Pasta: as Italian as apple pie is American. You hear the word, you think the baked ziti on the white dish on the red-and-white-checked UK pvc tablecloths, with the wine jug with the woven bottom, and the candles and the accordion player, e così via. A makeshift memorial for late, great Italian-American icon James Gandolfini – outside the New Jersey home where HBO hit The Sopranos filmed – began with a bouquet of red carnations, two candles and an imported bag of dried Colavita Cut Ziti. In Big Night (1996), the greatest food movie of all time, brothers played by Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci bake a grand timpano, a majestic pastry dome encasing cooked ziti, Genoa salami, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, Provolone cheese and ragù, in an attempt to save their failing restaurant. Pasta: It’s important – and that’s just ziti. Think Sophia Loren: “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.”
Gianni Scappin knows pasta: dried, fresh, ziti, spaghetti, everything in between. Among many culinary credentials, he is the one who taught Peekskill native Tucci how to cook for his role as Secondo in Big Night. He also co-wrote, with Joan Tropiano Tucci, a cookbook featuring the famous timpano recipe, Cucina & Famiglia. Born and trained in Italy, he was the decorated chef of Le Madri in Manhattan before returning to Italy and then returning to New York: Rhinebeck, where he is chef/owner of Market Street. Cucina in Woodstock is his, too, and he is an assistant professor of Culinary Arts teaching in the Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici at the Colavita Center for Italian Food at the Culinary Institute of America: a full plate and a mouthful. And now, with Alberto Vanoli, in association with the CIA, he is the author of Pasta: Classic and Contemporary Pasta, Risotto, Crespelle and Polenta Recipes (Wiley, 2013), 266 pages of solid recipes and delectable color photographs by Francesco Tonelli.
“We wanted a good professional pasta cookbook that also a regular cook can use, for people who want to become versed in the tradition in order to build something more modern from it. That’s why we came up with Pasta,” said Scappin. “I try to do pasta season-to-season: spring, a little bit of asparagus with olive oil, maybe some chopped boiled eggs on top – I’m super-fine with that; winter, I like something with more cheese, maybe cream, which I’m not a big fan of in general, but…; fall, butternut squash, lots of wild greens. There are so many things you can do.”
The book is divided into four seasonal sections, with dishes titled in Italian and English. For summer: Linguini with clams, mussels and peppers (Linguini con vongole, cozze e peperoni); Eggplant gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce and ricotta salata (Gnocchi di melanzane con pomodoro fresco e ricotta salata); Pasta rolls with fish, broccoli, capers and anchovies (Rotolini di pasta con pesce, broccoletti, capperi e acciughe) that are as visually arresting as Murano glass; Risotto with sweet peppers and scallops (Risotto ai peperoni dolci e capesante); and Fresh cheese ravioli with pesto and pine nuts (Ravioli ai formaggi freschi con pesto e pignoli).
For Scappin, summer’s true taste is fresh pesto. “True pesto with basil, good cheese and pine nuts – use the smaller leaves so there’s no bitterness, it doesn’t taste like licorice. Drain the pasta and when it’s still warm, or even kind of cool, toss it together,” he said.
Pasta’s large appendix, “Basics,” includes tips for preserving basil’s vibrant green color, from blanching the leaves prior to pureeing to smoothing the finished pesto and coating with a protective layer of olive oil for refrigerated storage. A section on pasta secca, or dried pasta, encourages seeking out those with a rougher appearance for better texture in finished dishes and offers strategies for determining cooking times. Another contains recipes for broths, sauces and, of course, all manner of fresh pastas: squid-ink pasta sheets, basic pasta for tagliatelle et al, chestnut pappardelle and potato gnocchi.
Making fresh pasta, likewise risotto, is more “a relationship,” said Scappin, subject to a cook’s experience and preferences, as well as quality of ingredients. “What eggs are you using? Do you grow your own ingredients? Is it winter? Do you want a lighter version – the texture of the pasta, more of a bite or softer? You change it a little bit. Nobody’s going to tell you it’s wrong. It’s like Grandma’s Bolognese: We can argue every day which one is the best. In the end it’s up to you.” He advocates tipo 00 flour for most pastas, semolina and durum for more toothsome types.
Contrary to a long-held belief of mine, it’s not sacrilegious to cross sauces. “Long pasta usually calls for a more hearty sauce. It doesn’t mean it is wrong to put simple tomato,” said Scappin, who prefers long pasta with meats and shorter pastas with vegetables. “For short pasta, if you use garnish, potatoes, string beans, they’re supposed to be cut to the length of the pasta. They go well together, the different textures, and look good.”
It is, however, a sin to cook risotto in the wrong pot. “That’s bad. You don’t cook risotto in a sauté pan,” he cautioned. But as long as you keep that promise, the sky’s the limit when it comes to building a perfect pasta dish.
Scappin encourages Pasta readers to start simple and branch out. “If you’re interested in making more complicated dishes at home, go ahead and do it. It’s a lot of fun: two or three hours, over a glass of wine. You make it as complicated as you want and it could be an evening.”
Chef Gianni Scappin will visit Bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy in Rhinebeck on Saturday, June 29 from 3 to 6 p.m. He will sign copies of Pasta: Classic and Contemporary Pasta, Risotto, Crespelle and Polenta Recipes (Wiley, 2013) and share samples of dishes from the book.
Pasta book-signing with Gianni Scappin, Saturday, June 29, 3-6 p.m., Bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy, 6423 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-1117, www.bluecashewkitchen.com.