Sicilian Spaghetti and Gravy
Do you slave over a hot stove for hours perfecting your generations-old spaghetti sauce? The one your grandmother made, the one your mother made, the one your aunt across town made and to whom you traveled on Sundays because “her gravy was THE ONE!”
I don’t. At least not any more.
Blame it on Nino.
He is Nino Elia. He’s a chef of note here in the Lancaster PA area, who specializes in-home dinner parties, small events, and private cooking classes. Ellen and I met him doing a cooking-class presentation at my new favorite gourmet shop in the area, Zest! They called it Date Night with Nino!, and boy was it ever. Sixteen (mostly) cooking enthusiasts who love to get together and have a good time. This particular event was all about cooking Sicilian.
Nino presented pan-fried Kalamata olives with rosemary and ricotta salata, pollo alla vucciria–which he called Chicken Chaos (aptly named!), and spaghetti con pomodoro arrosto al forno, which basically is spaghetti with oven-roasted tomatoes and basil. It was all amazing.
When I was single and living in Olde City Philadelphia I used to make the spaghetti dish almost every night, because it is filling, healthy, cheap, and simple. But I didn’t know it had a name–to me it was spaghetti with a quick, fresh tomato and basil condiment.
Nino has raised this dish to an art form, taking it to a place beyond what I knew of Sicilian cuisine. It isn’t actually very far from what I used to make, but far enough to have awakened in me a new appreciation for what gets made for dinner in Sicily. I can imagine this dish being served nightly at homes all over the Italian island, and no one ever tiring of it–in fact, one can imagine alterations from time to time to keep the idea fresh.
So no more long, loving hours in the kitchen with red gravy (save that for some other recipe). Don’t cook your sauce to death. This one reeks of fresh ingredients. But also, it is so quick and simple that you will likely want to make this one of your go-to “dinners in a hurry.” That’s the way it ought to be.
Spaghetti con pomodoro arrosto al forno
12 ripe Roma tomatoes
5-8 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh basil, divided
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and pepper to taste
For the sauce: Cut the tomatoes in half and place on an olive-oiled baking sheet, skin side down. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, garlic, chopped basil, and olive oil. Bake for 20 minutes in a pre-heated 400-degree oven. After 20 minutes turn the tomatoes cut side down an bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover loosely with foil, and set aside until just before the pasta is finished. Pick off the skins and spoon half the sauce into a large saute pan over low heat. Chop or mash the tomatoes into chunks (a potato masher works well), taste for salt and pepper and adjust the flavor.
For the pasta: Bring a large pot with four quarts of water to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes come out of the oven, add two tablespoons kosher salt to the boiling water and stir once. Then add a box of spaghetti, stir once or twice, and cook for 2 minutes less than the recommended time on the package for al-dente pasta (the timing is important–the pasta will continue to cook after you remove it from the water). With a slotted spoon, remove the pasta from the water (SAVE THE PASTA WATER!), let it drain over the pot for a moment, and place it in the pan with the sauce. Toss lightly to coat the pasta with the sauce. If you’d like it a bit saucier, add some pasta water (start with about a half cup), toss, and let it rest a couple of minutes to absorb the sauce.
Serve the pasta topped with the remaining sauce, garnished with more freshly chopped basil, freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Want to see more of Nino? Check him out at: https://www.facebook.com/Nino-Elia-145679935496202/