To his credit, Antonio Carluccio, owner of Covent Garden's Neal Street restaurant, measured up on both counts. He served up pasta, and lots of it. The Maestro was in London to sing in Tosca earlier this year, and the chairman of Covent Garden Opera, Jeremy Isaacs, brought him to the restaurant. Fellow Italian Antonio (no lightweight himself at 18 stone) produced two huge plates of freshly made tagliolini, with portions enough for three on each, bathed in tomato sauce with basil. The opera singer polished them off with satisfaction and then expressed his feelings in the time-honoured Italian way, making circular motions with his hands over the globe of his Great Tum. Antonio purred. 'Only another Italian can fully comprehend the degree of his enjoyment,' he explained.
Antonio was well rehearsed. He had been told that Pavarotti could consume a kilo of pasta at a sitting, enough for about 8-10 ordinary mortals. And yet for a man who could afford to order caviare and foie gras for the whole Covent Garden Opera company, pasta sounds a modest option. But Antonio well understands that pasta is more than a food to an Italian. It's a way of life, a culture, the cornerstone of Latin civilisation.
'In Britain people have still got a lot to understand about pasta,' says Antonio. Italians eat about 35 kilos a head every year (we manage 3 1/2 lb). But while we focus on a few well-tried varieties, spaghetti and macaroni, lasagne and shells, the Italians pick and choose from 350 different kinds.
Antonio is in a mood to expound his philosophy of pasta, having just put it all together for a book to be published next month, A Passion for Pasta (BBC pounds 15.99). The plateful he'd prepared for Pavarotti was a case in point: freshly made tagliolini - noodles roughly cut (the word means scissored).
His kitchens produce fresh noodles every day: the soft pasta of the north, hand- made with imported, extra fine (Double Zero) soft flour and free-range eggs. The eggs are also imported from Italy, because Antonio believes the special flavour of the yolks is significant - derived from the chickens' winter diet of maize.
Although there are several hundred pasta shapes, says Antonio, there are only three main categories. The first is the soft hand-made type he serves in his restaurant, tagliolini, tagliatelle, and pappardelle; this is also the pasta used in the north of Italy, in Emilio-Romagna, for fillings, such as ravioli, tortellini and cappellacci. It cooks in 2-3 minutes. The second type is the one we know best - hard, dried pasta, machine-made and extruded into the familiar spaghetti, macaroni and shell shapes. It cooks in 7-12 minutes.
A third kind, which few of us have ever come across, is the hand-made hard pasta of the south of Italy, Puglia and Sardinia, such as orrechiette and malloreddus. Even after 20 minutes of cooking these tough pastas remain al dente, but their chewiness is particularly attractive, especially combined with a long slow-simmered ragu or a meat and tomato sauce. 'It's very important to get the right sauce for each pasta,' says Antonio. 'There are pasta companies in Italy who employ women simply to cook sauces to match their products.'
If ever there was a man with a mission to explain, it is Antonio Carluccio. He has become an avuncular figure on television, treating us to treks through woods in search of his beloved funghi (his Passion for Mushrooms is the best book on the subject; Pavilion pounds 9.99), or surfacing like a huggable bear in steamy kitchens from Italy and Spain to Czechoslovakia and Hungary; or mucking around with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, who cooked while Antonio sculpted his bust.
Just over a year ago, Antonio opened an Italian provisions shop in Neal Street, next to his restaurant, which has rapidly become the benchmark for quality. It is a corner of a foreign field, where a director of Marks & Spencer, sussing out the new lines, has been known to come face to face with the new chairman of Sainsbury's, David Sainsbury, thoughtfully examining a loaf of ciabatta. (This recent chance meeting reflected well on the competitive urge of both supermarkets.) Antonio confessed that while he does make his own focaccia (a cross between a pizza and a loaf), he buys his ciabatta from the same source as M&S, the La Fornaia bakery.
Antonio started the provisions shop with his wife, Priscilla, who used to be a design chief with Habitat (she is Sir Terence Conran's sister). The items on sale are as much hers as his; giving the visual impression of an Aladdin's cave, full of booty demanding to be plundered. Her choice of packaging has added to the rich, sensual appeal of the foods themselves.
If British food shops smell of anything at all, it's washing powder or pine disinfectant. Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese food stores go to the other extreme, reeking of dried fish. Italian stores seem to have just the right balance and Antonio's is no exception: the bitter note of espresso coffee mingling with the sweetness of almond cakes and biscuits, the smell of freshly baked bread, the scented allure of dried porcini (wild mushrooms) and freshly crumbled parmesan cheese. And the colours: earthy black olives, translucent green olive oil, dark-red tomato paste. (They sell not only polpa, the seedless chunks of tomato, and passata, the liquid pulp, but also estretto di pomodoro, a cooked tomato concentrate, sun-dried, and six times as strong as regular sun-dried tomatoes.)
The packaging has been designed to show off the products. Priscilla has packed the best risotto rice (carnoroli) in bags of unbleached cotton, starched as prettily as any nurse's apron. Like great art, the packaging effects a suspension of disbelief so you may be confused into thinking a kilo of rice is a steal at pounds 3.25.
