Every Tuesday, after preparing my breakfast, I sit down to read Rachel Roddy’s weekly online column in The Guardian. This has been my weekly ritual since her first article appeared in October 2015. In addition to being a gifted writer and an engaging cooking teacher, Rachel is an avid learner. Her Instagram feed regularly showcases books she is reading–many of them cookbooks and books on food writing. Thanks to Rachel, I have discovered many new-to-me cookbook authors and food writers who have expanded my knowledge of not just Italian cooking, but also food writing and Italian food history. Despite my decent cooking abilities, I still feel very much like a novice when it comes to authentic Italian cooking, so having cookbooks, compilations, and food memoirs to refer to has helped me gain more confidence and know-how. Because of her constant eagerness and interest in learning, Rachel has become adept at both Roman and Sicilian cooking by learning from others: from her friends, Carla Tomasi and Alice Adams, renowned Sicilian cooking teacher, Fabrizia Lanza, her partner Vincenzo’s family members, as well as the Testaccio market vendors and shoppers who are always ready and willing to share a recipe or cooking technique with her. From there, Rachel masters the recipes and often tweaks them sensibly to make them her own. This recipe for fusilli all sorrentina is a perfect example.
The fusilli shape is Arab in derivation. In Sicily, this pasta shape is known as busiata, and on the island of Sardegna it is called busa. Both these regions are where Arab influence first arrived. The words busiata and busa are derived from the Arab word bus which is a thin reed that was once used to shape the pasta. The technique of wrapping fresh pasta dough around a reed to shape it into a spiral dates back to the fifteenth century, and spread first to central and southern Italy before reaching the remainder of the peninsula. The word fusillo (singular of fusilli) is the Neapolitan dialect term for this spiral pasta shape. It most likely got this name from the implement that was used to shape the dough, which is called a fuso, meaning “spindle”. Fusilli was once the everyday pasta shape used by the wealthy in the southern provinces when Italy was still a kingdom, and the shape was eaten by the rural classes only on special occasions, such as during carnevale.
The preparation term alla sorrentina means “in the Sorrento style”, referring to the beautiful southwestern coastal town in the region of Campania. Traditionally, this dish is made with gnocchi, pillowy potato dumplings, which are first boiled and then spread out in a generously buttered baking dish and covered with tomato sauce, diced fresh mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano before being baked off.
Rachel’s take on this very classic preparation is essentially a pasta gratinata (gratin). She featured this recipe back in May of this year, where she learned it from Oretta Zanini de Vita, author of Encyclopedia of Pasta, of the many culinary compilations I have added to my constantly-growing collection. She omits the tomato sauce in favor of a simple sauce made with butter and a combination of traditional cheeses: Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or Pecorino Romano, and fresh mozzarella, drained of its water and diced small so the pieces melt and tuck into the pasta crevices. To make it her own, she added peas, and I did too because they’re one of my favorite additions to baked pasta dishes for their flavor, texture, and pop of color. Twirly fusilli are perfect for this recipe not just for their aesthetics, but because the cheese and breadcrumbs cling tightly to their spiral nooks and crannies. I found a larger version of the shape called trecce (braids) that worked beautifully for this dish and made a dramatic presentation. Gemelli and cavatappi would also work well with this recipe. The key is to use a short pasta shape with a lot of texture.
Like its gnocchi cousin, fusilli alla sorrentina is a perfect dish for feeding a hungry crowd (who doesn’t like pasta?), for a weeknight dinner, and even for company. Baked pasta dishes can be hearty, so they always pair well with a crisp green salad dressed lightly and simply with an oil and vinegar dressing which cuts through the richness of the pasta’s butter and cheeses. Don’t forget to serve some crusty bread (a staple on the Italian table) and a glass (or two) of vino to round out this satisfying meal.
Fusilli alla Sorrentina
Adapted from A Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy
1 pound (454 grams) fusilli or trecce pasta
5 Tablespoons (75 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature plus more for buttering the baking dish and topping
14 ounces (400 grams) fresh mozzarella, small dice
⅔ cup (75 grams) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Grana Padano), plus more for topping
¾ cup (100 grams) frozen peas, thawed
Heat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Position a rack in the center.
Butter a 9-inch by 12-inch (23 cm by 30 cm) oven-proof baking dish with 1 Tablespoon of butter.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add 2-3 Tablespoons of Kosher salt, stirring to dissolve. Add in the pasta and cook 2 minutes less than the package instructions (it will finish cooking in the oven). Strain the pasta through a colander and add it back into the pot. Add in the 5 Tablespoons of butter, all the cheeses, and the peas. Mix well to incorporate. Keep mixing until the mozzarella is pulling into long strands. Transfer the pasta mixture to the buttered baking dish and spread out evenly. Sprinkle the surface of the pasta with a handful of breadcrumbs and a handful of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Dot the top of the pasta with 1 Tablespoon of butter.
Bake the pasta for 20-30 minutes until bubbling and golden brown on top. Let the baked pasta rest for about 5 minutes before serving.