When I was twenty one I got on an airplane and moved to Italy. I had my degree, no job, and no idea what to do with myself but I knew I wanted to go someplace. I had to. I found a job in a leather stall in the San Lorenzo Market in Florence, working for a Persian guy who knew blond American girls could make him a lot of money selling crappy bags to unknowing tourists. I learned to speak street Italian from a group of pizzaiolis and muratori who gathered in the seedy bars, far from the Duomo, that we warmed up in that first winter at the end of our long shifts outside. Like us, these Calabrese were immigrants and outsiders in Florence and like us they were living with a roof over their heads but not much else. There were love affairs, broken hearts, major Italian melodrama, serious language barriers, total freedom, laughter and food. All the things you expect from Italy.
Anyone who is turned on by food can probably recall a few key moments in their life that cemented that relationship. I have five or six that vaulted me to the kitchen and have kept me solidly placed there. Learning to cook from real Italians, in Italy, is one of those experiences for me. Food is not just about eating in Italy. The kitchen, cafes and restaurants, markets and street carts are where the important stuff happens. Decisions are made, great loves found, politics discussed, deals done. Food makes things happen in Italy. It is important.
We didn’t cook fancy-no homemade ravioli or young cuts of meat or shellfish. Most of the time dinner was simply whatever we could concoct with a few ingredients. Olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, a can of tuna, something green, parm, noodles and a bottle of Chianti. Simplicity, the social importance of every meal, the role of pasta water and the understanding that it doesn’t take a lot of money to make great food are the things I learned from my pizza makers and brick layers in the middle of Tuscany that year. This is one of my favorite every night or dinner party meals.
Aglio e Olio con Broccoli
One or two heads broccoli, trimmed into pieces you have to use a knife to eat.
Boil one pound of pasta-penne or spaghetti-with a heavy pinch or two of salt added to the water.
Into large skillet, over medium heat, add,
1/3 C olive oil
3-4 cloves minced garlic
1 Tbsp (or more) crushed red chili peppers
1/2 C chopped flat leaf parsley, basil or any fresh herb (optional)
1/2 – 1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
Dip a measuring cup into the pasta pot to remove about a cup of the salted water. Add 1/2C of the this water to the oil and garlic mixture. Reserve the rest in case the sauce needs to be loosened more after you add the noodles. The pasta water adds flavor to the dish and thins the sauce so it coats all the noodles.
Simmer oil and garlic mixture on low until the pasta is cooked.
Two or three minutes before the pasta is done add the broccoli to the pasta pot. Bring back to a boil and drain the pasta and broccoli and add to the skillet. Stir, and let the flavors meld-5-10 minutes. Taste the pasta and add salt and pepper as needed. Add pasta water if noodles need moisture. Mix in the parmesan. Add another grate of cheese as you serve the noodles. I also sometimes brown spicy Italian sausage and then start the oil and garlic sauce in the same pan.