3 authentic pasta recipes for a comforting Italian feast – from cacio e pepe to ragù bolognese

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Everyone has their own twists on traditional pasta dishes. But if you want to cook like the Italians, turn to these classic recipes…

What comes to mind when you think of Italy? The world-renowned sculptures of Michelangelo? Shiny Vespas whizzing down narrow streets? Dolce & Gabbana at Milan Fashion Week? In all likelihood, you probably conjure the image of a checked tablecloth, a bottle of red wine and steaming bowls of pasta.

An inherent part of Italy’s food history and a culinary staple around the world, pasta is one of our go-to dishes for a reason. Simple to cook and endlessly comforting to eat, part of its charm lies in the fact that many popular pasta dishes are made using the same ingredients and methods as they have been for generations. Fresh, dried or stuffed, it’s almost impossible to get pasta wrong – and so we happily return to the same recipes again and again, adding our own twists as we go.

But while you probably make certain pasta dishes on repeat without having to consult a cookbook, your version might be noticeably different to its original Italian recipe. Spaghetti bolognese, for example, isn’t made with spaghetti at all in its home city of Bologna: instead, it’s always served with tagliatelle. There’s nothing wrong with making traditional recipes your own – but there’s also pleasure to be found in recreating authentic dishes.

Enter Old World Italian: Recipes & Secrets From Our Travels In Italy by Mimi Thorisson, a new cookbook that pays tribute to Italy’s relationship with food through the dishes loved by people who live there. Filled with regional treasures and family recipes, it’s the kind of book we imagine will be passed down through the generations.

old world italian by mimi thorisson

Fancy levelling up your pasta game? We have three of Thorisson’s classic recipes for you to try. If the supermarket is closed (or you can’t be bothered to go shopping), the Neapolitan-inspired spaghetti alla puttanesca is your best friend. Everything in the dish can be made with pantry ingredients, from the canned olives down to the dried pasta. The ragù bolognese, meanwhile, is a great all-rounder that will always guarantee empty bowls (and the sauce is brilliant for leftovers).

And you’ll no doubt know the last recipe, cacio e pepe, by its reputation. Famously simple and beautifully beige (the only ingredients are pecorino romano, black pepper and pasta), this silky Roman dish is a must-make for macaroni and cheese fans – and, done right, will be one of your greatest dinner party success stories. You’ll be a pasta master in no time…

  • Spaghetti alla puttanesca

    puttanesca spaghetti recipe

    Mimi says: “I included so many pasta recipes in this book (too many perhaps) that toward the end of writing this book, I decided to cull a few. With great regret, puttanesca was on the endangered list, and I had decided to leave it out. 

    “Then it struck me that what’s really wonderful about this Neapolitan sauce is that none of the ingredients need to be freshly bought. While a well-made puttanesca reeks of freshness, it can be made with ingredients exclusively from your pantry. Canned olives, capers, tomatoes, dried pasta. This is the sunshine dish to make when you are snowed in or when stores are closed.”

    Serves 4 to 6

    Ingredients

    • 8 oil-packed anchovy fillets
    • 2 tbsp salt-packed capers, rinsed
    • 60ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
    • 2 fresh peperoncini or other hot peppers, thinly sliced
    • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
    • 450g can crushed tomatoes
    • 16 oil-cured black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
    • 1 tsp dried oregano
    • fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 500g dried spaghetti
    • chopped fresh parsley leaves, for serving

    Method

    Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat.

    Drain the anchovies, pat them dry with paper towels, and coarsely chop.

    Rinse the capers under running water, soak in fresh water for 10 minutes, then squeeze and drain.

    In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the anchovies, peperoncini, and garlic and cook until the anchovies start to sizzle (you can hear a crackling sound) and the garlic is lightly golden. Add the capers, tomatoes, olives, and oregano. Increase the heat to high heat and cook until the sauce starts to bubble up and thicken, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper. Set aside.

    Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook to al dente according to the package directions. Reserving 120ml of the pasta water, drain the pasta.

    Heat the sauce over high heat. Add the pasta and some of the reserved pasta water. Toss the pasta until it’s coated, adding more pasta water to loosen the sauce if needed. Serve immediately with a drizzle of olive oil and some parsley on top.

