December 30, 2016
Pasta ascuitta is the name given to a whole category of pasta dishes in Italy. It means “dry pasta,” quite literally. In reality, most of them are not really dry in the full sense of that word. The category includes all kinds of pasta with almost any imaginable sauce. Spaghetti and meatballs would be pasta ascuitta to an Italian (though the meatballs would be served as a separate course a discussed previously). What makes pasta ascuitta “dry” is how it compares to the other category of pasta, “pasta in brodo,” or pasta in broth.
In contrast to pasta in brodo, pasta with sauce is dry, or “ascuitta.” Remember that in Italy the first course after the antipasto (which literally means before the pasta) is either pasta or soup or rice. So, pasta in brodo is both a soup and a pasta. A classic version in our house is tortellini in chicken broth. With appropriate Italian (not Italian-American) restraint it makes a great first course. There might only be five or six tortellini in each bowl of broth. It takes the edge off one’s hunger without filling one up before whatever comes next.
Growing up in my family, however, pasta ascuitta meant one and only one thing, the way many general terms come to have a specific meaning in a particular context. Pasta ascuitta, to my family, meant angel hair pasta or spaghettini (not spaghetti), served with an abundant amount of breadcrumbs cooked in olive oil until crispy and flavored with anchovies. Of everything that appeared on the table at Christmas Eve, pasta ascuitta was, and still is, my favorite.
As children, we called it sawdust spaghetti. I still do, sometimes. I was chatting with my cousin Donna Meinecke the morning of Christmas Eve this year. Our families spent most holidays together when we were growing up. When she asked me what I was cooking, the first thing I said was “sawdust spaghetti.” Enough said! It was Christmas Eve, after all, and while I decided it was best not to introduce a table-full of unsuspecting guests to a soup of baccala (salted and dried cod) and tomatoes; a second pasta with a tomato sauce and squid tentacles; and stuffed squid, I had to serve pasta ascuitta.
If you were counting, you would have figured out that the first course of our family Christmas Eve dinner had two pastas and one soup. This, of course, was after a massive antipasto and a large platter of steamed mussels but before the second course of breaded and pan-fried fish fillets, the aforementioned stuffed squid, and, in later years when the “no meat” rule in our family was relaxed, bracciole and homemade sausage.
I truly don’t remember what vegetables were served. I do remember, however, that there was a huge platter of cookies for dessert.