’Real Housewives of New Jersey’ and fancy pasta: Embracing my Italian roots during this time at home

Food is a comfort these days, and recently that meant rigatoni with squash and Parmesan.
Squash pasta with Parmesan and herbs.
Squash pasta with Parmesan and herbs. [ MICHELLE STARK | Times ]
Published May 1, 2020|Updated May 1, 2020

I grew up hearing about Italian feasts at my great-grandpa’s house in the Bronx — all-day sauce-making projects, lasagnas prepared as appetizers to holiday meals, tables and tables full of desserts.

Both of my parents were raised in New Jersey. As a family, we visited the state almost every summer to see cousins and grandparents and that great-grandpa, an immigrant from Sicily who came through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. I have always identified strongly with these Italian roots, even though they make up only about half of my genes.

I tell you this because I need you to know why I am currently obsessed with The Real Housewives of New Jersey, a Bravo show that started way back in 2009 and which I had never seen a single second of before the coronavirus pandemic forced us all to find entertainment in unexpected places.

I am not really a Housewives person, but by the time Teresa Giudice told her friend in her thick New Jersey accent that she’d be making lasagna and turkey for Thanksgiving, I had settled into the show like a warm bath. Suddenly, I felt like making a big vat of Sunday sauce.

Another quarantine activity collided with my RHONJ binge-watch: browsing the internet for fancy dried pasta.

Related: A definitive ranking of pasta shapes, from worst to best

The quality was not the first requirement, really, more the fact that I wanted to try new shapes. Online shopping for things I used to buy, like clothes, feels silly right now. But online shopping for pasta shapes I can’t find at the grocery store? It felt exciting and practical.

The search led me to Eataly, an Italian grocery mecca that started in Torino, Italy, in 2007 and has since expanded to New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and more. I have been to the one in Manhattan, where I split a plate of fresh pasta with a friend at one of the bars while surrounded by strangers and the smell of cured meats. Who knows when we’ll be able to safely have those kinds of experiences again. Ordering $7 rigatoni from the Eataly website felt like the next best thing.

I bought a couple of pasta varieties from the Afeltra brand, which was described as such: “The Afeltra spaghetti are made by hand, extruded through bronze dies and left to dry slowly, according to the most ancient tradition of Gragnano.” Okay!

I was mainly on the hunt for bucatini, a long noodle that’s slightly thicker than spaghetti and has a hole running through the center, and rigatoni, a thick tube-shaped pasta that’s like penne only much better. I found both, plus a short curly pasta referred to as vesuvio, and a funky little shape called caserecce.

One thing I have learned about myself and pasta is that I prefer it very, very al dente, meaning it’s just barely finished cooking all the way through. Pasta is not meant to be boiled in a vat of water and then left to sit there while you ladle up the sauce. It should be tended to the way most stovetop cooking is, checked often for doneness with a simple taste test (meaning, just taste it and see if it’s done).

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Al dente pasta is chewy and springy and full of life; overcooked pasta is mushy and bland. It is the difference between medium-rare steak and burnt steak.

My rigatoni craving was too intense to ignore, so when the Eataly box arrived, that was first to the pot. In an effort to use up lots of yellow squash from a farmers market box I had purchased the weekend before, I landed on a recipe that called for cooking the squash down with some garlic and olive oil, until it almost resembled a paste. That, plus lots of Parmesan cheese, would coat the pasta like a sauce.

My husband, who had given me a little side eye when I told him I ordered $40 worth of pasta from Eataly, perked up when he saw the rigatoni on the counter.

"Is today the day we eat the good pasta?"

After cooking the squash mixture down, I started the pasta timer at 7 minutes, taking a bite out of a hot noodle every minute to check for texture and removing it from the water when it was just on the other side of crunchy.

The beauty of a short, fat noodle like rigatoni is that it’s not easy to overcook. Plus, the large amount of surface area on the pasta, including on the outside and inside of the tube, means it’s better at clinging to the luxurious, glistening pan sauce you’ll create with this recipe.

May I also recommend firing up an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (Season 2 is a true work of art) in the background, and letting the whole vibe wash over you? Mangia!

Squash Pasta With Parmesan and Herbs

¼ cup olive oil

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 pounds summer squash or zucchini, quartered lengthwise then sliced into ¼-inch slices

Kosher salt

Red pepper flakes

12 ounces rigatoni or other large tube pasta

About ½ cup Parmesan, grated, plus more for serving

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Fresh basil or mint leaves

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium. Cook garlic, stirring occasionally, until very lightly browned around the edges, about 4 minutes. Add squash and increase heat to medium high; season with salt and red pepper flakes. Cook, tossing occasionally, until squash begins to break down. Turn down heat once it begins sticking, and continue to cook until the squash is very soft and melty, 12 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until very al dente. I started with 7 minutes on the timer, and tested it every minute after.

Transfer pasta to skillet with squash using a slotted spoon and add ½ cup pasta cooking liquid. Cook pasta, adding Parmesan little by little, along with more pasta cooking liquid as needed, until sauce coats pasta and pasta is al dente. Toss in lemon juice, zest and most of the basil or mint.

Divide pasta among bowls and top with more Parmesan and remaining basil or mint.

Serves 2.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appétit