Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Roasted Tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil is the new wine. Like fine wine, it is a delicate thing, its quality a function of the olive varietal or cultivar (type of olive) from which it is made, the area and conditions under which the fruit is grown, and harvesting time and technique. Factor in the art and skill of the makers who press and blend the oil, and you will get a sense of what I mean.
Just as wine nerds took over the table conversation with a new vocabulary forty years ago, so olive oil enthusiasts are introducing food lovers to the limitless variety and nuances of extra virgin olive oil. From personal experience I can say that even if you grew up consuming olive oil every day, until you have tasted a fine extra virgin olive oil, you don’t know beans.
I have been tasting and cooking my way through extra virgin olive oils sent to me for review from Olio2go, a retailer of Italian extra virgin olive oils. Most recently I have indulged my every whim with a collection of five oils from Fonte di Foiano, a producer in Tuscany. The Fonte di Foiano oliveta is in Castagneto Carducci where the rich limestone and clay soil and briny air combine to produce particularly flavorful fruit. In the 1970′s the di Gaetano family breathed new life into the ancient groves, keeping some of the older trees and introducing newer, younger ones.
Today the sons, Paolo and Simone, tend to all aspects of the day to day operation of the farm taking the fruit from tree to table. Pesticide use is kept to an absolute minimum. The olives are harvested in October and are pressed within 4 hours of being harvested. Taken together, these and other growing and production practices result in oils with exceptionally pure fruity flavor. They are at turns buttery, nutty, grassy, spicy and pungent. There is not a trace of greasiness or heaviness, and the oils sport the most delightful flavor notes such as tomato, tomato leaves, cardoon, green tomato and artichoke. Fonte di Foiano produces a number of extra virgin olive oils, both monocultivar (from one type of olive tree) and blends. These exceptional oils have won numerous awards, including brilliant showings at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
For the Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Roasted Tomatoes I used the Moraiolo oil. This classic Tuscan monocultivar oil is a beautiful clear yellow with a captivating fruity taste. The scent of tomato and grass, coupled with a pleasant spiciness and persistent bitterness made it the perfect oil for this dish. It enriched the pasta and enhanced the roasted tomatoes and herbs, tying the components together and giving the dish some striking body.
Don’t be put of by the price of fine extra virgin olive oil. The cost may seem steep, but I bet you have spent more on a bottle of wine. Consider that you are not going to down thirty or forty dollars worth of extra virgin olive oil in one night. The oil will go a lot further than the wine, supplying ample enjoyment along the way.
There is an astounding world of flavor out there, and I urge you to experiment. A fine oil is a revelation. The next time you are looking for a hostess gift, bring a bottle of fine extra virgin olive oil instead of wine.
Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Roasted Tomatoes and Fonte di Foiano Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Maccheroni alla chitarra is the classic square cut pasta from Italy’s Abruzzo region. Once the province of home cooks, it is popping up everywhere these days, online, in print, and on restaurant menus. A chitarra is a rectangular wooden frame, usually made of beech, with a set of parallel metal wires strung along its length. The maccheroni is cut by putting a sheet of pasta atop the wires and using a mattarello (rolling pin) to roll and press the dough through the wires to cut the maccheroni. Some chitarre (plural) are two sided, with a set of wires on each side, set at different distances from one another. This allows the cook to make two sizes – maccheroni tutt’ova, finely cut strands, and maccheroni mezz’ovo, slightly thicker strands.
On her website Oretta Zanini da Vita writes that in Abruzzo the cooks of Scanno are particularly famous for their maccheroni, while the artisans of L’Aquila and Chieti provinces are known for their beautifully made chitarre. If you don’t want to make your own maccheroni, several commercially prepared brands are available. You may see it called tonnarelli, the name by which it is known in Italy’s Lazio region. Click here for my photo essay on how to make maccheroni alla chitarra.
Tomato season has arrived. Make the best of it, and use a couple varieties for added flavor and color. Black tomatoes, such as Black Prince with their distinctly earthy flavor are a particularly nice choice for this rustic pasta. (Point of information – earthiness, considered a desirable trait in tomatoes, is distinctly undesirable in extra virgin olive oil, and is in fact regarded as a flaw.) Roasting the tomatoes with a few tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil is a bit of a splurge, but this wonderful oil will impart its flavor and body to the tomatoes, enriching the dish.
Finish the dish with grated Parmigiano Reggiano and Asiago for extra rich flavor. Use a high quality Asiago, one that is still somewhat young. Avoid the domestic supermarket brands; they are often well past their prime and devoid of the sweet nuttiness of a fine Asiago. Ask your cheese monger for a taste, and if you can’t find an Asiago that you like, use all Parmigiano Reggiano.