  • Ragù bolognese with tagliatelle

    ragu bolognese - authentic recipe

    Mimi says: “Spaghetti bolognese, the most famous dish in the world, doesn’t really exist. Well, at least not in Bologna. The mayor of Bologna got so tired of this misunderstanding recently that he took to the media to wash his hands of the spaghetti connection, for in Bologna, ragù is served with tagliatelle, which, along with tortellini and lasagne, are the best known pastas of Emilia-Romagna. 

    “Ragù (meat sauce) originally comes from Bologna and this is undisputed. There is even an official version of this most famous of sauces, but many cooks, even in the ragù’s hometown, apply their own twist. A lot of work and time has gone into research: I’ve tried countless wonderful versions, and all the really good ones are quite similar but with subtle differences. One chef includes liver in the sauce, which makes it more gamy; another uses a lot of liquid and reduces like crazy until he has the desired consistency. 

    “But the one I loved the most is very true to the original recipe. No particular tricks, just a respect for tradition, great ingredients, and thoughtful execution.”

    Serves 4 to 6

    Ingredients

    • 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
    • 1 large carrot, finely chopped
    • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
    • 1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
    • 1 tsp oregano
    • 230g pork shoulder mince
    • 300g beef mince
    • 160ml red wine
    • 500ml tomato passata
    • 4 tsp tomato paste
    • 250ml beef stock, plus more if needed
    • fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 500g tagliatelle pasta, fresh or dried
    • grated parmesan cheese, for serving

    Method

    In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the carrot, onion, celery, and oregano. Cook until slightly coloured, about 5 minutes. Add the pork and cook until browned, then add the beef and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Add the red wine and cook for 2 minutes to reduce. 

    Reduce the heat to medium and stir in the tomato passata and tomato paste. Add the beef stock and stir well until the tomato paste is incorporated. Season with salt and black pepper. Reduce the heat to as low as possible. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, adding a few tablespoons of beef stock if the mixture looks a little dry, until you get a smooth and rich sauce, about 3 hours.

    Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the tagliatelle to the boiling water and cook to al dente according to the package directions. Drain the pasta, toss into the ragù sauce, and mix gently to combine. Serve immediately with grated parmesan.

  • Cacio e pepe

    cacio e pepe recipe

    Mimi says: “When I was picking the recipes for this cookbook, the Roman pastas proved one of the biggest challenges. I was sure that I wanted to include at least one or two, but which? 

    “I’m talking about the four pasta dishes found on the menu of many or most restaurants in Rome. They are pretty much all the same recipe with one or two ingredients removed or added – a step-by-step thing: cacio e pepe, like the name suggests, has only cheese and pepper. Gricia adds guanciale. Carbonara goes a step further and famously includes eggs. Instead of eggs, amatriciana has tomatoes. 

    “Cacio e pepe would have been hard to leave out. This pasta dish is simplicity itself, which can sometimes be the hardest thing to achieve – ingredients are key but the magic lies in the execution.”

    Serves 4 to 6

    Ingredients

    • 2 tbsp black peppercorns
    • 500g dried tonnarelli or spaghettoni (thick spaghetti)
    • 270g finely grated pecorino romano cheese

    Note

    To make this dish slightly easier to pull off (maybe more delicious, and greasier as well) but less authentic, heat 2 tablespoons/30g butter with the roasted peppercorns before adding the pasta water. This will emulsify the mixture better and create a richer (but oilier) sauce.

    Method

    In a large, heavy frying pan, roast the peppercorns over high heat until you hear a popping sound, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and grind them with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Return the ground pepper to the pan.

    Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta to the boiling water and undercook by 5 minutes. 

    Reserving 370ml pasta water, drain the pasta. Add 250ml of the reserved water to the pan with the pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the pasta to the frying pan to finish cooking. 

    When the pasta is al dente, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pecorino and remaining 120ml pasta water. Quickly and thoroughly toss the pasta with the sauce to make sure that each strand of pasta is coated and the sauce is evenly emulsified. Serve immediately.

    From Old World Italian: Recipes And Secrets From Our Travels In Italy by Mimi Thorisson (£31.38, Clarkson Potter), out now

    © Mimi Thorisson, 2020. Clarkson Potter is an imprint of Random House

Photography: © Odder Thorisson, 2020

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.