Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Sep 26, 2009
05:01 PMSmall Dishes
When I was a kid there were two kinds of pasta, spaghetti and mac ‘n’ cheese. Except for ravioli, of course, that seemingly only came in a can. Sauce was inevitably red and meatballs about as exotic as it ever got. It was only on a trip to Italy more than a decade later that I learned that pasta came in every shape under the sun—from bowties to cartwheels—could be fresh or dried, stuffed or even flavored. (I still have a problem with the black stuff made from squid ink.)
Most of us have heard the story how Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy from China. There is evidence, however, that the Italians were actually enjoying the stuff long before his journey. The Chinese probably were the first to consume pasta—maybe as far back as 3000 BC. Unfortunately, my first encounter with Chinese-style noodles was those crispy, little things from La Choy that once again, came in a can.
Dried pasta became popular in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries since it could be stored on ships during long journeys, including those that traveled to the New World. Early on, pasta was finger food, eaten unsauced. By the 17th century it had become a staple in the average Italian’s diet since it was cheap and could be prepared in so many different ways.
This country’s love affair with pasta is a long one (no pun intended). Thomas Jefferson became a gourmet during his stint as American ambassador to France. Upon his return in 1789, he brought macaroni home with him. Later, he tinkered at inventing his own pasta making machine. The first commercially produced product was soon introduced in the U.S. by a Frenchman living in Brooklyn. By the Civil War, macaroni and cheese was popular American fare. But it was the flood of Italian immigrants in the early 1900s—mostly from the Campania region—that popularized spaghetti and tomato sauce. The Sicilians who followed had trouble in finding the ingredients they had used at home, so adopted the Campanian-style of cooking here. In recent years, many Italians and Italian restaurants have returned to their roots, featuring a wider variety of dishes and cooking styles native to various regions of the country.
Pasta is the Italian word for “dough” and has become the all encompassing term used to describe a variety of products made from flour and water. Pasta is always made from unleavened flour and sometimes contains eggs. Originally a homemade, cut-by-hand product, today many of the elaborate shapes can only be manufactured by machine. In Italy alone there are more than 650 varieties. Noodles (from the German word “nudel”) are pasta cut into strips. Macaroni is a specific variety of hollow, machine-shaped pasta, but in some parts of our country the term is used interchangeably with pasta. Dumplings are stuffed pasta; boiled, steamed, fried or baked. Couscous, made from semolina, is a dish of little pasta granules that puff when cooked.
Many types of flour are used to make pasta. The Chinese originally used millet. In Italy, pasta is always made from semolina—a hard durum wheat that is yellow in yellow and specially milled using corrugated cast-iron rollers. Not surprisingly, Italy has long been the world’s leading producer of semolina, but today much of the durum wheat it uses comes from Canada, Australia and Northern Africa.
What all pasta has in common is universal popularity, no doubt because it is both economical and versatile. But, perhaps there is more to it than that. It is one of the first truly different foods we’re introduced to as a child. It is neither the product or of an animal nor a plant, but manmade. It comes in intriguing shapes such as little stars, letters of the alphabet or slurpy long strands. Without a doubt, for many it is the original comfort food—mac ‘n’ cheese whether out of mom’s casserole or the little blue box. What is more fun to eat than pasta?
I always liked the name of the restaurant that use to be at Schenk’s Corners, “Pasta Per Tutti”, or translated, “Pasta for All.” So, here is my list of Madison pasta places—something for everybody—I hope.
Traditional Italian. If you’re looking for a walk down red sauce lane, Café La Bellitalia has all the old favorites, even spaghetti and meatballs.
Authentic Italian. Chef and owner of Oteria Papavero, Francesco Mangano, grew up near Bologna, the epicenter of Italian cuisine. He changes his menu from time to time but it always includes fascinating dishes like strozzapreti (it means “priest choker” in Italian), a hand-rolled pasta prepared with peas, prosciutto, porcini mushrooms and cream.
Modern Italian. Lombardino’s menu changes frequently but a permanent resident seems to be the orecchiette with sausage and rapini (which is a good thing since I just can’t get enough of it).
Creole Italian. You know the pasta Liliana better be good since it’s named after the restaurant. A most delicious concoction it is—andouille, chicken, blackened shrimp and pappardelle in a roasted red pepper cream sauce.
Old and New. Whether you’re hankering for some old style fettuccine alfredo or a more uptown fettuccine with lobster and crab in a vodka cream reduction sauce, The Continental Fitchburg has it all. Be sure and try the fried ravioli appetizer.
Lasagna. For whatever reason, lasagna is something more often enjoyed at home than at a restaurant. Gino’s is an exception where the lasagna is a specialty of the house and a secret Gargano family recipe.
Chinese. This joint began as the Wah Kee Noodle Factory on Park Street more than 20 years ago. Today on Willy Street, they serve a zillion kinds of noodles—thick and thin, both in broth and sauced—mostly Chinese but a few other Asian specialties as well.
Pho. A beef noodle soup that is Vietnamese soul food, Ha Long Bay makes several authentic versions including—for the more adventurous— traditional tripe and tendon.
Pad Thai. Stir fried rice noodles are flavored with fish sauce and tamarind, then combined with various meats or tofu and garnished with ground peanuts and lime. Pad Thai is the national dish of Thailand and Sala Thai makes one of the most exemplary version in our city.
Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Macaroni and cheese at The Old Fashioned is an every night special made with sharp Wisconsin cheddar and aged parmesan; topped with crispy breadcrumbs. It’s also available with a side of ring bologna for a genuine Sconnie touch.
Make-at-Home. RP’s Pasta, a local company, is the purveyor of restaurant-quality fresh and frozen pasta available throughout the Upper Midwest. It recently introduced a line of microwavable frozen pasta entrees called ForkMates.