July 28, 2020
It was always an exciting day when my mom would make Pasta Alla Concettina. This dish is such an intoxicating memory for me that when I eat it now, it transports me right back to our kitchen in Montclair, NJ, painted mustard yellow (very 70’s), the hustle and bustle of four kids doing their kid things. Mom would be at the stove preparing dinner, dad off doing Dr. stuff, siblings doing homework or squabbling. I loved to watch my mom cook but better yet, help my mom cook. My jobs were easy, prepping vegetables or stirring the pasta in the boiling water. It brought great comfort to me back then, helping me to feel safe and a part of something important: feeding and nurturing family and friends. Those tiny moments were, I'm sure of it now, when the love of cooking’s seeds were planted. Oh, this feels good, feels right, to make something to eat for someone I love - something that is delicious, something that might even get a compliment, or a mmmmmm yum, job well done!
What is Pasta Alla Concettina and where did it come from??? The story my mother recounts is this: Many moons ago, sometime in the 80's, she traveled to Italy with a group of friends and stayed with family in Praiano on the Amalfi Coast. If any of you have heard of or visited this magical land then you already know you are so lucky and if you haven’t, I hope you get to one day.
During the day these friends went out and about, sight-seeing and meandering through the narrow, crowded streets. They would return tired and hungry and ready for pranzo, (the Italian word for lunch served in the middle of the day, around 2 or 3 pm). There was a woman who helped them at the house during these busy times. She would often cook for the family, and yes, her name was Concettina and this pasta was one that she served during my mother’s stay. My mother, a foodie in her own right back before being a foodie became a thing, asked her for the recipe. Thank goodness Concettina was generous with her secrets. My mom took this treasure back with her to New Jersey and I am so happy that I get to enjoy it and share it with you.
This is an easy dish to make but does take a little chopping. I do the chopping by hand and not the processor because I don’t want everything to become mushed together. This sauce should remain somewhat chunky and retain some of its shapes. The egg mixture, when tossed with the hot pasta, becomes a silky, smooth, and rich sauce. When chopping the zucchini, I first cut it in half horizontally down the middle, then cut each half into slices, the slices into match sticks, and the match sticks into cubes. Take a look at the photos below for guidance. You can do the chopping any old way you like, just try to make the pieces as uniform as you can without driving yourself mad. My mother always made this with rigatoni. Please use this if you can. I only had penne and of course, it was still delicious, but, there's just nothing like the comfort of tradition.
This is such a wonderful summer dish, eaten with handfuls of fresh basil and generous sprinkles of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I hope you make it soon and I hope you love it as much as I do. Grazie Concettina, wherever you are.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium zucchini, washed, dried, trimmed and chopped into ¼-inch dice
1 medium onion, chopped into ¼-inch dice
4 oz. ham (from a slice about ¼ - ½-inch thick, chopped into ¼-inch dice
1 plum tomato, chopped into ¼ inch dice
pinch of salt
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/8 cup dry white wine
4 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 pound rigatoni or penne pasta
1 cup chopped fresh basil, plus more for serving
¾ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add enough salt so that it tastes like the sea. Taste it and add more salt if needed.
Add the oil, zucchini, onion, ham, and tomato to a large sautée pan over medium heat. Cook the mixture, stirring often for 25-30 minutes or until everything cooks down and begins to brown in areas. Taste it along the way and add a hefty pinch of salt and a few hot pepper flakes if you like them. Pour in the white wine and stir gently, until it evaporates. This won't take long, just a minute or two.
Meanwhile, set a bowl large enough to accommodate the pasta and sauce near your sink, close to where you are planning to drain the pasta once it's done. Add all of the eggs and cheese to the bowl and mix. You can include your fresh basil at this point as well. Have two long spoons/utensils there, ready for you to pick up quickly to toss the just drained pasta with the egg mixture. Better yet, grab a friend, guest, family member, a kind stranger, or anyone really, to toss the pasta and egg together while you pour it into the bowl.
Add the pasta to the rapidly boiling water and stir, making sure the pieces don't stick together. Cook according to the package directions, or a minute or two less if you are like me and like your pasta al dente.
Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl with the eggs and cheese. Stir quickly and vigorously so the egg warms and thickens but stays smoothe and velvety and doesn't cook into hard little chunks of egg. Keep stirring for a few minutes. Add the zucchini mixture and combine. Serve with more basil and cheese, because, who doesn't need more of those two things? Enjoy!