I've mentioned before that the world of food really opened up to me in Italy. It's where I realized that enjoying an entire pizza to oneself is fine if it follows a few rules: It's acceptable to eat an entire pizza if it's made with fresh eggplant sliced long and paper-thin, so that the sauce peaks through from underneath, and if it's dotted with the saltiest, creamiest clumps of gorgonzola cheese and not much else. It's fine to eat this pizza because it's served with a dish of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a spoon. It's ok to eat an entire pizza if one has wandered aimlessly through the streets of a city so old your heart breaks, for hours and hours. And yes, so you also ate a lunch that was mostly bread, but in the meantime you walked a lot, and thought a lot, and dreamed a lot, and smiled and laughed a lot, too. That counts as exercise in Italy.
I learned that drinks of the coffee variety should be enjoyed stationary, probably standing, and that if you absolutely insist on taking it with you, you will get a plastic cup with no lid filled as high as possible with the scalding, delicious liquid. Try walking now.
In Italy, I learned that Italian food is not smothered in sauce. It is not meat on pasta on butter on salad with garlicky breadsticks. Like all time honored food traditions, it's simple. Italian food is the best ingredients coaxed together in a way that bring out both individual flavors and an overall sensation. It's best savored either with table wine served out of a carafe at a restaurant with no name, or gathered in a hot, un-airconditioned kitchen that is centered around a simmering pot. Most of it can be done in twenty minutes or less. The rest must be simmered all day, if possible. All of it is elevated with Parmigiano Reggiano.
Food was my sight-seeing and my cultural immersion. Days were counted by the plates of pasta, pizza, panini, and, of course, cheese. When it was finally time to leave Italy, I left inspired and hungry. I also left reluctantly.
When I got home I started cooking and I haven't stopped.
This dish is inspired by a simple dish I discovered in Italy called cacio e pepe, which translates very simply to cheese and pepper. It's made with a light sauce that is absolutely remarkable; each of its 3 ingredients work overtime, proving that simplicity is not the same as boring. Inspired by this dish, but wanting to celebrate the Italian's almost religious respect for the king of all cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano, I created a pasta dish that my Italian self would be proud of. Parmesan is the star, getting help from spicy sausage and bitter broccolini. Simple ingredients, prepared simply.
Begin by browning some hot Italian sausage that has had its casings removed. Also, bring a pot of well salted water to a boil and cook some rigatoni according to package directions, save 2 minutes.
Break the sausage up into bits and cook until completely brown. Drain off the fat and transfer to a separate dish. I did this all at once, by placing a colander over a plate that had been lined with a couple of layers of paper towel. Wipe the skillet of any additional fat.
Meanwhile, take a bunch of broccolini and trim off the ends.
Cut them into bite size pieces, about an inch long. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the clean skillet and add the broccolini. Sauté until bright green and crisp tender, about 5 minutes.
When the broccolini is done, transfer to a separate plate. Add two tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil.
When that has melted, add some coarsely cracked black pepper and stir. Then add about half a cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Add in a splash of the pasta cooking water to the sauce and stir to combine.
When the pasta has cooked, reserve about 1/4 cup of cooking water then drain. Return to the pot and add sauce. Add pasta cooking water a tablespoon at a time and toss the pasta constantly, until a light sauce has formed and is completely coating the pasta. Add sausage and broccolini and toss again.
Finally, add more grated Parmigiano Reggiano and toss to coat. Add more pasta water if the sauce seems to thick or sticky.
Serve immediately, in warmed bowls, with Parmigiano shards on top and more freshly cracked black pepper.
The Parmigiano e Pepe sauce clings to the ridges of the rigatoni, and the sausage snuggles up inside the tubes of pasta. It's a little spicy, a little bitter, and the cheese is the only salt the dish needs. It shines throughout the dish and is what makes these seemingly simple, individual ingredients meld into a cohesive dish.
This pasta is comforting in a way that only Italians can do. It can be made quickly, is incredibly flavorful, and is meant to be enjoyed slowly, with friends.
Salty, nutty, earthy Parmigiano Reggiano has truly earned it's status in the food world; it's a flavor elevator. If I learned nothing else from my months abroad, it's that there is no substitute for real Parmigiano.
And the lessons about pizza. That's important too.
**This post is entered into a contest hosted by Whole Foods, in which bloggers are to write, test, and create an original recipe featuring Parmigiano Reggiano. It is in conjunction with their attempt to reclaim the Guinness World Record by "cracking" 500 wheels of Parmigiano on March 9. Winners will be chosen by a panel of Whole Foods team members, and will receive a trip for two to New York City. Wish me luck!**
Here's the recipe!
Parmigiano e Pepe with Sausage and Broccolini
Serves 6 (or 4, if you eat pasta like I do, oops)
- 1 pound rigatoni (I used Rigatoni Mezzi, which were these cute little half-rigatoni)
- 1 pound hot italian sausage, casings removed
- 1 bunch broccolini, chopped into inch-size pieces
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, divided, plus even more for serving
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season generously with salt and add pasta. Cook according to package directions, minus 2 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water then drain. Return to the pot.
- Meanwhile, add sausage to a large skillet set over medium heat and brown, breaking up into bite size pieces. When sausage is completely cooked, drain the fat (as much as you can get off!) and transfer to another dish. (I save myself a step and place a colander over a large plate that has been lined with several layers of paper towel. I add the sausage to the colander and let it drain, that way the grease will drain to the paper towel and I can just throw it away.) Wipe the skillet clean.
- Heat skillet over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, then add broccolini. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt (don't over do it! That cheese is salty!) Sauté until bright green and crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. When finished, transfer to another dish.
- For the sauce, melt together the remaining olive oil and the butter. Add the black pepper and stir. Cook for 1 minute, then add 1/2 cup of the cheese and 2 tablespoons of the pasta water. Stir to combine until the cheese is melted and the sauce starts to come together. It won't be completely smooth, but it will smooth out once it's added to the pasta.
- Add the sauce to the pasta, along with a tablespoon of reserved pasta water, and toss to combine. Keep adding pasta water by the tablespoon until the sauce is lightly coating all of the pasta. Add the sausage and broccolini and toss to combine. Finally, add the rest of the grated cheese and gently toss so that it melts and coats the ingredients.
- Serve in warmed bowls with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano on top and some more cracked black pepper.