What if suddenly one needs to organise an impromptu meal. Before emails and mobile phones people in Italy used to pop in to say hello and if the conversation was getting close to lunch or supper time, how could one be a good host while still conversing and not getting into a state. I have a cousin (now a diplomat) who was a globe trotter in the happy hippy time and would appear unannounced on our door step. He was always very welcome and he would recount his latest journey to us.
My mother who had never been a traveller became through him a kind of adventurer by proxy, having in this virtual way visited many places, some of them at that time off the beaten track, such as Pakistan and Iceland. She would quickly write a note and slip it my pocket saying: “ buy what’s on the list”. I was 10sh or so. One particular meal was the Pizzaiola. I only needed to get some thin sliced beef from the local butcher, just down the road. Pasta, tomatoes and olive oil were always in the cupboard.
Today in Pisa the weather was not really promising. It is all Saints Day which is a holiday in Italy. I manage to park the car in a parking free area just outside the old city walls. The appointment was in Piazza dei Miracoli but as soon as I left the car it started raining and after a couple of minutes it was really cats and dogs, so heavy that I could hardly see. Within minutes my trousers and waterproof shoes got soaked despite the umbrella. I decided to walk on. I missed Celia, who having spotted me, rung me on the mobile phone. She was with a bunch of drenched tourists squashed against a cathedral exit, trying to avoid the torrential rain. I quickly found my little slot next to her while she was chatting with a young lady. The rain seemed to increase and I suddenly became aware that the tower was in front of me, just a few meters away. The girl was telling Celia that her last trip was to Spain and it had never stopped raining. She was lamenting her personal lack of weather luck. She said that she was from Caserta and she was visiting Tuscany with her parents. I then pavlovianly asked “what do you eat there?” The answer was: “more or less what you Napolitans eat but I personally hate onions and here in Tuscany it seems I can’t avoid them”. So she went on to say that yesterday in Florence she had a sudden bout of nostalgia and looked desperately for a Neapolitan restaurant until she found it, having questioned every single local. I started feeling homesick.
The rain suddenly stopped and Celia and I decided to walk into the old town towards Borgo Stretto, and have a coffee at Salza an historical ‘pasticceria e cioccolateria’ to cheer ourselves up and forget our soaked feet. The coffee was excellent and on my request they also allowed me to snap a few pikkies. The cakes and the chocolates looked mouthwatering. Isabella, who had been there on several occasions, says that the gelato is superb.
We walked to the Arno river and then to the Teatro Verdi to meet Isabella. She was full of energy and hungry. We had to return quickly to Lucca as she had to finish her homework. “I know what we are going to eat today, we are going to have a full Neapolitan meal, primo and secondo and it’s going to be quick” I said.
“How quick?” Celia enquired “five minutes, ten minutes, that’s what I mean quick”.
“Twenty minutes, you cannot have a two course cooked meal for less than that. You are going to have spaghetti alla pizzaiola and carne alla pizzaiola. Less then half an hour later we were home and after a quick change of clothes I started cooking.
Spaghetti alla Pizzaiola & Carne alla Pizzaiola
Serves 4 people
2 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
800 grams (3 cups) tinned chopped San Marzano tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
½ teaspoon of oregano (or more if you like it)
grated parmesan cheese
4 thin slices of (sirloin) beef
450 grams (1 pound) Spaghetti
1.When you’re cooking a quick pasta dish you need some co-ordination. First thing to do is to put a large saucepan filled with water on the stove (add the required salt).
Put the pasta in as soon as the water is boiling and cook al dente.
2. Put the olive oil and garlic in a large frying pan cook over a low heat until the garlic is light golden, then add the chopped tomatoes, the oregano and the required salt.
3. When the sauce bubbles add the meat. Lie the slices down without overlapping them.
4. Cook for ten minutes and turn them over once half way through.
5. Remove the meat and place it on a serving plate with some sauce on the top.
6. Drain the pasta.
7. Mix the rest of the sauce with the pasta in a nice big bowl. When serving the pasta add a sprinkle of parmesan cheese on top and ground pepper if you like it. This is the primo then the secondo will be the meat (or you can serve the pasta and the meat in a large flat dish if you prefer a Piatto Unico.
My nostalgia did not extend to wine so we washed it down with a glass of Gaillac, a bottle I bought a few months ago in France.