”Most restaurants (and hostesses) that feature pasta provide guests with a large spoon as well as the knife and fork. The fork is used to spear a few strands of spaghetti, the tips are placed against the spoon, which is held on its side, in the left hand, and the fork is twirled, wrapping the spaghetti around itself as it turns. If no spoon is provided, the tips of the fork may be rested against the curve of the plate.” I went to my go-to guide for all things proper ”The New Emily Post’s Etiquette,”
With the integration of different cultures into American life and enthusiasm for fusilli and fettuccine, ziti and spaghetti is at an all-time high, it may be time to pause to examine what is right and what is wrong with various techniques for cooking and eating pasta.
For example, is it proper, as Emily Post says, to twirl spaghetti against a spoon? Or, as she also says, with the tips of the fork resting against the curve of the plate? Should bread be served with pasta, another starch? Is it correct to sprinkle cheese on pasta with seafood sauce? When cheese is in order, what is the best cheese? Should strands of long pasta be broken before being tossed into the pot?
The owners of one of my favorite Italian restaurants recently convened to feast on pasta and discuss just how and with what it should be eaten.
As the meal progressed the discussion became Mount Etna-like in its eruptions, as to the use of a fork plus a spoon for eating pasta, all those at the table were adamant. Spoons are for children, amateurs and people with bad table manners in general.
Giovanetti recounts his childhood days of eating pasta. ”My grandparents spent hours teaching me how to eat pasta without using a spoon, how to twirl my fork so that not a strand of spaghetti would be hanging down as I lifted that fork to my mouth.”
”At home,” he added, ”if I couldn’t master the technique, they’d punish me by taking all the food away.” Is it improper to allow a few strands of pasta to hang down as it is transported to the mouth? ”If the pasta is cooked al dente,” Mr. Nanni said, ”you are bound to have a few strands hanging.” If the pasta fits that neatly around the fork, Mr. Giovanetti added, it is overcooked. volunteered one exception to the no-spoon argument: ”If your sauce is very liquid – a juicy primavera, a clam sauce – you might use a spoon to prevent splattering.”
The first bowls of pasta, served with military sauce, were placed before each guest. Mr. Giovanetti forked his way into his bowl and demonstrated that the pasta, perfectly cooked, would not cling wraparound fashion to the fork. He ate with great relish.
It was generally agreed, however, that it is correct to place a spoon at each place setting. ”In Italy it is customary to first place the pasta in a bowl or on a plate,” Mr. Giovanetti said. ”You then spoon the sauce on top and finally cheese, if you use it at all. You use your fork and spoon to toss the pasta with sauce and cheese, and you then eat it with your fork alone.”
The suggested techniques for using the fork were: Put the fork into a few strands of spaghetti; let the tines of the fork rest against the curve of the bowl or the curved indentation of the plate, while twirling the fork around and giving it brief quick lifts to prevent too much pasta from accumulating. When one discrete mass of pasta can be lifted, hoist away.
As to whether it is best to serve pasta in a bowl or on a plate, most of those present voted for a bowl. But as for the serving of bread with pasta, there were varying opinions. ”I don’t believe in it,” Mr. Nanni said. ”They do that in country homes where there isn’t enough money for meat.”
”I know that purists say no,” Mr. Maccioni said, ”but I think you should serve bread. It is always on the table at the restaurant. In the family one should serve bread to dip in the leftover sauce once the pasta is eaten.”
As for whether strands of pasta should be broken before they are tossed into the boiling kettle, the answer from this gathering was, absolutely not.
”The reason that notion came about,” Mr. Nanni said, ”is that in Italy when you go to the market, you buy pasta out of a large drawer in which the strands may be a yard long.” The pasta is broken in half to make it more convenient to carry, he said. In this country, however, pasta is relatively short (about 11 inches) and there is no need to break it. If it doesn’t fit in your pot, place the ends in first and push down as the water softens it. Tiny strands of pasta, it was agreed, are for children.
What about the best cheese for pasta? The restaurateurs said that their first choice is imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, which must be at least two years old before it is exported. Pecorino goes especially well with certain sauces, Mr. Giovanetti said, and he named three: carbonara made with pancetta (Italian bacon), eggs and cheese; matriciana (or amatriciana) made with onions, bacon, white wine and tomatoes, and pesto, made with garlic and basil.
Two sauces were made that day by Mr. Nanni and a third by Nico Girolla, a guest at the dinner. His was an excellent sauce made with Gorgonzola cheese, pistachios or walnuts and a touch of Cognac.
(P.S. My own preferred technique for eating pasta? With fork and spoon. I won’t be reconstructed.)