Everything is displayed in window boxes, cellophane wrapping, glass jars and bottles, such as olive oil and vinegar in which branches of herbs are steeping. Tinned food is in highly collectable containers: mostarda, the mustard-flavoured preserved fruit from Cremona, comes in tins stamped with the original 19th-century design. Another tin contains chocolates individually wrapped in papers in a design unchanged since 1826. 'I saw one in a bar in Italy and hunted down the manufacturer,' says Priscilla.
'I decided that food is something quite precious,' she explains. 'I wanted to give pleasure to people as they bought it and another pleasure when they opened it, like having a little party when you get home.'
The idea of selling food as treasure, she would be first to admit, is no longer typical in Italy. 'Food packaging is streamlined for quick sales in supermarkets. But, on the other hand, I'm determined our food shouldn't be gifty.'
Prices? Well they do sell some of the most expensive food on earth: white truffles (pounds 800 a kilo); aspretto di balsamico (pounds 32 for a third of a litre); estate-bottled first-pressing extra virgin olive oil (pounds 16 a half-litre); and bottarga (pressed tuna roe) for grating on to pasta (pounds 150 a kilo).
But you can buy pasta at a modest price; and this is still one of the few places in Britain where you can get Sardinian pasta, made by a machine imitating the artisanal hand-rolling technique (though it can only be a matter of time before M & S and Sainsbury's are on the case). For those who can't get to Antonio's shop, he is introducing a mail-order service later this year. Here are some of his tips to make pasta-eating more pleasurable.
THE PAN: should be very large.
WATER: it may seem a lot, but aim for a minimum ratio of one litre of water per 100g of pasta. The water should be boiling fast when you put in the pasta. Slam the lid on to get back quickly to boiling point, then remove it. It can then roll along at a steady boil. Stop the boiling with a cupful of water when the pasta is al dente, still chewy. This is a matter of taste: the Neapolitans like it so chewy that the strands uncoil like springs on the plate.
SALT: add one teaspoonful per litre of water. It works out at 2oz to a pound of pasta. This is essential for the flavour and it cannot be made up by salting after the cooking.
OIL: no need for any except for flat pastas like lasagne, which are liable to stick. Add a tablespoon to the boiling water; lower the pieces of pasta into it one by one, so that the oil coats the surface. Stir frequently at the beginning of the cooking time to prevent sticking.
DRAINING: drain immediately the pasta is ready; if you don't it turns into a waterlogged mush (rather like canned spaghetti). Don't rinse in hot or cold water or you'll destroy its starchy character. If you've cooked it in enough water there's no need to. Keep some of the cooking water in case you need it to moisten the pasta later.
SAUCE: put the pasta back in the hot saucepan or a warmed bowl. Add the dressing while hot. And if you like stir in a little olive oil or a few knobs of butter, and enough of the hot cooking water to moisten it. Pour half your sauce, tomato for example or a meat ragu, into the pasta and mix to coat each piece. Serve on warm plates, putting a little more sauce on the top of each. Add a few turns of freshly grated black pepper and perhaps some freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese.
Here are two pasta dish recipes that Antonio has created especially for Independent on Sunday readers.
TAGLIOLINI WITH ASPARAGUS AND JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES
This has the advantage of being simple, and is perfect for the spring and may be enjoyed by vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
14oz fresh tagliolini or 10oz dried egg tagliolini
8 large asparagus spears
3/4 lb Jerusalem artichokes
1 small onion, finely chopped
8 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
2oz freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Peel and cook the asparagus in slightly salted boiling water until al dente. Cut off the tips (about 2in lengths) and set aside; cut the rest of the asparagus into thin slices.
Peel and boil the artichokes until soft, drain and mash to a pulp with a fork. Heat the butter in a pan, add the onion and fry until soft. Add the artichoke pulp, the asparagus slices, salt and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper and mix together. Add the milk to give a fairly liquid consistency.
Cook pasta in plenty of boiling water - two minutes if fresh, four if dry. Drain and add to sauce. If pasta is too dry, add a little of the cooking water saved from draining. (The pasta should be moist but not watery.) Add parsley, mix well and place on four warm plates. Decorate with asparagus tips and parmesan cheese.
CAVATELLI AND LANGOUSTINE
Cavatelli is a hard durum wheat pasta from Puglia. It goes well with fish, and combining it with fresh, sweet Scottish langoustine does not detract from its Mediterranean magic. You could also use giant prawns or small lobster. I urge everybody to try this recipe which reminds me of my stay in Bari, where I ate this dish with the local molluscs. Eccellente]
3/4 lb cavatelli di Puglia (if unavailable use penne)
12 fresh large langoustine
1 small bunch wild garlic, or chives with 1 clove garlic
4 fresh ripe tomatoes or 10oz good passata di pomodoro
6 tablespoons virgin olive oil
6 fresh basil leaves
salt and pepper to taste
Because this kind of pasta takes about 14 minutes to cook, you have time to prepare the sauce. While the pasta is boiling, boil the fresh fish for 10 minutes, reserving a little of the water. Drain and peel the langoustine, take out the meat and save the claws for decoration. If using chives and garlic, finely chopped, put this in the oil and fry briefly. Add either the fresh tomatoes (which should be peeled, deseeded and finely chopped) or the passata. Add the salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and fry briefly.
Slice the langoustine, add to the sauce and warm gently. Drain the pasta and add to the sauce, mix and divide into four and arrange on a plate. Before serving, decorate with chopped basil and the claws of the langoustine.-
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