If you love pasta like we love pasta, you’ll want to know as many ways to enjoy it as possible. Luckily there is an infinite amount of pasta recipes and techniques to draw from. There’s fresh, boxed, made from scratch in your very own kitchen, with eggs or without, a pinch of salt added and maybe some olive oil. The combinations go on and on. If you add sauces to the mix, the variations increase exponentially. For something so simple, pasta has endless possibilities and that’s one of the things I love about it. Today however, we’re focusing on what my dad loved about it. It would have been his 81st birthday and so we’re thinking of him and celebrating him.
When I think of pasta, I think of my dad. He loved it for its simplicity and didn’t need any bells and whistles to enjoy it. He just needed my mom’s tomato sauce and some long stands cooked until al dente to be happy. He was perfectly content with a box of Barilla, but if mom and I made it from scratch well that was even better. Today on his birthday I want to honor him with one of his favorite ways to enjoy pasta – made from a chitarra (literal translation – guitar). I would say this is a bit next level and I haven’t really perfected it yet. To be fair, it’s been years since I’ve used this beautiful pasta making tool. I’m not sure why I let so much time go by without making spaghetti alla chitarra. I regret it a little bit so today is the perfect day to remedy that. I can’t increase the amount of times I made this for my dad, but I can accept it and do the next best thing. I can celebrate his memory and the things he loved.
The rectangular shaped stringed instrument made of wood is simple in content but remarkable in design. The mathematics of it alludes me but that has never hindered my pasta making. Within the rectangular wooden frame is a flat piece of thin wood slanted so that one end connects to the top of the frame on one side and other end connects to the bottom of the frame on the other side. The strings are stretched across each side of the frame but with different spacing for each side. This is to allow for making spaghetti, in which case the strings are much closer together or making tagliatelle where the strings are set farther apart. The slanted wood in the middle means that the pasta will slide easily out of the container regardless of which side you are using. Aside from the width between the strings and which way the center piece of wood slants, the chitarra is the same on each side. It’s beautiful in its symmetry and speaks to over a hundred years of Italian cooking tradition.
I’ve never seen a chitarra in kitchen stores in the US but a quick Google search shows that you can buy one quite easily and affordably from Amazon. That’s pretty cool, but I’m grateful that I got mine from my dad’s hometown of Montenero di Bisaccia in Italy. The small town is located near the border of the Abruzzo region where the chitarra originated. I first learned to make this pasta on a trip my mom and I took to Italy when I was a young kid. My aunt Pina who still lives in the town took us to buy the chitarra and showed us how to use it. I barely remember the experience. It’s more a feeling than a concrete memory at this point, but I’m grateful for it just the same. When I returned to the US after that month-long summer adventure, I couldn’t wait to see my dad and I couldn’t wait to show off my new-found pasta making skills. I’m pretty sure my mom did all the work, but please don’t tell my nine-year-old self that. I was so proud.
As I got older I began taking on more of the pasta making function until eventually my mom was assisting me and not the other way around. These days I’m running the pasta show. I love that Mike appreciates this tradition as much as I do. He was so excited to rescue the chitarra from hiding. At first the guitarist in him wanted to play it more than use it to make pasta, but I saw that coming and built in extra time for some pre-pasta music. He can even play a pasta chitarra!
I didn’t get it right the first time and I’m still working to perfect my dough and the process. The first batch I made just didn’t work and I had to break out my pasta machine to salvage the dough. I was disappointed but dinner that night was still outstanding. After all, it’s just flour and water. The flavor was good and the texture had bite – just the way we like it. I had used all semolina flour which is more course than regular flour and from my research is the traditional way to make chitarra dough. For my second batch I used a 50/50 combination of double zero and semola flour, but don’t get too hung up on the different flours. All-purpose will always work. In any case, I realized by my second attempt that the actual problem was my chitarra not the dough or the flour I used to make it.
Like a musical guitar loses its tune over time, the strings of my chitarra were loose and therefore out of tune. Mike has since tightened the strings and I think this will make a huge difference. I intend to make another batch today. This time for fun I will use regular all-purpose flour like my mom told me to do from the start. She remains amused but unimpressed by our use of multiple flours for everything we make from breads to pizzas to pasta. We have no less than 5 or 6 types of flour in the apartment at all times. My mom on the other hand has successfully fed a family and all of its friends for the past fifty plus years using nothing but simple all-purpose flour. She always got it right, so I’m going back to basics for my next attempt.
We’ll give you the step by step instruction on how to make this dough just in case you want to try your hand at chitarra pasta, but it will be just as delicious if you use a machine or cut it by hand. And if your schedule only allows for boxed pasta, we’ll at least supply a sauce recipe that will make your Barilla proud. For my dad, it had to be red. He would add tomato to just about anything. He loved it that much. This particular pasta calls for a hearty red meat sauce and in Abruzzo it was typically served with a lamb ragu. In the past week, I’ve made a variety of meat sauces for this pasta as I thought about my dad and how much he would have loved our meals. Although the lamb sauce I made over the weekend recently was robust and flavorful and truly perfect for this pasta, it’s much more realistic during the week to use meat that we frequently have on hand. In our case that is sausage. We always have it and even if we have to take it out of the freezer last minute, it defrosts quickly in a bowl of water in the sink. This Tomato Sauce with Sausage is a great option and relatively easy to make even during the week. Ideally, I like to let the sauce cook for about an hour, but with the quality of canned tomatoes these days you can decrease that time to fit your schedule. You can also make the sauce in advance. It will last the week in your fridge.
In my case today is a special day so I’m slowing down a bit and making this meal my priority. It’s a luxury I’ve learned that I need to allow myself. Tonight’s birthday celebration will consist of a slow cooked sauce and fresh pasta made from scratch. We’ll have a simple salad and some bread which is really another utensil at our dinner table. We use it for what is known in my family as “scarpetta” the act of using bread to scoop up whatever sauce remains in your dish. My dad and I never missed an opportunity for this ritual. It’s another memory I link to him along with Sinatra and red wine. So, Frank will sing in the background and the Chianti will flow. We’ll enjoy this simple meal. We’ll raise a glass. We’ll make a toast to everything he means to us. It would make him proud. Happy birthday, dad. We love you!
For more memories of dad, check out Favorite Things.