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Pasta al Pomodoro, the Ultimate Test of an Italian Cook

This is a guest post written by Elizabeth, an American guest in Alexandra’s home.

There’s a saying in Italy that the best judge of a cook is their Pasta al Pomodoro, or pasta with tomato sauce.

Eager to learn, another guest and I got some friendly advice on making this Italian essential from Alexandra today. “I learned this recipe from my mother-in-law,” she tells us, smiling coyly, “...the first one.”

It may be a culinary barometer, but Pasta al Pomodoro is one of the simplest pasta dishes. Of course, each cook puts their own spin on it. This reminded me of Italian gelato - I’ve often heard that the simplest of all gelato flavors, Fior di Latte (just sweetened cream, no flavors), is actually the best test of a good gelato shop. In Italy, there is much to be said for letting ingredients speak for themselves when it comes to both food and wine.

Of course, there is always some gentle coaxing involved in getting nature’s bounty to reveal its full potential. Alexandra’s key to a great Pasta al Pomodoro? While tomato is the base of the sauce, the most important part is actually the vegetables that you blend into them.

You always start with your aromatics. Alexandra uses onions, garlic, celery, and carrots.

Aromatics are pungent plants - vegetables - that when cooked impart a strong aroma and depth of flavor to your dish. (They also make the whole house smell lovely).

Chop all of your vegetables as finely as possible. The extra surface area will maximize the aromas in your sauce.

Now for the extra virgin olive oil...I’m not talking about supermarket olive oil. Alexandra has harvested and produced this olive oil herself. In addition to being a wine sommelier, she is also a level-one sommelier of olive oil, so she stresses the importance of quality. If you don’t just happen to have an olive grove in your backyard, try to purchase from a family member or nearby producer you can trust.

Once the extra virgin olive oil is hot, add your onions. You always want to cook in hot olive oil and stir continuously to release the aromas. Sautee the onions, and then you can start adding in the garlic, celery, and eventually carrots. Cook until the carrots barely start to soften, and then add your canned Italian tomatoes.

Here you can mix in salt and any other special ingredient you’d like to add (Alexandra has one, but it’s a secret!). Let the sauce stew over low heat for a while, (this will lower its acidity), and cook your pasta. It's very important to cook your pasta al dente - especially if you're serving an Italian. They have a saying here that you only serve overcooked pasta in France as a side dish. In an Italian dish? Unthinkable.

Assuming you’ve made it this far without breaking out the wine and pouring yourself a glass, grab one of the wines that Alexandra has suggested below and open it up. Don’t be surprised if your neighbors come knocking - all of the aromas will be quite inviting.

Once your sauce has simmered for a while, remove it from the heat.

At this point, you’ve got a perfectly good sauce for your Pasta al Pomodoro ready to be incorporated with your perfectly cooked pasta. If you don’t want to leave your guests too impressed with your kitchen skills, stop here. Otherwise: sauce, meet immersion blender. This will whip your pomodoro into creamy perfection.

Serve up a plate of your Pasta al Pomodoro with some fresh-grated parmagiano cheese, and don’t forget to garnish it with some fresh basil leaves for the photo (trust me, you’ll want one).

Another tip from Alexandra - no matter the sauce on your pasta, even if it is a heavy meat sauce, always pour a few lines of raw olive oil over the top of your dish once it’s been served. It will improve the structure and increase the complexity of the aromas in your dish.

Alexandra’s Wine Pairing Tips for Pasta al Pomodoro

My wine advice for this simple but exquisite example of Italian cuisine: balance the plate and exalt its aromas.

Most of still white wines from Northern Italy could do the job as long as they have good acidity and aren't overpowering in aromas. Sauvignon blanc should be avoided, as this will give your plate an excess of vegetal notes. Sparkling white wines will excessively clean your palate, leaving nothing to enjoy.

In Tuscany, the preferences would be for simple red wines, sangiovese-based and blended to some roundness with other grapes, aged in stainless steel or very shortly in barrels. We have enjoyed it with La Palazzetta Sant’Antimo 2015 (featured in the picture).

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