When we speak to people we don’t know so well and tell them that we restored an old farmhouse in Le Marche, the legend soon and inevitably builds itself into our owning a “villa in Tuscany.” Though we recognize how privileged we are to own a second home in a foreign country, and our house exceeds every standard we’d ever want for it, “villa in Tuscany” is far from the reality of our nice old farmhouse in Le Marche. Only 7% of the people that visit Tuscany visit Le Marche, and outward signs of tourist amenities in our region are few — fancy shops to buy gifts, jewelry or local salumeria are rare. There are lovely homes to rent in the countryside, but how people find them, I don’t know, as they are not widely publicized and the region is still relatively unknown as a vacation spot, at least in America. There are many treasured works of art, architecture and beautiful villages. But not in the concentrations found in Tuscany and Umbria.
The food in Le Marche, however, is outstanding. Though most of the restaurants we frequent are modest and unassuming, we’ve had some unrivalled meals there. The formula in general is basic — antipasti that show off local cured meats, cheeses and vegetables; primi piatti of traditional pastas; secondi of simple grilled meats and contorni; a few typical dolci, which we generally pass on, preferring to find gelato somewhere in a nearby bar. We’ve had so many stellar pasta dishes in restaurants in Italy, and I always try to recreate them at home. Here are some of my recipes, along with links to the restaurants that inspired them.
Friday Night Carbonara
Inspired by Ruth Reichl and Ristorante Delle Loggette in Falerone
Serves 4 as a main course
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/2 lb. pancetta, sliced 1/4″ thick and cut into matchsticks
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 lb. spaghetti
handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
grated parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper
Put up a big pot of boiling water for the pasta. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet at medium high temperature. Lower the heat to medium and add the onions. Sauté for a few minutes until onions are translucent and begin to take on a bit of color. Add the pancetta and garlic. Continue to cook until the pancetta just begins to take on some color, about 5 minutes. Put the pasta in the boiling water and cook till al dente. Remove the garlic from the pancetta pan and remove from heat once the pancetta reaches the desired amount of crispiness.
With a wire whisk, beat 3 eggs in a large serving bowl with plenty of fresh ground black pepper until frothy. Drain the pasta and add to the eggs. The heat from the pasta will cook the eggs. Add the pancetta/onion mixture. Add about 1/4 c. of grated parmesan cheese. Toss all ingredients together and serve with additional parmesan on the side.
Warm leftovers in a small pan or microwave.
Pasta ai funghi
Inspired by Ristorante La Giostra, Firenze
Serves two as a main course, with leftovers
12 oz. package of fedelini or thin tagliatelle pasta
24 fresh sage leaves
1 lb. mixed mushrooms, such as shiitake, cremini or white. Rinsed, air dried and tough stems trimmed
1/2 c. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c. white wine
3/4 c. turkey or chicken broth, preferably home made
1 generous bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
2 tsp. truffle oil
freshly grated parmesan cheese
Set a large pot of water to boil for the pasta.
Thinly slice the shiitake mushrooms and cut those slices in half. Warm about 1 tbsp. of the oil in a large sauté pan and add the sage leaves. Sauté for a few minutes over high heat until crisp. Remove with tongs and set aside. Add the rest of the oil to the pan, and add the garlic and shiitake. Similarly slice the cremini mushrooms and add them next. Sauté over high heat until the mushrooms brown slightly, about 8 minutes. Stir occasionally. Season with black pepper, and salt if desired. Reduce heat to medium. Add the wine and stir in; allow it to evaporate.
Cook the pasta. As it’s cooking, add the broth to the mushroom sauce, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped parsley. Add more broth if the sauce looks dry; allow it to cook longer if there’s too much liquid.
Drain the pasta and add it to the sauté pan, reducing heat to low. Drizzle in the truffle oil. Mix everything together and garnish with the crumbled sage leaves. Serve hot with lots of parmesan cheese.
Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma is a Sicilian dish. I was inspired to recreate it when I found Italian eggplant in my local Brooklyn market. There are many different variations, and the history is interesting.
Serves two as a main course
1/3 c. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, diced
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1 t. oregano
1/4 lb. sausage meat, or 2 Italian sausages, cases removed
2 medium Italian eggplants, chopped into 3/4″ cubes
1 15 oz. can diced San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 lb. short pasta, like casarecce, mezzi rigatoni, penne
1/4 lb. ricotta salata, grated using the large holes of a box grater
Heat a medium sized sauté pan over high heat. Add olive oil, onion and garlic. Stir and reduce heat to medium. Sauté for about 7 minutes or until onions just begin to brown. Add red pepper flakes and oregano. Add the sausage and break up the clumps with the back of a spoon. Sauté for another 4-5 minutes until sausage begins to brown. Add the eggplant and allow to sauté for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently. When eggplant begins to brown, add the tomatoes.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil, and cook pasta according to package directions.
Rinse out the tomato can with about 1/3 c. of water and add to the sauce. When the pasta is finished, drain, reserving 1/2 c. of the pasta water. Add enough of the reserved pasta water to the sauce to get the desired consistency.
Add the pasta to the sauté pan. Mix everything together and serve with grated ricotta salata.
This recipe for pasta with zucchini, pancetta, mint and walnuts is mine alone. It’s inspired by the abundant mint that grows alongside my house in Le Marche, and the fact that zucchini was the first vegetable my daughter came to love.
Pasta with Zucchini, Pancetta and Walnuts
1/3 c. olive oil, separated
3 medium sized zucchini, cut into matchsticks with a mandoline
1/2 lb. pancetta, cut into matchsticks
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 c. toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
1 c. mint leaves, tear the larger ones in pieces
1 lb. short pasta
Grated parmesan cheese
Set a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. Heat a medium sized skillet on high heat. Add 1 tbsp. of olive oil and when it heats, add the zucchini. Stir occasionally until the zucchini begins to brown. Use a slotted spoon to remove zucchini to a plate. Set aside.
Put up the pasta and cook to al dente package directions.
Add the remaining oil and the pancetta, garlic and red pepper flakes to the skillet over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the pancetta just begins to brown. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 c. of cooking water. Reduce the heat to low for the skillet. Add the pasta, walnuts, mint, zucchini and a bit of the cooking water if the dish is dry. Toss all ingredients together and serve hot with lots of grated parmesan cheese.