My nostaglia for Rome often brings me to a website and Facebook page called Roma Sparita or, literally, “Disappeared Rome”. The site features a entrancing combination of old photographs and prints of a by-gone Rome along with amusing poems written in romanesco, Roman dialect, in the style of Trilussa. I recently stumbled upon this poem ‘recipe’ for pasta alla capricciosella by actor and buongustaio Aldo Fabrizi—who in his lifetime published whole books of culinary poetry—and was immediately charmed:
Provate a fà ‘sto sugo ch’è un poema:
piselli freschi, oppure surgelati,
calamaretti, funghi «cortivati»,
così magnate senz’avè patema.
Pe fà li calamari c’è un sistema:
se mettono a pezzetti martajati
nell’ ajo e l’ojo e bene rosolati,
so’ teneri che pareno ‘na crema
Appresso svaporate un po’ de vino:
poi pommidoro, funghi e pisellini
insaporiti cor peperoncino.
Formaggio gniente, a la maniera antica,
fatece bavettine o spaghettini…
Bon appetito e Dio ve benedica!
I knew I had to try this recipe—and it didn’t disappoint. The combination of flavors—seafood and vegetables—was rustic yet refined. And I knew I had to share with you.
I was almost tempted to simply post this ‘recipe’ and leave it at that. Maybe start a contest to see who could guess how to make the dish based only on the photo and guesses about the poem—no Italian speakers allowed, of course. Call it my impish side… ;=) Even if you read romanesco, you might have a hard time following this recipe: like many old-fashioned Italian recipes, it has no measurements, no cooking times and few other details either. That’s because those traditional recipes assume some basic knowledge about Italian cooking techniques, in this case how to make pasta, that every Italian has (or at least most did, in the old days…). I actually sort of followed this pattern when I first started blogging. I liked the idea of recipes that were more stories than directions, but I quickly realized that food story approach alone was not going to work, at least if I wanted my readers to actually cook from my posts. So I gave in and started to post recipes in the usual format—trying to keep, however, that story telling feeling as much as I could.
In any event, let me translate this recipe for pasta alla capricciosella, not just into English prose—and no, I won’t even attempt to re-create the poem!—but into the usual recipe format, with specific times and measurements which, of course, are just reflections of my own preferences. Since none of that is actually given, feel free to vary as your fancy takes you.
Serves 4-6 people
For 400g (14 oz.) spaghetti, bavette or linguini (or other long pasta of your choice)
- 500g (1 lb) baby squid, cleaned and roughly chopped (see Notes)
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
- Olive oil
- White wine
- 200g (7 oz) cherry or grape tomatoes, split in half (see Notes)
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) mushrooms, roughly sliced or chopped (see Notes)
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) peas, frozen or fresh
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- A pinch of red pepper flakes
- Salt and pepper
In a sauté pan large enough to hold all the pasta, sauté the garlic cloves in abundant olive oil over moderate heat until they are just beginning to brown. Remove the garlic cloves and add the chopped calamari. Season with salt and pepper, stirring so that all the little pieces are nicely coated with the flavored oil. Turn the heat down to very low and cover the pan.
Let the squid braise until it is very tender, about 20-30 minutes for baby squid, 45-60 minutes for ‘regular’ squid. The squid will give off a fair amount of liquid to begin with, but as it cooks it may dry out, in which case add a few spoonfuls of water or wine from time to time to keep things moist. The squid itself should be much reduced in size and darken as its liquid cooks out; this is perfectly normal.
While the squid is cooking, start the pasta water going, then prep your veggies.
When the squid is done, uncover it, increase the heat to medium-high and add the white wine. Let the wine reduce, then add your veggies. Mix well to cover them completely with the sauce in the pan. Season well with salt and pepper as you stir.
Then, once again, reduce the heat and cover the pan. Let the veggies braise until the mushrooms are tender, about another 10 minutes or so. The tomatoes will soften and begin to ‘melt’ into the sauce, but not completely. A minute or two before the end, add the red pepper flakes and half of the chopped parsley.
Just when you cover the pan again, salt the boiling water very well and add your pasta, making sure that . it should be done about the same time as your veggies. When it is done very al dente, add the pasta to sauce in the sauté pan. Lower the heat as low as it will go, and mix it all up so that the pasta is well coated with the sauce. If things are a bit dry or sticky, add some more pasta water to loosen things up. The pasta should not be at all watery but slight ‘slither’ around the pan easily.
Serve immediately in warmed pasta dishes. The best way to do this is to grab a good portion of pasta with some tongs (or a pasta fork) and swirl it into the dish. Then spoon out a nice portion of the sauce, with squid and veggies, too, on top of the pasta. If you like, sprinkle a bit of fresh parsley on top for garnish, perhaps with un filo d’olio—a drizzle of olive oil. As the poem so rightly recommends, no cheese.
I can find baby squid, pre-cleaned and frozen, in my local supermarket. It is a real god-send. Baby squid (or calamaretti) are much more tender then ‘regular’ squid and have a wonderfully sweet flavor. But if you can only find the larger kind, no worries, it will just need to cook longer to reach that point of perfect tenderness at which, as Fabrizi describes it, the squid becomes almost ‘creamy’. Most squid sold in the US these days comes pre-cleaned, but if that’s not the case for you, this useful post gives step-by-step photographed instructions.
In his recipe for pasta alla capricciosella, Fabrizi does not specify cherry tomatoes, and in summer you could use fresh tomatoes in season. But cherry tomatoes do a very nice job, adding a bit of color and tomato flavor without overwhelming the dish. If you want to add canned tomatoes, add fewer and let the veggies cook longer than indicated above, holding back the peas for the first 5 minutes or so, so they don’t overcook.
As for the mushroom, garden-variety cultivated supermarket mushrooms are fine—in fact, the recipe calls for them—but I like those packs of mixed mushrooms. I would not use expensive wild mushrooms for this dish, however—not worth the price in a simple dish like this, where their taste would, in any event, be playing second-fiddle to the squid.
Pasta alla capricciosella, by the way, takes it name (I think) from an old song you can list to on YouTube.