This orecchiette con sugo al pomodoro recipe comes courtesy of Maria who taught us to make it in the rustic kitchen of the traditional trullo we settled into in Alberobello in Puglia in southern Italy. Maria gave us lessons in pasta making, teaching us how to make handmade orecchiette and this rich sugo al pomodoro with ingredients she had grown herself.
A few days ago we wrote about the simplicity of Italian cuisine. We had eaten at a couple of trattorias in the village of Teulada on the island of Sardinia, and once again Italy had blown us away with its attitude towards food. Simple honest dishes, made using the best ingredients, treated with respect.
But that doesn’t mean that the best ingredients have to be expensive ingredients as Maria showed us in Alberobello, as she taught me how to make her orecchiette con sugo al pomodoro recipe using ingredients she had grown and made herself, from vine-ripened cherry tomatoes to first-pressed olive oil.
Orecchiette con Sugo al Pomodoro Recipe from Puglia, Southern Italy
We began with a lesson on how to make orecchiette, a local Puglian pasta shaped to look like a little ear. All pasta has a shape for a reason and this shape is perfect for holding a little sugo al pomodoro (tomato sauce) in each piece.
Maria, the caretaker of the trullo we had settled into, who quickly became a friend, had come over to our trullo with her pasta board (a portable wooden board that covers a table or bench for making pasta) and a huge bag of flour, Semola di Grano Duro, which she used to make the pasta, pizza bases, and bread dough. More on the pizza making in another post.
We’re really talking about simplicity here. Farina e agua. Flour and water. Measured by eye, and kneaded with love and plenty of elbow grease.
“No sale (salt)?” I enquire.
“No,” Maria says.
“No l’uovo (eggs)?” I persist.
“No,” she replies.
“No l’olio di oliva (olive oil)?” I insist.
Maria stops rolling the dough. “No. Nothing else. Farina e agua.”
After about ten minutes of vigorous kneading the dough is perfect. Maria cuts a piece off and rolls it into a snake-like rope and then chops off a piece with a small knife.
At first I can’t make out what she’s doing because she’s so quick. It looks like she’s simply cutting a small length of pasta and throwing a prefect piece of orecchiette into the pile.
The reality is that Maria is pushing each piece of pasta against the side of the knife, rolling the knife over the piece to flatten it, then gently scraping along the surface of the pasta to create a pattern, while placing a finger on the pasta on the other side of the knife to hold it in place. Done.
After Maria demonstrates the technique at a slower rate a few more times, I take my turn at the pasta board. It takes me a few minutes to get the hang of it. By the time I’m proficient I’m still making them at a quarter of the speed of Maria. She’s a pasta machine in a pair of jeans.
Once the board is covered in cute perfectly-formed orecchiette, Maria asks me “How do you make sugo al pomodoro?”
“Oilo di olivia, cepolla, aglio, peperoncino, pomodori pelati, doppio concentrato di pomodoro e bassilico,” I reply. Olive oil, onion, garlic, chili, peeled tomatoes, tomato concentrate, and basil.
Maria looks at me somewhat surprised. I’m not sure whether it’s because she’s impressed at my Italian vocabulary, limited as it is to ingredients lists, or she’s horrified at one of the ingredients of my sauce. I think it’s the garlic.
“Sugo al pomodoro, sì?” she repeats, as she heads to the kitchen.
“Sì,” I reply.
She upturns her bottle of home-grown and pressed olive oil into a saucepan on super high heat. She cuts and adds a couple of thick quarters of cipolla di Tropea, the famous red onion native to the Tropea area of Calabria.
Maria then produces a massive bunch of cherry tomatoes (pomodorini) that have been strung together and span a couple of feet in length. She says they always have these in the kitchen and she’s leaving a bunch with us.
To be honest the tomatoes look like the kind of over-ripe, partially-rotting fruit that sometimes get passed off as ‘organic’ at farmers’ markets.
“Agosto,” she says. Lara and I look at each other and we both realise that she means that August was when they were picked and strung up. August. Last year.
For nine months these vine-ripened cherry tomatoes have been hanging in Maria’s kitchen. Maria explains that they do this every year and because there is no heating or air-conditioning in the trullo kitchen, they don’t rot, they just increase their intensity of flavour.
Maria picks a few off tomatoes and tosses them into the sauce. She takes a small dried chilli and crumbles it into the sauce before sprinting out to the garden.
There she heads for a laurel tree and picks off some laurel leaves, alloro in Italian, what we know as fresh bay leaves.
Back in the kitchen she throws those in the pot, then picks a few fresh leaves of basil from a bunch and tosses those into the pot as well.
The nine-month old tomatoes are now really flavouring the sauce, but she grabs a tin of peeled tomatoes off the shelf, and puts about ¾ of that in the sauce as well. Perfect for two, she says in Italian.
“Now, 2–3 litres of water. A tablespoon of salt for the pasta. About 8–10 minutes in the boiling water. Test them at eight minutes.”
With these instructions and kisses on the cheeks, Maria says ciao, and leaves us to finish off what will be our dinner tonight.
A couple of hours later I cook the pasta, quickly re-heat the sauce on high heat, and serve it up.
“Oh my god,” says Lara, after her first mouthful. “That’s the best tomato sauce I’ve ever tasted. And the pasta!”
I wasn’t sure whether to share her excitement or be offended that my tomato pasta sauce had been relegated to a distant second place. But she was right.
Maria’s orecchiette con sugo al pomodoro recipe was a keeper. The handmade pasta with homemade tomato sauce were so sublime it would be joining my repertoire of pasta dishes.
While I secretly wondered how I could smuggle a big bunch of rotting cherry tomatoes and a bottle of home-made olive oil in my luggage, I knew I’d be content with taking away this simple lesson about a simple local pasta and a simple sauce that was simply brilliant.
Orecchiette con Sugo al Pomodoro Recipe
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 clove garlic sliced in half
- 1 whole red onion peeled, chopped into quarters (or eighths if very large)
- 50 g cherry tomatoes vine-ripened
- 1 piece dried red chilli crushed
- 3 fresh bay leaves AKA laurel leaves or alloro in Italian
- 6 fresh basil leaves
- 400 g tin peeled tomatoes
- 2 litres water
- 1 tbsp salt
- 250 g orecchiette
- ½ cup cheese Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
- Add the olive oil to a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic clove pieces and when the garlic pieces have bubbles forming around them remove and discard.
- Add the chopped onion quarters (or eighths if it's a large onion) to the pan.
- Once the onion has softened, add the cherry tomatoes to the pan and crush them a little with a spatula.
- Sprinkle the crushed dried red chilli into the sauce and reduce the sauce down, then add the fresh bay leaves and basil leaves, followed by the tin of tomatoes, breaking them down in the pan.
- Put the water on for the pasta, add a tablespoon of salt and bring the water to a rolling boil before adding the pasta.
- Cook the pasta for 7 minutes and then test a piece of the orecchiette. It should be cooked through but still have a little ‘bite’ or firmness to it.
- Using a spider or a slotted spoon, remove the pasta from the water and add it to the sauce, which should be ready by now. Turn the heat up a little and combine the pasta with the sauce.
- Taste the sauce for seasoning and add salt to taste.
- Plate the pasta, adding a few more basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with a bowl of your favourite grated Parmiagiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, generously sprinkling some over the pasta before serving.