Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Pasta Codex

Rizzoli just published The Pasta Codex, an English-language version of Vincenzo Buonassisi’s 1973 cookbook Il Codice della Pasta. Like the Italian original, this new translation contains 1,001 pasta recipes. Buonassisi writes: “The main purpose of this book…is a practical one: to collect recipes that can be used every day to enjoy variety on a single theme.”


In her Translator’s Note, Natalie Danford writes that The Pasta Codex “is a book representative not only of Italy, but an Italy of a particular time, namely the early 1970’s.”  Perhaps because the Codex primarily memorializes timeless Italian pasta dishes, the 47-year-old cookbook still feels fresh and relevant, save for a few curious standouts. A classic recipe for Cappelletti in Brodo follows an offbeat Tagliatelle with Chicken, Apple, and Banana. Buonassisi includes another recipe called Pasta with Bananas: fried bananas topped with grated sharp cheese and crushed red pepper flakes. 


The Pasta Codex contains eight chapters: Pasta with Vegetables; Pasta with Vegetables and Dairy Products; Pasta with Vegetables, Dairy Products, and Eggs; Pasta with Fish; Pasta with Poultry, Lamb, and Various Other Types of Meat; Pasta with Red Meat; Pasta with Pork; and, finally, Pasta with Game. 


Within each chapter “…there is a progression from simple dishes to the more complex.” The chapter on pasta with fish opens with Pasta with Anchovies. Buonassisi writes “[t]his humble dish is simply delicious.” It’s also extremely simple to make: dissolve salt-cured anchovy fillets in warm olive oil, add chopped parsley, and toss with cooked pasta. His Pasta with Fish chapter ends with “Zembi d’Arziglio” con Salsa di Arselle (Branzino-filled Half-Moons in Wedge Clam Sauce). Buonassisi introduces the recipe like this: “Teresa and Emanuele Viacava of Nervi won the Agnolotto d’Oro prize in Turin with this recipe. Zembi is a reference to the shape of the pasta, while arziglio is the foamy seawater that beats against the shoal.” 


Given my website’s torchio-centric focus, I want to end this post with a bigoli recipe from The Pasta Codex. Buonassisi includes nine different bigoli and sauce pairings. Entry No. 932, Bigoli with Pork and Veal Sauce, introduces the pasta’s shape and serves as a nice example of Buonassisi’s prose. Disclosure: I have not made this dish yet (because my vegetarian daughter came home for the holidays).


4 cups buckwheat flour or whole wheat flour

2 large eggs

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

About 1 cup whole milk

4 ounces ground pork

4 ounces ground veal

7 ounces tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips or minced

Beef broth

Salt and pepper

Grated nutmeg

¼ cup olive oil

½ yellow onion, minced

1 small carrot, minced

1 rib celery, minced

Minced fresh basil

1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano


Bigoli are a renowned homemade pasta from the Veneto, similar to spaghetti, but made with a special press and traditionally made with buckwheat flour, though recently whole wheat bigoli have become very popular. If you have a bigoli press, make a dough with the buckwheat or whole wheat flour, the eggs, the melted butter, and as much milk as needed to make a firm dough. Process with the press to extrude bigoli. You can also purchase bigoli, either fresh or dried. If you are making your own, let them dry at room temperature for several hours before proceeding. For the sauce, in an earthenware pot off the heat, combine the pork and veal, the tomatoes, and 2 tablespoons of broth and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and simmer for 1 hour, adding more broth if the sauce gets too thick. Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat the oil and sauté the onion, carrot, celery, and basil. Season with salt and when the mixture is golden, add to the tomato mixture and cook, stirring frequently, to combine. Cook the pasta in salted boiling water, drain, and top with the sauce. Serve with grated Parmigiano on the side.


Variation If you cannot find bigoli, use spaghetti or another type of dried pasta.


Given Buonassisi unprejudiced palate, it’s no surprise that his Codex advocates a decidedly open-minded approach to substituting one type of pasta for another. In his Introduction to The Pasta Codex, Buonassisi writes that the “golden rule is that pasta is largely interchangeable.” Compare Buonassisi’s flexibility with the (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek dogma of Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant: “‘Live and let Live’” does not apply to the service and consumption of Italian pasta….”


Buonassisi’s bigoli pasta dough recipe reminds me of what I uncovered in my bigoli research more than 10 years ago when I purchased my new torchio pasta press. Most of the recipes I found include eggs, milk and butter. Often flour selection differentiated the recipes with some calling for all-purpose, others for whole wheat, and a few for buckwheat flour.


I really like The Pasta Codex and highly recommend it to anyone interested in Italian cooking. Rizzoli deserves warm praise for bringing English translations of essential Italian-language cookbooks, such as Vincenzo Buonassisi’s The Pasta Codex, to a wider audience.