can easily fit into your spoon.  So if you are making soup and you only have spaghetti, break it into bite-sized pieces.

Generally, I believe that when a recipe calls for a certain shape of pasta you should think more broadly about it.  Is it short, long or tiny?  What do I like/have on hand?  Unless you are making one of those specific dishes, deciding what shape goes with what sauce doesn’t matter too much.  I think that the Italians enjoy playing with their pasta and you should too.  After all, they make pasta in the shape of butterflies, shells, pens, hats, ears, stars, little mouths, radiators, and hair!!  So play with your food too, it doesn’t matter as long as you enjoy it.  Just don’t serve it to any Italians.  [Remember when Anthony Bourdain served Jamie Oliver’s spaghetti carbonara with meatballs to the Italians?  They said it was disgusting! Go to the 2:00 minute mark.]


In the July issue of Wine Spectator there is an informative editorial about wine vinegar.  Matt Kramer gives the mis-treated condiment its full due, he explains that, in fact, there are great wine vinegars and it is no coincidence that they are made by some of the best winemakers.  Mr. Kramer names Castello di Volpaia in Tuscany as the maker of the best wine vinegar and he notes that they grow a specific type of grapes for making vinegar.  Vinegar master, Giovanella Stianti explains that “you don’t want an alcohol level over 10 percent because that interferes with the bacterial fermentation.”  After Ms. Stianti ferments the grape juice with a mother starter and oak and chestnut shavings, she moves the vinegar to age in chestnut and oak vats.  The vinegar is then moved to oak barriques where it stays for about a year.  No wonder this is a standout favorite for Mr. Kramer, and Chef Tom Colicchio( who names the vinegar in his book Think Like a Chef), it is a labor of love.

So what do you do with a great wine vinegar?  You can make an excellent Salsa Verde (parsley, garlic, anchovies in salt, capers, olive oil and white wine vinegar blended like pesto) for meats.  Carpione di zucchini is excellent, pan-fried zucchini get a bath of wine vinegar and can be stored in this liquid.

And Mr. Kramer suggests you drink a Dolcetto or a Chianti with your dinner although he says “it’s the vinegar that steals the show”, I would also recommend a Roero Arneis to pair with the carpione di zucchini .

Give it a try, at Piazza we have both the white and red wine vinegars from Castello di Volpaia.  Gianni Calogiuri also makes vinegar with care, he grows special grapes for making his vinegar.  We carry his vin cotto.



More signs of Spring– ramps have arrived!  A wonderful wild onion, like a leek without all thetough fibers.  You pretty much eat the whole thing, the slim stems and the greens.  We are selling them for $6.10 a bunch and they are going fast!!

Now what to do with these lovlies; saute them, make soup out of them, blanch and blend with mashed potatoes, scramble with eggs, pickle them… here are some recipes for ramps including one with spaghetti!


I’m sure that you’ve noticed that asparagus has reappeared in supermarkets, some imported from Peru or shipped from California.  I don’t think that locally grown asparagus is here yet but as the weather warms it’s what we all want.

I was over at 2 Amys last week and I noticed that one of their specials was asparagus with saba.  I didn’t order it but I knew that I wanted to try to make it at home.  I bought some asparagus and inaugurated the grill with it. The asparagus only takes a few minutes on both sides– just leave it on a medium fire until it’s a little charred but not burnt.  I drizzled the whole lot with saba and olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and that was it.  So good, so spring and so easy.

Saba is the base of what is aged to become Basamico Tradizionale di Modena.  It’s earthy, deep and sweet.

panelle11Chickpeas are an ancient grain, nutty and so good for you that they are often dismissed as health food or a canned thing at the salad bar.  Well, there is a  solution to every problem and I am here to tell you that in this case deep frying is the answer. In Sicily they make little chickpea flour fritters called panelle (I believe that Naples has a version of it own). Made from a mixture of chickpea flour, water, parsley and eggs, the batter is formed into thin patties, fried in olive oil then served with a little ricotta salata and a squeeze of lemon in a sandwich.

I first tried panelle in Brooklyn at Fernando’s Foccaceria on Union St. in Carrol Gardens.  They were very cheap, very thin and very good.  I have been staring at the bags of farina di ceci here at Piazza thinking about those little pillows of fried goodness but last night I decided to try to make them myself.

I used a recipe from Molto Mario, Mario Batali’s show on the Food Network.  I have a few suggestions but overall things went well:


Suggestion number one: deep frying is difficult if you have a cook-top stove.  The ‘cycling’ of the power makes the temperature of the oil fluctuate wildly.

Suggestion two: use floured hands to form the fritters.

Suggestion three: let them cool before you take a big bite or else you will kill the roof of your mouth.  Ouch, I didn’t wait.

