When Americans thinks of pasta or spaghetti, they think of Italy and they think of economy. The words are synonomous to most of us although almost every country of the world has special pasta dishes.
Reasons for its popularity are obvious -- it tastes good in any language and although it can be dressed up to be very grand, it is basically one of our most economical foods.
The Chinese have been eating noodles from way back in the Ming dynasty, and they make them from rice, shrimp, corn, peas, wheat flour, and mung bean starch paste for the very thin, transparent, cellophane noodles.
The Japanese cuisine also includes lots of noodles with some from wheat and buckwheat. There are two kinds, the udon, a wide, soft white noodle, and soba, which are thin and come in many styles: a gray buckwheat, a curly noodle, and green spinach noodles. Soba shops in Japan specialize in noodles to take out.
Germany has its sweet noodle puddings, thin soup noodles, molded noodles, and cold noodles mixed into omelettes. Noodles are served everywhere in Germany especially in Swabia, and they are seasoned with nutmeg, paprika, poppy seeds, crumbled bacon, cooked ham, and other flavorings.
Noodles are made in much the same manner as pasta except that eggs are added. They are an important part of the Hungarian, Austrian, and German cuisines but you can find traditional noodle and pasta dishes in the cuisines of many other countries. There is even a sweet-sour noodle called trahana in Greece, which is made with yogurt and farina.
Pasta is, however, the national and traditional Italian food and there are countless varieties of it.
"In Italy there are many shops that make egg pasta daily, and you can simply buy the amount and shape you wish just as you might buy fresh bread at a bakery, " said Margaret Romagnoli, who with her husband, Franco, has recently opened a restaurant called The Romagnoli's Table in Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
"In America, few towns offer such a luxury, but the knack of making pasta is not difficult," she said.
The Romagnolis are familiar hosts of the public television series, "The Romagnoli's Table." They have published two Italian cookbooks, and their newest will be out in August.
"When you consider that you can take 3 1/2 ounces of flour, an egg, and some tomato sauce and you have a meal, that's economy." she said.
"Add some truffles and peas and you have a really super dinner. Add mushrooms and grated Parmesan cheese and you will be sure to please everyone."
We talked about cheese, since it is one of the major ingredients in many pasta dishes, and many are topped with grated cheese, either Parmigiano (Parmesan cheese) or Romano.
Mrs. Romagnoli is not one to put her nose in the air when it comes to grated American cheese.
"A properly aged, imported, ungrated Parmesan is preferred if it's available, " she said, "But packaged American Parmesan is quite acceptable, especially in casseroles and dishes using more than once cheese.
"Good imported Parmesan cheese is terribly expensive today," Margaret said. "There can be different qualities of imported Parmesan, but I would prefer a good American Parmesan to a poor imported one," she said. "We have found a really good Parmesan from Wisconsin."
"Pecorino, a sheep's milk cheese, is harder to find, and most people use its American counterpart, Romano. It is a sharper cheese than Parmesan. Some people think it's too sharp and like to blend it with Parmesan."
Although the Romagnoli's keep cost and expense in perspective, and have filled their cookbooks with refeshingly simple everyday Italian meals, they are discriminating when it comes to authenticity and quality.
Olive oil, another important ingredient of many pasta sauces, can also be expensive, but its flavor justifies its costs, Franco points out, and most sauces don't use much oil.
"Look for pure virgin olive oil," he advises. "It should have a gentle olive taste and a light gold-green color. Its taste should linger on the tongue briefly then disappear. Buy small amounts until you find the one you like. Taste it on a small piece of Italian bread.
So saying, Mr. Romagnoli poured out a small amount of a green-gold olive oil from a bottle on the counter of their restaurant. "This is extra virgin olive, Bertolli brand, and it's wonderful on a salad, on antipasto. We like it very much." I did, too.
The Romagnoli's newest book has just gone to the publisher, Atlantic Monthly-Little Brown, and it will be out in August. Called "The New Italian Cooking," it includes recipes of today's Italian cooking with use of the food processors, the pressure cooker and other time-saving appliances.
"Cooking has changed in Italy. The new, bright young chefs are retaining the traditional flavors, but they're wonderfully creative and are coming up with new , time-saving ways of making the old favorite dishes," Franco said.
"There's no hiding of secret recipes today. Chefs swap not only recipes and techniques, but ideas and solutions to problems. Some of the new chefs have generations of chefs behind them. Some come from chefs specializing in particular foods. "We were caught up in this new spirit of cooking all over Italy," Margaret said. "And this is the kind of recipes we have in the new book , with dishes for the small family as well as those for large gatherings.
The Romagnoli's restaurant offers the same kind of dishes -- inventive recipes from all corners of Italy.
Some of the new dishes are Spaghetti with Tuna and Clam Sauce, Breast of Chicken Stuffed with Cheese, and Spaghetti with Lemon Sauce.
An important element of the menu is pasta, but not the heavy, stick-to-the-ribs kind of pasta. It is made on the premises from their own pasta recipe.
A series of diners from various regions of Italy including Lazio (Roman), Abruzzi, Campania, and Sicilia, planned for Tuesday evenings, emphasizes specialties of each area.