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
4 large eggs
flour and semolina, combined in a 1:1 ratio for rolling and dusting the tray for the maccheroni
Fonte di Foiano extra virgin olive oil
1 pound and 12 oz. medium tomatoes (about 1½ to 2 inches in diameter each), halved
½ cup basil leaves, cut in chiffonade
¼ cup Italian parsley, chopped
½ cup whole milk ricotta, at room temperature, more if desired
4 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
Generous pinch peperoncino flakes
Grated Asiago cheese
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Kosher salt and pepper
How to make maccheroni alla chitarra – by hand or machine
Make the pasta dough by hand: mound 2 ¼ cups flour on a spianatoia (wooden board) or counter. Scoop out a hole in the center of the flour, about the size of an orange, to form a fontana (well.) Leave a bit of flour on the bottom of the well so your eggs do not come directly in contact with the spianatoia. Crack 4 large eggs into the fontana, and use a fork to lightly beat them, incorporating the flour, bit by bit, into the swirling egg mass as you whisk. Hold your free hand against the outer surface of the wall of flour to prevent it from collapsing as you work your fork through the swirling egg mass. When the eggs have been incorporated and the dough has come together in a shaggy mass, gather and push it aside using a bench scraper or metal spatula. Clean the work surface of excess flour and any bits of dried dough. Lightly flour the work surface again and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to form a manageable, but not dry dough. Form the dough into a disk, and wrap it in plastic. Set it aside to rest for 30 minutes.
Make the pasta dough in the food processor: place 2 ¼ cups flour in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife. Lightly beat 4 large eggs in a measuring cup or small bowl. Remove the feed tube, and with processor running, add the eggs in a steady stream, using a spatula to scrape all of the eggs into the processor. Process until the mixture just comes together. You may have to add a bit more flour. Remove the dough from the processor and knead 2 or 3 minutes on a lightly floured board or counter. When dough is smooth and elastic, flatten it into a disk and wrap it in plastic. Set it aside to rest for 30 minutes.
Roast the tomatoes: while the dough rests, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil a sheet pan or line it with non-stick foil. (The non-stick foil is a great choice here because the tomatoes will never stick to the pan and tear as you lift them.) Slice the tomatoes in half, and place them on the foil, cut side up. Drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle very lightly with kosher salt. Roast until the tomatoes soften, but still retain their shape, about 25 minutes. Remove them from the oven, sprinkle with a bit of black pepper, and set aside.
Roll and cut the maccheroni: place a clean kitchen towel on a sheet pan and sprinkle it lightly with a bit of the flour and semolina mixture. Use a rolling pin or pasta machine to roll the dough to a thickness equal to the distance between two strings of your chitarra to yield a noodle as thick as it is broad, the classic square cut. Cut the rolled pasta into a rectangle slightly less than the width of the cutting surface (strings) of the chitarra and 1inch shorter. Place the sheet of pasta over the strings and roll a floured rolling pin over the pasta, forcing it through the strings. Some of the dough may not cut. Strum your fingers across the strings, and it will fall through, or roll a bit more to force it through. Gather the maccheroni, separating the strands and dusting them with the flour and semolina mixture. Place the maccheroni on the prepared sheet pan, and continue with the remaining dough.
Pour ½ cup Fonte di Foiano Moraiolo extra virgin olive oil into a 12- inch frypan. Peel the garlic cloves, and mash them slightly. Drop the cloves into the oil along with ¼ teaspoon peperoncino flakes. Heat the oil over a very low flame until it is quite fragrant, about 5 minutes. The goal here is to very gently heat and flavor the oil, not to cook it or to brown the garlic. When the oil is fragrant turn off the heat. Remove and discard the garlic.
Meanwhile bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add a generous handful of coarse sea salt (remember, there is no salt in the dough.) When the water returns to the boil add the maccheroni and cook about 2 minutes until done.
While the maccheroni cooks, cut the basil into chiffonade (ribbons), about 1/8-1/4 inch wide.
Transfer the maccheroni to the warm oil. Add ¼ teaspoon black pepper and basil, tossing to coat, adding a bit of pasta water if necessary. Transfer to a serving platter. Top with the hot roasted tomatoes and dollops of ricotta. Use a spoon to make small divots in the ricotta to hold the oil. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons Fonte di Foiano Moraiolo extra virgin olive oil over the maccheroni and tomatoes, letting some pool in the ricotta. Serve and pass grated Asiago and grated Parmigiano at the table.
Fonte di Foiano Extra Virgin Olive Oils are available online from Olio2go, or at their brick and mortar establishment located at 8400 Hilltop Road, Suite H, Fairfax, VA 22031; phone 866-Olio2go (866-654-6246) The oils range in price from $22.95 to $32.95 for single bottles and $55.95 to $85.95 for boxed collections.
For more information on extra virgin olive oil, click here to read Domenica Marchetti’s interview with Luanne Savino O’Loughlin of Olio2go.
Note: You can click on any picture for a larger image, and to see a slide show!
Disclosure: I received the product mentioned above for free. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I otherwise have no affiliation with any product, manufacturer, or site mentioned in this article.