If you ask an Italian the first pasta dish they remember eating as a child, you’ll be able to pinpoint the precise region — and sometimes even the precise town — where they grew up. In northern Italy, fresh egg pasta is the traditional favourite, rolled into shapes like tagliatelle or stuffed as ravioli. The Roman recipe for cacio e pepe is so simple — cheese and black pepper — yet requires technique that’s typically passed down in nonna’s family kitchen. In the south, pasta secca, or dried pasta, grew to global popularity in the 16th century thanks to the Città della Pasta, or city of pasta, Gragnano, where macaroni (considered “white gold”) hung along the main drag to dry before being exported across the country — and Atlantic. Macaroni and spaghetti may be two of the most well-known shapes, but Italy’s 20 regions are home to over 300 others. How to select the perfect sauce? It all depends on the shape, of course.
The stories surrounding the origin of pasta are as wild as pirate tales. One myth states that 13th-century explorer Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy, whilst another story tells of pasta-making “machines” found in an Etruscan tomb dating back to the 4th century B.C. During the Renaissance, pasta was the plate of choice for nobles before growing to become a common dish for Neapolitans in the 17th century, when they earned the nickname as “mangiamaccheroni,” or macaroni-eaters. Now Gragnano, a city in the Campania region just a 30-minute drive from Naples, is as sacred a place for pasta as Bordeaux is for wine (and received a Protected Geographical Indication by the EU in 2013 to prove it).
Whilst Gragnano’s dry pasta is only composed of two ingredients — durum wheat semolina and water sourced from the surrounding Lattari Mountains — you’ll find hundreds of different shapes (and nearly just as many sauces to match). Gragnano’s locally based Pastificio Di Martino, which is opening its first stateside pasta bar in New York City this Fall, produces more than 9,000 tons of bronze die-cut pasta per day in 125 different shapes, each destined for a different recipe. “Matching pasta shapes with recipes is like a woman matching shoes with her dress,” says third-generation pastaio, or pasta maker, Giuseppe Di Martino. “First you choose the ingredients, and then you choose the pasta.”
Classic candele, a longer variation of ziti, is broken by hand into three to five smaller pieces before it’s cooked and topped with a rich ragout that is traditionally served during Sunday family lunch. Fettucce, which is wider than linguine, is best with a meat-based sauce or shellfish, whilst spiral fusilli, a shape once formed around a knitting needle, is served in the south with tomato and ricotta. Another tradition that’s been packaged, sealed and saved is mista corta, a mixture of leftover short pasta from different packages that are cooked with vegetable-based sauces or simply with beans, the Neapolitan way.
The base for Italian pasta sauce: simple Pomodoro, which is referred to as sugo, or sauce. Whilst classic tomato sauce can be spruced up for more elaborate pasta dishes, if you curate the right assortment of tomatoes, the sauce will sing all on its own. Peppe Guida, the Amalfi Coast–based chef behind the one Michelin-starred Antica Osteria Nonna Rosa, is nicknamed the “pasta whisperer” for this very reason. “You don’t need butter, since the starch from the pasta helps thicken the dish as it cooks,” he explained in a recent cooking demo in Gragnano, as he prepped a sauce crafted from tomatoes he grows in his organic vegetable garden in the Sorrentine Peninsula. “All you need are good-quality tomatoes.”
In Grand Cayman, these five bistros offer a Caribbean-inspired version of iconic Italian fare — homemade pasta and all.
Bonfire Urban Italian Kitchen: Buzzy Bonfire Urban Italian Kitchen on Seven Mile Beach combines all the classics — bruschetta, burrata and fresh basil-topped Parma ham pizza — plus adds a few Cayman-specific spins. One of the most intriguing local interpretations: the Cayman-arita pizza, a Caribbean margherita with toppings like barbecue jerk chicken, callaloo greens and red peppers.
Casanova’s By the Sea: “Casanova’s has an extensive variety of pasta creations featured in our a la carte menu, but those who know us are already aware that the menu is really just a list of ingredients,” says administrator Mairi Ann Padmore. Casanova’s has been serving up southern Italian-style dishes and homemade pasta along the waterfront in George Town for the past 25 years, drawing a cult following for the pink vodka sauce-topped Penne Contadina and fresh local seafood-filled Tutto Mare.
Edoardo’s: One of the island’s more authentic trattorias, Edoardo’s elegantly blends the best of Cayman’s local ingredients into classic Italian fare. Linguine, fettuccine and ravioli are all homemade and paired with sauces like the signature marinara or house-made basil pesto cream. Edoardo’s pasta sauce also tops its gourmet pizzas, prepped with freshly kneaded dough that’s so good, they’re infamous on the Island.
The Lighthouse: Lombardy-born Giuseppe Gatta (aka “Captain G.”) sources wine from around the globe (including some from the best Italian vineyards) that pair perfectly with brick-oven pizzas topped with quattro formaggi and prosciutto. Dishes take a cue from Cayman’s vast seafood offerings (think Caribbean lobster curry and conch ceviche), whilst pasta offers a playful spin on Italian favourites.
Ragazzi: Roughly translating to “good friends,” Ragazzi was born from two good friends: Paolo and Andi. Head Chef Luca Cocchieri, who hails from the Veneto region of northeast Italy, incorporates traditions passed down from his grandmother. One fan favourite? Gnocchi in four-cheese sauce with brandy and pistachios.
Whet your appetite on board Cayman Airways with Italian-inspired in-flight snacks for purchase, like Genoa salame with Gouda cheese, or with a complimentary meal if you’re flying Business Class.