How to Cook Spaghetti Like a Real Italian

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Riccardo and Stefano Casiraghi Paleari dig into some spaghetti. Photo: Gnam Box.

It is assumed that every Italian knows how to cook the classic pasta with tomato sauce. But who can cook it really well? We have asked two brilliant (and Italian!) food bloggers for help, in order to discover all the secrets of a tomato pasta cooked by real Italians: Riccardo and Stefano Casiraghi Paleari from Gnam Box. Riccardo and Stefano are experts at this seemingly simple recipe, and are known for promoting simplicity in cooking. This is the subject of their first book (In Food We Trust) and their blog. But first thing’s first.

Typical Italian-style pasta: Let’s start with the basics. First, make the sauce: Pour a little olive oil over a finely chopped onion in a pan. Fry the onion until it’s golden and then add chopped tomatoes (about 800 grams) and salt. Simmer the sauce for 10 minutes. 

Now, for the pasta: Boil a large pot of salted water, and add the pasta (preferably, in order to follow Italian tradition, spaghetti). Remember: the pasta should be added only when the water is already boiling. Doing the opposite is a very common mistake. Stir it to keep the noodles from sticking. Taste the pasta to gauge its readiness (see below for more on how to make sure your pasta is al dente), and drain it when it’s done. Add the sauce and mix. Garnish with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese or Grana Padano.

OK, so those are the basics, but what makes spaghetti really Italian? Riccardo and Stefano share some tips.

Add a dash of basil: “Put the basil leaves (about 20 grams for 2 people) in a blender or a mortar, then add a drop of cooking water, a little oil, and a pinch of salt. Blend until you have a smooth sauce. This sauce can be used to dress pasta along with fresh basil leaves, overtop the tomato sauce.”

The importance of good ingredients: As with all simple dishes, the secret is in the ingredients: "It is always important to choose the right ingredients,” Riccardo and Stefano explain. “From the shape of pasta to the various dressings. It is vital for us to use whole wheat pasta and seasonal ingredients. We like to try pasta made by small producers, very rough in shape and to the touch.”

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Using the right sized and shaped pot to boil your spaghetti is very important. Photo: Gnam Box. 

How to make sure your pasta is al dente: The real dilemma of pasta is always and inevitably the cooking, which should be “al dente.” But what exactly does that mean? The inner part of the pasta is cooked and the pasta is slightly elastic. The literal meaning of “al dente” is “cooked to the point that the tooth still has something to cut.” To understand when the pasta is really “al dente,” Riccardo and Stefano advise us to use the most simple but also the only really effective test: “The best trick is to go on tasting until it has the consistency you prefer.” In short, do not trust just what it’s written on the package, because everything changes, from the quality of water to the outside temperature. Only the taste can be a good proof.

What type of pot should you use? “The best choice is a low casserole (meaning a wide, low pot, like this). It may seem strange, but at least it prevents from "pushing” the spaghetti, risking to break them during the cooking. Fill it with water and wait until it starts to boil. You will need at least 1 liter of water for every 100 grams of pasta. Take a pinch of salt, then soak the spaghetti or the kind of pasta that best suits you. The average ideal amount of salt is 10 grams per liter. 

Tomato sauce is great, but not your only option: Especially when you eat it often, you will want to change up which sauces you are dressing your pasta with. But remember one thing: simplicity. “We eat it plain with a little extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese. If we are out of cheese, we use chopped almonds and herbs.” Always use whatever is freshest and in season, Ricardo and Stefano advise. In addition, for those who want to create their own personal pasta recipe, the Gnam Box boys recommend always keeping sun dried tomatoes on hand. "Although tomatoes are seasonal for a few months a year, dried tomatoes are a good help to dress pasta. We also love to use capers that our friends from Sicily give us.”

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Spaghetti Alla Norma from Gnam Box. Photo: Gnam Box

Parmesan or pecorino? Some may say that you have to add a sprinkling of Parmesan or Grana Padano, others use pecorino cheese. "We add Parmigiano Reggiano, but it’s not mandatory topping it with cheese when you cook it at home. In addition to chopped almonds we often use a mixture of ground seeds: flax seeds, sunflowers seeds… ”

How to cook pasta for a dinner party Pasta is considered the fastest dish to be cooked for a dinner with friends, but be careful: cooking for many guests can be tricky. “It’s really hard to cook express pasta for many friends. The risk is to end up with an overcooked and badly dressed pasta. For best results, you might want to prepare a pasta salad that can be cooked in advance. Cold pasta can be topped with fresh ingredients: fresh tomato, mozzarella cubes and so on.”

And what about the wine? Never miss the chance to taste a good wine with some spaghetti or macaroni. "Among our favorite wines, there are Greco di Tufo and Sauvignon, that are perfect with a good pasta dish. With the classic spaghetti with tomato and basil the best choice is Pinot Blanc from Alto Adige”.

And now, buon appetito (enjoy your meal)!