Looking to tone up for spring? Try the new Venice Workout. Here’s what you do. Step one, fly to Venice (landing on a Friday in August will ensure high intensity). Step two, try to find accommodations and restaurant seating without pre-booking. By the time you dodge the throngs of tourists and navigate the city’s nine billion stairs, you’ll have shed at least ten pounds.
I should know: I did when I tried it out on the first day of a three-week stay in Italy last summer. Tae Bo is so yesterday. In any case, this workout will leave you (as it left me) more than a tad peckish.
One thing you don’t want to do in Italy is eat at restaurants offering tourist menus — pasta and pizza both heavy on sauce and cheese, along with other exotic treats like hot dogs and hamburgers. On that hot, humid afternoon, I had spaghetti covered with shrimp, clams and calamari chased with the local wine. Not bad. But it wasn’t what I knew Italian pasta could be.
In search of the sublime
By the next morning, we’d had enough of our 200-euros-a-night hotel room and the swarms of mosquitoes and tourists (equally annoying). We piled into our van and headed south for six hours toward the perfectly temperate climate of Abruzzo, a region situated on the Adriatic coast, and into the city of Teramo, population 52,000.
As beautiful as Venice was, it had felt somehow lifeless. It seemed so surreal that I thought Disney’s architects had created it. In Teramo, you walk down the street shoulder to shoulder with the locals. The architecture displays an easy marriage of history and modernity. Medieval frescoes grace the underside of roof overhangs. Crumbling ancient Roman walls aren’t knocked down; they’ve been restored and fused to modern architecture.
Walking through the central piazza, closed off to cars, I felt like I’d eaten some kind of magic truffle. In fact, it was just the tantalizing aromas wafting out of local restaurants. Grilled seafood caught early that morning, wine reducing in a pan with onions, garlic, a little tomato, maybe even a peperoncino — the fiery hot chili that’s a local favourite — added to orecchiette or spaghetti. The outstanding pasta that’s made here reflects the area’s 3,000-year-old connection to land and sea.
Caesar to Brutus: Let’s do lunch!
Contrary to popular belief, Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Italy. It’s been around at least since the first century CE. Early writings describe a paste made with flour and water that’s formed then boiled in water. It was probably dressed with olive oil, pecorino (cheese made from sheep’s milk) and maybe vegetables, fish and other available ingredients before they realized that the tomato (a member of the deadly nightshade family, introduced to Italy in the sixteenth century) was actually edible and quite delicious.
The king of pasta
A truly national food, pasta has particular characteristics depending on where it’s made. Abruzzo is reputed to produce the best pasta because the crisp, clean water that springs from the Appennini mountain range running through the heart of the region is used to make it.
The region also experiences an ideal growing season for wheat. Planting can begin as early as February and the heat of summer warms the land until November. The hard durum wheat is nurtured by this climate until maturity when its natural sugars are perfectly developed. Its flavour is reminiscent of a good prosecco — biscuity and yeasty.
If you’ve never had good-quality pasta, it’s hard to imagine what the fuss is all about. You can’t overcook this stuff. Artisanal pasta is dried for 56 hours on average, as opposed to commercially made pasta that’s only allowed to dry for about 8 hours. Drying it for a longer time reduces the moisture content considerably. The end result is firm pasta with a consistency that resembles elastic rather than plastic once cooked. The texture remains firm and any sauce you use soaks right in.
Speaking of sauce, Italians love their pasta very lightly dressed. Making soup out of a good plate of penne arrabiata is not an option here. Do that and you’re likely to see a dumbfounded local shaking his head and muttering, “Madonna!” — the Italian equivalent of “Oh, for God’s sake!” They even have a name for the perfectly sauced dish: pasta asciutta or dry pasta.
Pasta like mamma used to make
One of the local specialties in Abruzzo is spaghetti alla chitarra, loosely translated as guitar-style spaghetti. A sheet of pasta dough is rolled over a wooden frame strung with taught wires. When the dough is rolling-pinned over the wires, it turns into spaghetti with a square, rather than a round, shape.
Generally speaking, just one kind of sauce is paired with this shape: tomato and meatballs. The tiny meatballs are rolled smaller than marbles and the tomato sauce is made simply with basil. The effect is pure heaven. The exquisite flavour conceals the simplicity of the ingredients.
I was lucky enough to grow up around pasta made with tomatoes that my parents had picked, cooked and strained themselves. On Sundays, my mother always made chitarra for lunch. My sister and I would sidle up to the table where she was kneading the dough. She knew why we were there. Without a word, she would tear off a small hunk of soft dough and give a bit to each of us. We’d sit at the table and sink our teeth into that silky mass, savouring its delicate flavour.
Making pasta at home is really quite doable. It requires few ingredients: flour, water or eggs. Mix all the ingredients together and knead the mass until it’s soft. Owning a pasta machine makes the job easier, but it’s not necessary. Once the pasta has been kneaded, it can be rolled out and cut into strips, squares or any shape you desire. Unlike the dried stuff, fresh pasta only takes a minute or two to cook. Be sure to drop it into boiling water that’s salty enough to evoke the balmy Adriatic.
Good-quality pasta imported from Abruzzo may cost a little more but it’s so worth the expense! It’s firm and flavourful all by itself and made better by a good sauce. I’d recommend searching out packages of Rustichella d’Abruzzo or Cav. Giuseppe Cocco pasta, still made with traditional bronze pasta dies to give the noodles a rough enough texture that grabs onto any sauce. Any upscale or Italian grocery store will carry these brands.
If sweet ripened tomatoes are hard to come by, try using D’Angelo tomatoes in a can, Pomi in a Tetra Pak or Molisana strained tomatoes in a glass bottle. Italians rarely allow tomato seeds to pass into their mouths, and removing them from the sauce does produce a sweeter finish. However, if you find this too labour-intensive, don’t worry about it. Pour yourself a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and have fun. Cooking pasta is all about passion and flavour.
If you happen to be travelling to Italy, try making a detour to Teramo. Eat at La Porta Romana or at La Terrazza in the even smaller hilltop town of Cellino Attanasio. In the meantime, load your CD player with Dean Martin or Louis Prima, roll up your sleeves and discover what pasta is all about for yourself.