Our favorite souvenir from Italy
In March 2004, we spent the better part of two weeks in Italy ~ first at Alassio, on the Italian Riviera, and then in the Piemonte in Italy’s northwest. In addition to a few photos from that trip, I want to share one of our favorite souvenirs of Italy: an easy recipe for a pasta dish, pasta alla Genovese. But first, the story of our introduction to this dish.
Note: This trip was quite a few years ago and I don’t remember enough of the trip details to tell this story as I normally would. As a result, I’m going to share this story as a story, one that I recently wrote for a writing workshop.
Green pasta? Yuck!
Finally. We’re in Alassio, Italy. Well, at the train station, at least. I’d be excited if I wasn’t so hungry and tired.
After 36 hours on planes, buses and trains, food and sleep were only 500 meters away at our beachfront hotel. A couple blocks straight ahead, turn right and then a couple more blocks. Easy.
Bump bump bump bump bump. We drag our suitcases down the stairs to the street.
Click click click click click. Our suitcases’ tiny wheels register every cobblestone as we slog down the street.
Click click click click click. Was that my stomach growling? Probably. Our last meal was on the plane, some 12 ~ maybe 16? ~ hours earlier.
Click click click click click. Spaghetti. With meatballs. And wine. That’s what I want for dinner. Mmmmmm.
Click click bump click click. Right turn.
Click click click click click. This suitcase feels so heavy.
Click click click click click. I’m so tired. Good lord, it’s only 3 o’clock.
We entered the hotel lobby and were greeted by the manager. She was so very kind, especially when she told us they hadn’t received our reservation.
No problem, there were rooms available. Passports copied, Visa charged, she led us upstairs to a room with a very inviting bed.
Sleep? But we were so hungry. The manager was so very kind again when she told us that all the restaurants were closed until 7 pm. This is northern Italy after all. But there was an ice cream shop down the street, if that would help.
Sugar or sleep? We opted for sleep. We set an alarm so that we could be at the hotel restaurant promptly at 7.
By 7:05, we were seated. The table setting was nice, not fancy. But who needs fancy when all you want is spaghetti, meatballs and wine?
Waiting for our meal, I surveyed the table. Cutlery, check. Napkins, check. Stemware, check. Empty business-size envelope, check. Business-size envelope? What was that for?
No time to ponder that as our meal, a generous portion of pasta, some bread and local wine, arrives.
Uh oh. Green. The pasta is covered in a green sauce. Yuck.
Growing up in the U.S. midwest, I had never imagined green spaghetti before. Spaghetti was supposed to be red, like good ol’ spaghetti marinara or Chef Boyardee. There are rules, things are supposed to be a certain way, for example:
- Spaghetti has red sauce. Always.
- When making a peanut butter sandwich, be sure to butter both slices of the white bread before adding the peanut butter. Otherwise, the bread is naked.
- A meal has potatoes. Otherwise, it’s just a snack.
And so forth.
This was how it was. The rules. And green spaghetti breaks the rules.
I suppose I could have left, found another restaurant, ordered and then waited for something else. Something that followed the rules. But I was so hungry. So, forgetting the rules, I took a bite.
It was good. It was really good and that wasn’t just my empty belly talking.
We gobbled that meal down. Bellies full, we slept very well that night.
Eighteen years later, that green “spaghetti,” which is really pasta with basil pesto, topped with pine nuts, parmesan cheese and one sprig of fresh basil, is always on our weekly menu. Crushing the fresh basil sprig to release the aroma before diving into the luscious green pasta, we chat about Alassio, Liguria and Italy. How the beach was rocky, not sandy. How the barista tried to give me a café americano, rather than espresso, and was surprised when I insisted on espresso. How, when I asked the clerk at the convenience store why the football match on tv last night had been suspended, he said “stopped.” How he said it in his very-much-outside voice, pronouncing it “STOP IT,” that made me think he was yelling at me. How I paid for our whatever ~ I don’t even remember what I bought there ~ and scurried away.
How wonderful Italy is.
How rules can change.
And the business-size envelope?
At the end of the meal, everyone put their napkin in their envelope and handed it to the maître d’ as they left the restaurant. I think that was their way to keep track of which rooms ate the included dinner but I’m not 100% certain. I guess I’ll have to go back to Italy to verify. Yeeeessssss.
Pasta with pesto alla Genovese
Makes 4 medium-sized servings
1/2 lbs rotini whole wheat pasta
1/2 cup fresh or dried basil, chopped
1 jar pesto alla Genovese sauce (all basil)
1 cup finely shredded parmesan or pecorino
10 oz kalamata olives, sliced
10 oz sliced salad olives with pimento
For the garnish
toasted pine nuts
Boil the pasta in salty water in a large pot until al dente; drain, reserving a mug full of the cooking water. Add the basil to the pasta and stir. Add the pesto sauce and a dash of cooking water and stir. Add the parmesan/pecorino and stir well, adding cooking water if too thick ~ it should be very saucy. Stir in the olives. Top with mozzarella, pine nuts and a sprig of fresh basil. Serve with garlic bread & wine.
This recipe doubles well and can be frozen in individual portions, then defrosted and microwaved for quick lunches or weeknight meals.
The pesto: homemade or store-bought?
We use store-bought pesto, rather than making our own, because it’s good and fast. Good is important, of course, but so is fast. We usually have this meal on a weekday after work, so it’s nice to not have to work too hard on dinner.
What wine to drink?
Many experts recommend a white wine to go with pesto alla Genovese because the wines of Liguria, where pesto originated, are mostly white. This is in keeping with the “if it grows together it goes together” philosophy.
That’s fine but that’s not what we do. We prefer red wines, so we pair the pasta with red wine.
Our favorites with this dish are southern Italian reds: negroamaro, salice salento, or nero d’avola. Earthy, straight forward, with dark berry flavors, we think these varietals bring out the flavors of the pesto, cheese and sausage while not being expensive.
If you want to be more traditional and choose a red wine that’s made closer to Liguria, then a Langhe Nebbiolo would be a good choice. You’ll get a similar flavor profile to a Barolo or Barbaresco without paying the premium those wines command.
And for the record, here are the white wines many experts recommend:
- Ligurian Pigato
- Bianchetto Genovese
After the green pasta incident
After a couple nights in Alassio, we took the train to Genoa, rented a car and drove to the hilltop town of La Morra in the Piemonte (northwestern Italy, south of Turin). We stayed in a wonderful agriturismo on the side of the hill.
The Piemonte is famous for wine, particularly Barolo, Barbaresco and Dolcetto. We spent the rest of our trip visiting the many small towns and eating delightful dinners.
On a cold, dreary day, a plate of pasta alla Genovese not only warms my belly, it also transports me across the years and the oceans to that lovely spot on the Italian coast. And that’s a better souvenir than just about anything else.
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