You might say I’ve been a bad Italian. Though my last name hovers in ethnic ambiguity, my roots are green, white, and red. Fresh off the boat, our original surname, Gelsomino, had its “o” cavalierly sliced off, like you would the butt end of a sopressata.
Growing up, my grandmother would buy boxes of tomatoes, which we’d can in her house. In August. As it approached 100 degrees. Windows closed. Blinds down. Rickety old floor fan circulating the thick tomato soup air. Hand cranked pasta was made in the kitchen and dried on white cotton sheets draped on couches in the living room.
We ate a lot of pasta. So much so that we developed our own Gelsomin—no “o”—macaroni dialect.
Pa•sta fa•zool (pästä fäzōōl), n.: linguine dressed with tomatoes and white beans. Used as a quick, complaint-free weeknight dinner made from the contents of a common Italian-American pantry and, more broadly, used in conjunction with drool-worthy stars as a metaphor for love. A species separate from the soupy version often served with cuff-shaped ditali. Variant (Ital.): pasta e fagioli
A•ya•woo•yas (Äôwōōyëz), n., pl.: spaghetti tossed in olive oil with whole garlic cloves plus the motherly addition of broccoli (see also, how to get your kids to eat vegetables); etymology unknown. Variant (Ital.): aglio e olio
Co•va•dills (kävädëlz), n. pl.: shell-shaped macaroni with ridges and a nook for red sauce; typically served for Sunday dinner at grandma’s paired with braciole and escarole salad, from the garden. Variant (Ital.): cavatelli
Despite all this, sometime in my mid twenties I stopped eating pasta regularly. And that was that. Until I decided that was enough nonsense.
Last week I—very happily—cooked macaroni (campanelle) resembling fluted trumpets. First, I sautéed some mushrooms in butter and olive oil (plus garlic, always garlic). And roasted onions and shallots, wedged with thyme, until their skins gave in and sweetened. Everyone met in a sauté pan, joined with a heavy dusting of pecorino and a glass of Schiava Nera to sip, a light ruby wine that hovers pleasantly between a rose and pinot noir.
This is an entirely new place for me. A place that pairs meaty mushrooms slicked in butter with sweetened slumping onions cloaked in balsamic and cream. There’s no pasta drying on a couch per se, but, occasionally, there’s some strands draped over a broom handle or two.
It’s different from the pasta I grew up with, but I’ve come home again.
Herbed Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Campanelle
2 small onions
2 large shallots
~3-4 tbsp olive oil, divided
kosher salt, to taste
a few grinds of black pepper
2-4 tbsp balsamic vinegar
~½ tbsp sugar
6 thyme sprigs
2-4 tbsp butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
6 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
5 sage leaves
~9 ounces campanelle or dry pasta of your choice
3-4 tbsp heavy cream
pecorino, grated or shredded to taste
Set the oven to 425 degrees. Peel and chop each onion and shallot into four or five wedges and place in a baking dish; toss with enough olive oil to coat the wedges (1-2 tbsp), season with salt and pepper, and add a tbsp or two of balsamic vinegar and a dusting of sugar. Wedge in thyme sprigs. Roast in the oven until the onions get soft and caramelized; start checking after 30 minutes (mine took 45).
Once the onions have started to soften and gather color, fill a medium saucepan with water for the pasta. Season the water with salt and heat on high.
Heat a large sauté pan and toss in two tbsp of butter and a glug of olive oil. Add in the garlic and cook about a minute, being careful not to burn it; add in the mushrooms, season with salt, and stir to help distribute the oil. Let the mushrooms be for a few minutes so they can start to caramelize; if the mushrooms look dry, add another tbsp or two of butter; add in the sage leaves and stir gently. When the mushrooms are tender and caramelized, remove the pan from the heat.
When the water boils, add in the pasta and cook until al dente (you want it a tad toothsome, as it will cook another minute or two in the sauté pan).
When the onions are fully softened and have browned, add in another splash of vinegar and enough cream to make a little sauce in the pan; return to the oven to cook another few minutes.
When the pasta has cooked, drain it (reserving about ¼ cup of the pasta water), and then add the pasta to the pan with the mushrooms. Remove the onions from the oven and add them to the pan as well (you may want to remove the thyme sprigs first). Add in the pasta water and toss to combine. Season to taste, though keep in mind the pecorino will also add saltiness. Dust with pecorino, to taste.
Makes about 6 cups of pasta and sauce
-The pecorino really brings the dish together. Parmesan would also work well.
-You don’t have to be a slave to the amounts listed.