Italy, the land which I first fell in love with, seems like a distant dream that is eternally shrouded in midst and early morning dew, but at the very same time, feels as tangible and as real as the air which I breathe.
It was the place where I knew after two weeks of traveling with friends – hiking through colorful and bright Cinque Terre, walking on the bridges of exquisite Florence, being crammed together with other tourists trying to get snapshots of Venice, or just strolling around Bologna – that I wanted to return and live there, not as a tourist on a one-week travel itinerary as packed as a shopping list, but rather, as a foreigner enjoying the pace and life of ordinary Italian citizens.
I was fortunate enough to see Italy in the bright, glorious summer of 2007.
Never-ending sunrays and an excitement bubbling inside me were perhaps the reasons why Italy has such a special place in my heart. I was about to start my exchange semester in Mannheim, Germany – but first, some traveling had to be done.
I remember falling head over heels in love with how the Italians spoke; their hand gestures and non-stop facial expressions fascinated me. It was the first time I was traveling in Europe with friends and without family, I felt free as a bird and was determined it would be an adventure I wouldn’t forget. The bold colors of the small houses in Cinque Terre, a portion of coast on the Italian Riveria, and the salty sea air filled our afternoons as we lay on rocks bigger than us, our bodies glowing golden from the heat of the summer sun. Venice and her canals, dotted with working gondolas transporting people on their day-to-day affairs, was romanticism at its finest. I remember sitting on a bridge in Florence, alongside Faye, and as we contemplated the sunset in the dusty pink evening in one of Italy’s most visited cities, I felt like the luckiest person in the world.
Yes, there are times that beauty can really be that overwhelming.
It wasn’t hard for Italy to impress me with her old, historical architecture.
Some parts were broken and sagging from the burden of history, lined with fracture cracks – I often wondered how much longer would these buildings still stand, but then I realized these cracks were like wrinkles on a lady; proof of age and experience, and of a lifetime of lessons that I had yet to know.
I was only 22 back then.
Yet, even though I only stayed in Italy for two weeks, it seemed like such a gloriously long time.
I felt I was finally starting to understand the place (despite not understanding the language), when I was torn away from the boot-shaped Mediterranean country.
Now, almost six years down the road, I’m still filled with dreams of returning to live in Italy one day.
You know how sometimes you say something over and over again that it almost feels real? It’s like that with me and Italy. I’ve told so many people that I want to see and feel Italy like a resident would, not as a mere tourist, that I feel deep inside me it will come true, soon.
So many of my memories of Italy are filled with images of pasta and us stuffing ourselves full like hungry school kids.
I remember sitting at the cliff-top restaurant overlooking the breathtaking landscape of Cinque Terre, and savoring every mouthful of my seafood tomato spaghetti. In Venice, we moved from one trattoria to another sampling various pastas (raviolis, spiral pasta, whatever goes); and then spent quite a bit of time marveling at shop windows, gaping at the numerous colors and shapes that dried pasta came in. Later on in Bologna we feasted on bowls and bowls of spaghetti bolognese (we couldn’t resist trying the sauce which supposedly originated there).
Perhaps the one souvenir that I took away with me when I left Italy that summer of 2007, was an insatiable love for pasta; of almost every kind (although I prefer plain pasta to stuffed pasta anytime). Because of that, every time I make pasta at home, and particularly so when I use a sauce full of the tastes of the Mediterranean, I feel for a brief instant, that Italy is a little bit closer to me.
For me, Italy – whose people were born knowing the pleasure of doing nothing, and whose citizens grew up on pasta and pizza, and cheeses and olives and tomatoes and wine – is synonymous to a traditional kitchen brimming with the aroma of tomato sauce bubbling gently in the pot; plump with the rich, red flesh of freshly peeled tomatoes. Italy is what I associate with olives and olive oil and freshly-grated cheeses, and when I smell these fragrant aromas, I feel momentarily transported back to Italy, to its sunshine and salty sea air, and streets filled with trattorias serving piping hot pasta.
Last week was one of those times, when I made this incredible pasta dish, one which has all the right elements I look for in a pasta – taste, texture, and smell.
Essentially a very simple dish which uses the freshest of ingredients for the sauce – tomatoes; fresh basil leaves; minced meat straight from the butcher – this is possibly one of my favorite ways to eat pasta.
This Mediterranean-flavored sauce is packed with an incredible amount of flavors – from the intensely sweet tomato sauce, sliced black olives, and sauteed onions and garlic, all mixed together with minced meat that has been stir-fried until browned and cooked. The aroma emanating as you prepare this dish is just heavenly; so rich and thick you could breathe it all in and there would still be more. Then throw in some fresh basil leaves, sliced into thin green ribbons, and let them wilt as their flavor gets impregnated into the sauce.
I like the choice of a short, spiral pasta for this meat sauce.
I find the cockscrew-shape with a tight helix helps to better retain the sauce, which clings obligingly without letting go.
Mixing the pasta and the sauce, thick from at least 20 minutes of gentle stewing on low heat, the dish looks incredibly simple, perhaps even bordering on plain.
But the moment you try it, the rich flavors explode in your mouth like New Year’s Eve fireworks.
To jazz it up slightly more, I like to sprinkle some grated cheese over, for extra taste and color.
Pasta is perhaps one of the most beautiful things in the world, and this amazing thing that it does to me, transporting me back to Italy in a single instant, is just incredible.
SPIRAL PASTA WITH MEDITERRANEAN MEAT SAUCE (Serves 6)
Adapted from Pelusa Molina
1) 500g of spiral pasta
2) 50g of butter
3) 1 onion, diced
4) 2 garlic cloves, minced
5) 300g of minced meat (pork or beef – I used beef)
6) 2 cans of peeled whole tomatoes
7) 1 tablespoon of tomate preserve
8) 50g of black olives, sliced thinly
9) 1 cup of sliced fresh basil leaves
10) Salt & pepper to taste
12) 3-4 tablespoons of grated cheese (I used parmesan cheese)
1) Dice the onion, mince the garlic, slice olives and basil leaves
2) Saute diced onion and minced garlic in butter until onions are caramelized and transparent
3) Add in minced meat and stir fry until meat is cooked
4) Mash the peeled whole tomatoes to get the tomato sauce
5) Add in tomato sauce, tomato preserve, sliced olives and basil, and then add salt and pepper to taste
6) Let the sauce cook on low heat for about 20 minutes, the sauce becomes thicker and richer
7) Meanwhile, cook the spiral pasta according to instructions on packet
8) Once pasta is cooked, drain the water and mix pasta with the sauce
9) Sprinkled with grated cheese and serve hot