Vecchia Roma

Vecchia Roma

Appetizer. Water. Mixed salad.

Feast. Roman Tripe. Bucatini all’amatriciana. Escalope of veal with lemon sauce.

Apparently this hole in the wall had some amazing bucatini all’amatriciana, which traditionally is an Italian pasta suace made from guanciale (dried pork cheek), tomato, and pecorino cheese. According to reviews of the restaurant, they would make the pasta inside a gouged wheel of pecorino, and then serve it to you, piping hot, from the block of cheese. I was excited. Hooked. It’s not common that you’re served from a flavored bowl, much less cheese. The only time the container is able to impart flavor or actually be a part of your culinary experience is something like clam chowder in a bowl, or if your utensils and plates are biodegradable and made from plant starches. Delicious.

No neon signs here.

We got to the restaurant around six and they weren’t open until seven. We decided to burn some time, walk around the local area, and explore a random park, quiet streets, and a bakery that made animal shapes (essentially animal crackers, pretzel-style). After taking some horrendous pictures, the lady informed us that there was no photos or cameras allowed in the bakery. Probably some sort of copyright issue, as they didn’t want their bread art to be violated by a bunch of po-dunk tourists. Fast forward to seven. We headed back to Vecchia Roma.

Unfortunately, the bucatini all’amatriciana was not made in a giant hollowed out block of pecorino. But no matter. The food came, and it was absolutely delicious. I surprisingly enjoyed the tripe dish much more than the standard Italian pasta dish. The veal was pretty gluey from what I remember. Terribly overcooked, with a mysteriously sticky yellow sauce. Pass on that next time.

Looking at the pasta, it make me think about the difference in flavor profile when something is incorporated into the body of a particular piece of food, versus a sauce clinging onto the food. You could think of this as pasta sauce grabbing onto pasta versus something like ravioli. How do we get flavors to run within a piece of food, without physically stuffing it, or making a pocket? What’s the adherence factor here? Friction? Viscosity?

Pasta, in no doubt is somewhat of a miracle in itself. There’s rumors and myths and all sorts of odd suggestions when cooking pasta. Salt the water, add oil to the water, don’t do anything with the water, boil, simmer, the possibilities are endless. Regardless of the cooking method, it is paramount that the end product be al dente, soft enough to be cooked, but hard enough that it retains a texture, a nice chomping bite, so you’re not just eating starchy pudding. Shall we investigate some pasta?

Load Up.

Use a large amount of water.

Yes. Especially for dried pasta, there needs to be plenty of water around for the pasta to absorb. It is dried, you know. A larger volume of water allows dilution of escaped starch granules and gives room for the pasta to soak up the water.

Add large amounts of salt to the boiling water, to the point where the water is salty.

Yes. This is the seasoning for the pasta. If the pasta is absorbing water, it’s absorbing the saltiness that goes with it. We salt food the same way that we salt pasta. Salt also inhibits the starch from gelating, so the pasta will come out less sticky (but not entirely unsticky!).

Add vinegar to the water.

Depends. Hard water, or water that has a higher concentration of calcium and magnesium will tend to weaken the starch-protein film at the edge of the pasta and cause stickiness, as the ions act as binding agents between the pasta. Adding an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, will mitigate this effect. Only experience with your local water system will tell you if you need vinegar. Or you can let some water evaporate and watch the white stuff cake on. That’ll probably as good as any indicator. Adding an acid would help neutralize these free ions, to prevent them from grabbin’ hold your pasta and holding it hostage.

Add some olive oil to the boiling water.

Uh, unless you want to waste good olive oil. Water and oil don’t mix. The oil would float on top, while the pasta would absorb the salty water on the bottom. Pointless.

Don’t boil the water.

Really? Good luck.

Simmer the water.

You can turn down the temperature as to increase control of times and temperature for cooking pasta.

Don’t use water.

You will burn your house down.

No heat at all.

Just get out of the kitchen. Really.

Add spices to the water.

This is an interesting thought; if salted water can season pasta, and certain traditional recipes use broth to cook their pasta, I would think that flavor compounds in herb/spice steeped water would also work. Diffusion of water into the pasta (higher concentration of water into a super low concentration of water in the pasta, will shuttle salt and flavor compounds into the pasta, a la double seasoning!).

Rinse the pasta after its been cooked.

No. Stop it. Rinsing the pasta after its been cooked washes the starch off the pasta, and although it prevents it from sticking, it washes away the rough starchy bite of the pasta, and essentially, the friction. The subsequent sauce that’s served with it won’t stick well, and your “pasta dish” will end up being “pasta with a side of sauce pooled at the bottom.” You want your pasta to hold the pasta sauce hostage.

Douse the pasta with olive oil after its been cooked.

Again, prevents sticking, but you should be saucing it right after cooking so the flavors can meld.

Use the pasta right after cooking.

Are you crazy? Yes, yes of course.

Discard the pasta water.

Don’t! You can use the water and the escaped starch granules in it to help add body and thicken the sauce for the pasta. Extra layer of flavor.

At the end of cooking pasta, 80% to 90% of the surface is water, and in the center, around 50%. That’s where the uncooked al dente comes from. Not raw, but not starched up and watery. Diffusion takes flavor into the pasta. Friction lets the pasta grab sauce, and pasta water can add body and viscosity to a sauce. Three birds with one stone.