How Italy changed the nation’s eating habits: 3 pasta dishes to capture the essence of Rome

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Simple, delicious and resistant, Italian food is a worldwide favourite. From hearty pastas through hedonistic pizzas all the way to delicate gelato, this cuisine is cherished by everyone. In fact, two thirds of Brits voted it as their favourite. But why do we adore it so much? How did spag bol become so predominant in our kitchens that many believe it is British? And is it ever going away? We’ve tried to answer these questions, while presenting three popular dishes originating in Rome, to allow you to bring a flavour  of the region to your house. Buon appetito!

Why do we love Italian food so much?

Our love affair with Italian flavours is long-standing, and can be dated back to when the Romans ruled Britain, bringing with them many of the staples we now love, such as turnips, asparagus, peas, garlic, cabbages and leeks — not to mention spices and herbs. Roman cuisine was intricate and more sophisticated than the Isles had seen previously. Adopted by the British elite of the time, the influence of the regional cuisine was profound. Even the poor started using the new produce in their own ways, in British stews and broths. When the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, their cooking methods started dissipating, but the changes they introduced to our local agriculture remained strong.

Fast forward about 1,400 years, the 19th century brought with it major immigration from all across the globe, including Italy. These flavour-savvy Italians opened cafés and restaurants, enticing Britons to taste their modern cooking, which included our favourite dishes of today. Brits started travelling to Italy themselves, bringing back ingredients which sparked further interest in the cuisine. Perhaps most importantly, Italian food is based on tradition. It’s simple to make at home, easy to transport, the ingredients have a long shelf life (no one needs reminding of pasta running out in supermarkets when the COVID lockdown first started), and yet, it is absolutely delicious. The trifecta.

Essential dishes for any Italian food connoisseur to learn

Being so simple and focused on few, high quality and fresh ingredients is one of the main reasons why we love Italian food so much. Of course, we can enjoy the cuisine by attending one of the many Italian restaurants in the country. However, true lovers of Italian cooking should learn how to make these three staples from Rome. Who doesn’t want their house filled with a delicious whiff of pepper, parmesan and garlic?

Slow Cooked Beef Ragù with Pappardelle

Any Bolognese lover knows that nothing can beat a good ragù. However, did you know that although all Bolognese sauces are types of ragù, not all ragù is bolognese? According to Pasta Evangelists, “while ragù is a traditional Italian meat-based sauce, Bolognese is a type of ragù made using white wine and tomatoes.” 

We’ve decided to share a different type of ragù. One that gives every meat-lover the kick they get from a Bolognese while allowing them to try something new but still traditional. Instead of pairing the scrumptious sauce with spaghetti, Pasta Evangelists warn that it would suit a flatter and wider shape better due to its rough and porous surface, so if you don’t have pappardelle lying around, perhaps try to reach for tagliatelle instead.

Ingredients

  • 600g fresh pappardelle (or any flat, long and wide pasta you can find)
  • 300g beef shin
  • 2 finely chopped garlic cloves
  • 1 finely chopped large white onion
  • 2 finely chopped carrots
  • 2 finely chopped large celery sticks
  • 500ml passata
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 500ml beef stock
  • 100ml red wine
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. Heat a little bit of olive oil in a large saucepan or cast iron dish over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the meat and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes (if your pan is not big enough, you can work in batches). Set aside.
  2. Reduce heat to medium. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes, until the vegetables are golden.
  3. Add the rest of the vegetables, sautéing until softened. This should take about 5 minutes.
  4. Deglaze with red wine, then simmer until the wine has reduced by half, a further 5 minutes.
  5. Incorporate the tomato paste and passata, cooking for a few minutes, then stir the beef back in, alongside beef stock and the bay leaf.
  6. Turn down the heat to medium-low, cover and continue to simmer for 3 hours minimum. At this point, the beef should be extremely tender.
  7. If the sauce is not thick enough, remove the beef and reduce the liquid over medium heat. Meanwhile, cook your pasta.
  8. Pull the meat into chunks and stir into the sauce. Adjust seasoning.
  9. Incorporate the pasta into the sauce and serve hot.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti might not be the best option for ragù, but it sure is the perfect pairing with a creamy sauce like the classic carbonara. An iconic Roman dish originally eaten by coal workers, the cheesy, eggy, meaty flavours make it a crowd-pleaser. If you want to add a little oomph to the dish, try replacing the spaghetti with bucatini — thicker, chewier pasta tubes that allow the sauce to live inside its hole and explode as you bite.

Ingredients

  • 350g spaghetti or bucatini
  • 100g guanciale or pancetta
  • 50g grated pecorino cheese
  • 50g grated parmesan
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 peeled garlic cloves
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. Cook the pasta according to package instructions in a large pot of boiling, salted water.
  2. Remove the rind of the pancetta and finely chop the meat.
  3. Mix the parmesan and pecorino.
  4. Beat the eggs and season with pepper. Set aside.
  5. Bruise the garlic with the blade of a knife, but leave it whole.
  6. Melt butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Once melted, add the pancetta and garlic. Stirring often, cook until the pancetta is golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Take out the garlic.
  7. Lower the heat. Using tongs, add pasta into the pan, without throwing away the pasta water.
  8. Whisk the cheese in with the eggs, leaving some cheese aside for garnish. 
  9. Take the pan off of the heat, quickly pouring in the egg and cheese mixture. Coat the spaghetti using tongs. To ensure that the eggs thicken but don’t scramble, do this quite quickly.
  10. Add a few tablespoons of pasta water to the pan, moistening it up. Adjust seasoning.
  11. Serve immediately, garnished with cheese and black pepper.

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

Spicy and smokey, this tomato-based sauce is flavoured with chillies, guanciale (cured pork cheek), and the classic Roman addition to any dish — an abundance of freshly ground black pepper. Paired with this heavenly sauce, any dried pasta will work, spaghetti or bucatini being the most common, rigatoni coming as a close third. Although the sauce originates in Amatrice, it quickly became synonymous with the cuisine of Rome, making it into one of the most loved recipes of the region.

Ingredients

  • 350g bucatini, spaghetti or any dried pasta of your choice
  • 125g guanciale or pancetta
  • 1 minced white onion
  • 2 minced garlic cloves
  • 800g canned peeled tomatoes with juice, crushed by hand
  • 30g finely grated pecorino
  • ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. Heat oil in a large cast iron dish, over medium heat. Add guanciale and sauté until golden and crisp, about 4-5 minutes.
  2. Sprinkle with pepper flakes and black pepper.
  3. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft (about 8 minutes), stirring often.
  4. Reduce the heat to low and pour in the tomatoes. Cook, occasionally stirring until the sauce is thickened, about 15-20 minutes.
  5. While the sauce is simmering, cook your pasta two minutes less than package directions, in a large pot of boiling salted water. Drain the bucatini but reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water.
  6. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat. Add half of the pasta water and cook until pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes. If the sauce is still too dry, add more pasta water.
  7. Stir in the cheese and serve immediately.
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