As a young girl, l knew that the kitchen was the place to hear my Nonni tell stories of my great-grandparents and the hardships that came with immigration. They arrived in this country from southern Italy at the turn of the century, and food was the thing that brought everything and everyone together. I loved hearing how my great-grandmother and namesake, Maria-Nicola (who also went by Colu), warmed day-old bean-soaking water and poured it over stale, toasted bread and drizzled it with cheese and olive oil for a makeshift "soup." Or how she rolled out ravioli dough with what was available in their tiny tenement–a broomstick. It was these tales and the recipes that were born out of poverty and necessity that stirred my passion for food. They taught me how much was possible with whatever we have access to.
Growing up with this heritage also came with a number of steadfast holiday traditions such as celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve and making Pizza Piena , a rich pie filled with eggs, cheese, and cured meats, on Easter. All year long, pasta was served two to three times a week, with sauces like tuna-clam, pasta e fagiole, and marinara in constant rotation.
Sundays were reserved for pasta with meat sauce, and those were my favorite days. I'd wake to the sputtering of hot olive oil as meatballs crisped in the pan while sauce simmered on the stove, its smell slowly making its way up the stairs to my bedroom, sweet and savory all at once. I would jump out of bed and race downstairs eager for a plate of sauce, a meatball, and lots of grated Pecorino cheese. It's still my favorite breakfast.
Pasta means comfort and it means family. It's the food I return to time and time again to celebrate a triumph and to drown my sorrows equally. But perhaps its greatest achievement in my life is that it's a constant reminder of who I am and where I came from. In these past few painful and unstable weeks, I have realized that we should never take that for granted. I am grateful that I have the privilege to carry these stories forward.
Save this meal to make when you're weary from travel, just moved homes, or anytime in between. This has been my go-to comfort food for as long as I can remember. The sauce requires only a handful of ingredients, which I've been able to find everywhere I've lived. I remove the garlic after it turns to a pale gold so it flavors the oil but doesn't burn. Then I add it back with the tomatoes. I like to sprinkle lots of grated cheese and black pepper over my portion.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 small onion, minced
One 28-ounce can diced San Marzano tomatoes
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
¾ pound cavatappi, or other pasta of your choosing
Grated Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano cheese, for serving
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of the salt and return to a rolling boil.
- While the water comes to a boil, prepare the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Remove the garlic and set aside.
- Add the onion to the pan and sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes to the pan. Fill the tomato can halfway with water, swish the water around, and add it to the pan. Return the garlic to the pan along with the parsley. Season the sauce with salt and black pepper and bring it to a simmer.
- Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente according to package directions. Scoop the pasta directly into the skillet and toss to coat, adding ¼ cup of pasta water or more (up to 1 cup), as needed to loosen up the sauce.
- Serve in bowls with lots of grated Pecorino Romano and, if desired, additional chopped parsley and red pepper flakes.