Chickpea flour can be used to make other traditional Italian dishes like farinata from Liguria, a sort of chickpea flatbread or torta di ceci from Livorno, a sort of giant pancake that is layered with thin slices of marinated grilled eggplant…

We carry several different types of Italian rices that may be used in many preparations, risotto being the most famous.  Which type of rice you choose depends on several factors which may seem confusing.  Your recipe, your tradition and personal preference will help you make a selection, however, choosing one rice and not the other is a minor in the big picture.  All of the Italian varieties belong to the same family of short, starchy rices.

Italians use rices derived from the japonica strain of rice, often called ‘sticky rice’ in Japan (in fact, you could probably make a passable risotto using sushi rice).  All Italian rices are characterized by their small grain size and high starch content but they vary slightly in grain size and starchiness.  They all have the ability to create a creamy broth during cooking (due to the release of the amylopectin starch), absorb a large amount of liquid and stay firm in the center (the amylose starch at the center of the grain remains unchanged after cooking). The difference is in the degree to which they do each of these things.  At Piazza we have the arborio, carnaroli, originario, vialone nano, and vialone nano lavorato con pestelli varieties.

Arborio has a medium size grain, and a very high concentration of starch in its grains, which allow it to absorb a large amount of broth while its center remains  “al dente”.   “Al dente” translates as “to the tooth”, indicating that it still has texture–risotto should not be cooked like baby food.  The crop yield of arborio rice is fairly high compared to other strains making this rice more easy to find in the US.  In fact, many cookbooks will call for arborio rice because it used to be the only Italian rice available!

Carnaroli has a relatively large grain for the Italian varieties, therefore it is able to absorb the most liquid and keep its core (“la perla”) firm.  Many professional chefs in Italy and in the US prefer this variety of rice because it so clearly reflects the flavors you add to it.

Originario has the smallest grain of all the Italian rices.  This is the ‘native’ strain of Italian rice, this is the rice that your great-grandmother would have eaten.  This strain has less amylose starch at its center so when it cooks it becomes really creamy and soft throughout.  Today this variety of rice is used for arancini (fried, stuffed rice balls from Sicilia), sweet puddings and soups.

Vialone Nano is a small grain rice (nano means small in Latin) with the highest amylose content of all the Italian varieties.  Vialone nano also boasts the fastest cooking time of all the Italian varieties,  (cooking time being the time it takes to make the starches creamy), at just under 17 minutes.  It is the most popular variety used in the Veneto region and often used for soups as well as risottos.  The famous dish using vialone nano rice is risi e bisi, a kind of loose risotto with spring peas.

At Piazza we also have a Vialone Nano rice that has been Lavorato con Pestelli, worked with pestels.  Historicially all rices were processed using large wooden pestels to pound the husks off the grain (think mortar and pestel) and this method is still practiced at the Gazzani company.  The standard practice today is to separate the hull from the rice grain mechanically using gentle heat as a facilitator.  Like for pressing olives for oil, some feel that the use of heat degrades the flavor of the rice.  Also, the mechanical separation of the hull from the rice polishes away the natural texture of the rice. We have some of the natural vialone nano grains in a clear container on the shelf so you can see the small ridges on the grains. Also, the pounding on rice breaks and chips the grains a little but, in a delicate dish like risotto, those little ridges offer a pleasant texture. 

Rice was available in Italy as early as the Roman empire but it wasn’t popular until the height of the Republic of Venice, 1000-1300 AD, and by 1475 rice was a major crop in northern Italy.  Early on rice was viewed as a luxurious food with medicinal purpose, like chicken soup or congee it was used to relieve a chill or revive an upset stomach.  As the Venetian merchant class grew during the middle ages they began to use rice more flamboyantly, preparing it with rosewater, cinnamon, or with almonds like they had seen in Arabic-speaking countires.  These sweet dishes were usually cooked in a method similar to the way risotto is made today.  At roughly the same time, the Kingdoms of Sicily and Naples welcomed rice from Arab Spain and began to create baked and fried rice dishes like timballo and arancini.  Today, 90% of the rice in Italy is grown in three cities; Novara (Piemonte), Vercelli (Piemonte), and Pavia (Lombardia).  If you drive from Milano to the Piemonte you might see these huge fields full of water and rice shoots.

Before WWII, risotto was a dish reserved for holidays or Sunday supper.  Today it has become a fixture in many northern households and a staple in many osterie and ristorante.  The same is true in southern Italy, complicated rice dishes that take the extra time to prepare are now common place  in tavola calde and panini bars in Sicily.  

Now it is possible to find excellent rices in Easton for all your Italian recipes just come to Piazza, tell us what you are making and we will help you pick the best rice for the job.

Last week I went to New York to pick up our first order of food for the store!  I received some great things and here are some pictures to whet your appetite:

chickpea flour

(and here is a classic Ligurian snack made with farina di ceci)


a very green, grassy Tuscan olive oil from a famous vineyard


porcini oil


whole farro, an ancient grain and staple for the Roman legions


stracci toscani pasta (tuscan rags)