Calabrian Simplicity: Bucatini alla Reggina
At first I didn’t hear the staccato sound of the double ‘g’ when my Calabrian friend Anna suggested she would make me bucatini alla reggina. To non-Italian speakers, it may not seem like much but it can make all the difference. I heard bucatini alla ‘regina’, which would mean the ‘Queen’s bucatini’. It made sense to me at the time, there are plenty dishes named after the Savoy Queen of Italy, including two old classics, pizza Margherita and torta Margherita (a sponge-like cake).
But I digress. It’s not the Queen we’re talking about here. It’s a double ‘g’ and ‘reggina’ actually refers to Reggio Calabria, that section of the Calabrian peninsula that looks straight across the narrow strip of sea known as the Strait of Messina to Sicily. A little further north is the town where Anna is from, Tropea, which sits over turquoise blue sea directly in front of Sicily’s volcanic Aeolion islands. She owns a creperie there that one day I hope to visit, but luckily for now I can still get a taste of her fabulous cooking as she’s in Melbourne, offering to cook me a lunch of a very simple, typical dish alla reggina.
“It’s the simple things that show that you know how to cook,” says Anna, almost in defence of choosing such an uncomplicated dish to make me. I couldn’t agree with her more. There is nothing more joyful than eating a simple dish done well.
Anna goes on to lament that she has yet to find a good pasta al pomodoro (the simplest of simple dishes) in Melbourne. Despite all the Italians that there are here and countless good (and authentic) restaurants, it’s true. Something’s missing. “Soul,” suggests Anna. I think it must just be that pasta al pomodoro is one of those things that probably tastes best when it’s made at home, like any other favourite, simple comfort food.
The secret to Anna’s dish is in the tomato sauce that she’s preparing as we chat. It’s a simple tomato sauce but she’s using three different types of tomato in it – fresh, tinned and concentrate (tomato paste). The fresh tomatoes get thrown into the pot of water that the pasta will end up in to soften them and make it easy to remove the skin. In the meantime, she chops a bit of onion – did I mention that the best red onions in Italy come from Tropea? – and fresh chilli. Calabrians love chilli. Her mother, Anna tells me as she’s chopping my lone red chilli, uses both red and green chillis in this.
Calabrian cuisine is an essentially ancient cuisine and still very traditional, rustic and hearty. It has soaked up Greek and Arabic influences over the past thousands of years but their beloved chilli only arrived after Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, when it was (after a short period of general suspicion) eventually adopted and enthusiastically welcomed to the Italian kitchen along with tomatoes.
While Anna checks on the tomato sauce, stirring every so often, the fresh chilli is placed in a large bowl with plenty of finely chopped parsley and breadcrumbs. This is the part I love best about this dish. The bucatini go into their boiling water and when al dente and piping hot, they are drained and tossed through the breadcrumb mixture. An amazing thing happens. The breadcrumbs, taking the chilli and parsley with it, stick to every strand of pasta and the mixture becomes dense as the bread is revived through the steaming bucatini. The pasta gets plated up, like it is, and the beautiful tomato sauce is dotted on top – Anna explains, this way whoever prefers more tomato can put more on, whoever wants a little can have little and everyone’s happy.
It’s a beautiful, quick and unbelievably tasty dish with just the right amount of warmth from the fresh chilli. The breadcrumbs make this dish asciutta, which literally means ‘dry’, but that’s not really the right word in English, I would say dense or thick. In other words, it will fill you up.
The bucatini have this funny thing going on – the hole in the middle makes it difficult to slurp up like spaghetti, but bits of sauce end up trapped inside, adding flavour to each and every strand. Genius.
Bucatini alla Reggina
- 400 grams of bucatini pasta (this is a generous portion, use 80 grams a head if you want smaller portions)
- 1 tin of peeled or chopped tomatoes
- 2-3 tablespoons of tomato concentrate (you can also use passata, pureed tomato, doubling the quantity given here)
- ½ a red onion, finely chopped
- 2-3 San Marzano or Roma tomatoes
- 50-100 grams of breadcrumbs, to your liking
- 2-3 small hot chillies (red and green), finely chopped
- A bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- Grating of fresh nutmeg
- 1 tsp sugar
- Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, grated
- Olive oil
Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta. When the water begins to boil, add salt (7-10 grams per litre of water). Not salting your pasta really compromises the overall flavour of your dish; no matter what the sauce is like, the pasta itself will taste bland if the water is unsalted.
While you prepare the ingredients (a lot of chopping!), place the tomatoes in the pot of boiling pasta water for a few minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and carefully (they will be hot) remove the skin and chop.
Gently heat the onion with some olive oil in a pan. It’s important to let them become transparent, but not burn or brown at all. Add the fresh tomato that you have just chopped and let the onion finish cooking. Then add the tinned tomato and the concentrate or passata, about 1/3 cup of water (you may need more if using the concentrate), the sugar, nutmeg and a good pinch of salt. Let simmer to reduce slightly and check for seasoning. That’s your tomato sauce done.
Cook the bucatini according to their instructions – I like these with a bit of bite to them but they usually take about 10 minutes to cook.
Meanwhile, in a bowl large enough to hold the pasta, combine the parsley, chilli (if you are afraid of the heat, avoid the seeds) and breadcrumbs. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and immediately add it to the breadcrumb mixture. Toss to combine well with a spoonful or two of the tomato sauce then transfer to a platter and dot the top with more tomato sauce or serve the sauce separately for people to add as they like.
Serve with grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese. A dish fit for a Queen!