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Pasta: The ultimate comfort food

Pasta, for me, is the ultimate comfort food and I think this is true of most Italians. In Italy, pasta is eaten at least once a day, and for most Italians a meal would not be complete without it.

Pasta is quick, simple, healthy, nutritious and versatile - from a simple spaghetti dressed with butter to rich ragus and elaborate baked dishes. For me, pasta is “fast food” at its best – quick to cook and the best sauces are uncomplicated and equally speedy to make. Pasta is a meal in itself and most recipes don’t require a lengthy preparation and you can get a family meal on the table in just a few minutes.

 

Nutrition

Nutritionally pasta is also excellent - perfect for growing kids and all the family. It is an ideal carbohydrate because it releases energy slowly; it is highly digestible and the lack of fats makes it suitable for low-calorie diets. Experts tells us pasta is not only healthy and nutritious but it also contains serotonin, a substance associated with feelings of peace and contentment. When I was young, my mother, of course, knew nothing of this, but when I was in a foul mood she used to make my plate of pasta a bit larger than normal and tell me to eat it all up and I would feel better. And, as is my magic, I did feel a lot better.

In Italy there are over 650 different pasta shapes on the market with new inventions every day so there is always something new to discover and taste. Pasta is seasonal too and can be enjoyed every day with not only a different shape but also sauce; you can make pasta as rich or as light as you like depending on seasonality, occasion and budget.

 

Seasonality

I was brought up cooking with fresh, seasonal, locally grown ingredients and I have always stuck to this philosophy as a chef and when cooking at home. As a child, I looked forward to each season and the produce it would bring - autumn with its wild mushrooms, chestnuts, pumpkins and more. In winter, we looked forward to game and root vegetables. In spring, the greengrocer shops, market stalls, gardens and fields became alive again with baby courgettes, salad leaves, wild rocket, spinach, peas, broad beans. As we moved into the heat of the summer months, we enjoyed an abundance of peppers, aubergines and of course our beloved tomato which we would preserve so it could last us the year.

I love the versatility of pasta. Pasta can be egg-based, vegetable based or simply made with water depending on regional varieties. Egg pasta tends to be popular in northern Italy especially in the Bologna area where it is used for tagliatelle and lasagne sheets. In the south, pasta is simply made with flour and water. Sauces are quite regional too and vary according to taste. In southern Italy, flavours are stronger with lots of tomato, garlic & chilli; by the sea, sauces are fish-based and in northern Italy sauces tend to be more delicate and meat based. The north is also famous for its baked dishes such as cannelloni and lasagne as well as filled pasta such as ravioli and tortellini.

Pasta dishes are not just “spag bol” - there is such a wide variety. To give you some idea of the diverse pasta dishes you can enjoy whilst in Italy or cook yourself at home, here is a month by month taster of some of my favourites. It really is a small selection - I could include so many more, but for that I would need to fill a book!

January - Penne con salsiccia e cavolfiore (penne with sausage and cauliflower)

This was a family favourite of ours when I was a little boy during winter time. Cauliflower was readily available at this time of year and we would use freshly made sausages which were made soon after the pig had been killed. In rural areas in Italy, the killing of the pig is still an annual ritual. This pasta dish makes a nutritious meal at this bleak and cold time of year.

February - Orecchiette con cime di rapa 

This traditional dish from Puglia is perfect at this time of year when cime di rapa (turnip tops) are plentiful. If you can’t find turnip tops, you can substitute with long stem or purple-sprouting broccoli. I like it with lots of hot red chilli to warm me up! And a good grating of pecorino cheese.

March - Trofie con rucola selvatica (trofie with wild rocket)

Trofie with basil pesto is a dish from Liguria, the region of the beautiful Cinque Terre. Instead of using basil, I like to use wild rocket at this time of year when it is at its best and most pungent.

April - Farfalle con pancetta, fave e piselli freschi (farfalle with pancetta, fresh broad beans & peas)

What better way to celebrate this wonderful fresh spring produce than in a pasta dish? Light, but perfectly balanced and nutritious and ideal for all the family.

May - Linguine con fiori di zucca (linguine with courgette flowers)

Such a shame that in England we tend to throw the flowers from courgettes away! They are delicious, so do look out for them when you are on your travels in Italy during spring/early summer – you won’t be disappointed. They are often filled with ricotta and deep-fried or added to pasta.

June - Spaghetti ai frutti di mare (spaghetti with seafood)

This classic coastal dish is one you will no doubt enjoy during your summer holiday at the seaside in Italy! Of course there are numerous regional varieties but one thing for sure the fish will be fresh and delicious.

July - Busiate con melanzane (pasta with aubergines)

This typical Sicilian pasta is delicious eaten during the summer months when aubergines are at their best and quite frankly the most flavoursome aubergines I have ever tasted were in Sicily! Busiate are a typical Sicilian long curly shape pasta. In Sicily, this dish is often called Pasta alla Norma and can be served with other shapes such as spaghetti or large penne rigate.

August - Pasta Salad

Pasta salads are so simple to prepare and really popular in Italy during the hot summer. It can be made in advance, stored in the fridge and enjoyed later for lunch or dinner when everyone comes home hot and hungry from a day on the beach. Or you can take it with you on a picnic. My favourite is with chargrilled peppers and olives. But you can make a pasta salad with whatever ingredients you have and prefer.

September - Il Ragu Classico con Paccheri (traditional meat ragu with paccheri)

Our family favourite Sunday lunch when I was growing up and still is with most families in southern Italy. Ragu is made with one or several cuts of meat and slowly, slowly cooked with tomato – traditionally made it can bubble gently on the stove for a good 12 hours! But two hours is usually sufficient to obtain a delicious tomato sauce which is served with cooked pasta as a starter – the meat is then served as a main course. Paccheri is a traditional pasta from Campania in the shape of large tubes.

October - Tagliatelle con funghi porcini e tartufo (tagliatelle with ceps and truffle)

A classic during autumn when wild mushrooms are plentiful in the forests of Tuscany and Umbria. As a treat, grate some fresh black truffle from Norcia over the top.

November - Cappellacci con Zucca (Pumpkin filled pasta)

This filled pasta recipe originates from northern Italy and what better way to celebrate this time of year with wonderful pumpkin or butternut squash! Cappellacci, literally translated, mean “scruffy hats” because of the shape.

December - La Gran Lasagna (Festive Lasagne)

Most non-Italians always associate lasagne with the typical Bolognese one from Emilia Romagna. However, there are many varieties of lasagne which are both regional and seasonal. We used to make this substantial lasagne at Christmas, which includes tomato sauce, meatballs, parmesan, ricotta, mozzarella and hard-boiled eggs! Very filling but delicious! It’s ideal to make when you have a large crowd. So when you are in southern Italy, be prepared for a lasagne to include all or some of these ingredients!