By Patricia Winton
|Saltimbocca with chicken|
Many Italian dishes have strange names. In Rome, Saltimbocca alla Romana reigns as a favorite main course. The Roman version is made from thin slices of veal cutlets topped with slices of prosciutto crudo and sage leaves. Sometimes, the concoction is rolled up like a jelly roll, fastened with a toothpick, and sautèed in olive oil. Other times, the sage is fastened to the meat with a tooth pick, and it is cooked flat. It’s a succulent dish that “jumps in the mouth,” which is what saltimbocca means. Sometimes, it’s made with chicken breasts or pork, but then it’s not alla Romana.
Another Roman dish, a pasta sauce this time, is called Pasta all’Arrabiata. To make this simple pasta sauce, sautè a bit of garlic in olive oil; add red hot pepper, canned tomatoes, and parsley. Meanwhile, cook short dried pasta like penne. This dish is fast to make and tasty to eat. It’s a mainstay in my fast food arsenal. It gets its name, angry pasta, from that hot pepper.
Sometimes, it’s impossible to guess how a dish gets its name. Genovese Napolitana, for example, is a sauce from Naples. A slow-cooked dish made with lots of onions and a little meat, the onion sauce usually tops pasta while the meat appears as the main course. The strange thing about this name is that while it’s a Naples dish, the name Genovese means “from Genoa,” town of Columbus’s birth. One theory is that the Genovese don’t use much tomato in their sauces, unlike the Neapolitans who were the first Europeans to cook with tomatoes. Another suggests that the restaurateur who created the dish came from Genova, as the town is called in Italian.
Sweet dishes can also harbor strange names. Popular cookies called brutti ma buoni, ugly but good, are simple meringues laced with ground nuts and cocoa powder. And they are good. My all-time favorites, however, are called Minne di Virgini, Virgin’s Breasts. These little white hemispheres, topped with a cherry nipple, were first made at the Monastery of the Virgins in Palermo. The confection quickly became the symbol for Saint Agatha whose torturers ultimately cut off her breasts before killing her. While available in any Sicilian pastry shop year round, the Minne di Virgini star in the feast of St. Agatha, patron saint of Catania, on February 6.
Bread, too, offers amusing names. Ciabattine (or ciabatte) are small flat rolls that I understand have become quite trendy in the US and the UK where they are used as sandwich bread. I usually cut them in strips and use them to accompany dinner. I always buy two, although I eat only one with my meal. They just need to come in pairs, I feel, since the word means “little slippers.”
But pasta, oh pasta, offers the strangest names. If you think about it, some names are downright unappetizing. Who really wants to eat vermicelli (little worms), linguine (little tongues), capellini (little hairs), or even orecchiette (little ears)? Some pasta names just make me laugh. Why, I ask, are two popular pastas called ditali (thimbles) and mezze maniche (short sleeves)? In America, farfalle are known as bow ties. That used to make me wince. “Oh no,” I’d say. “Farfalle are butterflies.” Only later did I learn that in Italian, bow ties and butterflies are both farfalle.
The name strozzapreti baffles me most. Just who wants to strangle the priests? Theories abound. One says that housewives from Emilia-Romagna, one region where this pasta is popular, made the dish for local priests, while their anti-cleric husbands hoped the priests would choke on the dish. Another says that when cooks prepare this pasta by hand, they must grab the dough with two hands and twist, or strangle, it. Yet a third holds that peasants prepared food as partial payment for land rents. The priests, who were notoriously gluttonous, ate this dish so rapidly that they choked on it.
As I look through my pantry now, I find strozzapreti, linguine, capellini, orecchiette, ditali, mezze maniche, farfalle. And there’s one ciabiattina, the mate to the one I had for dinner last night. There are tomatoes and hot pepper for making arrabiata sauce in the cupboard, and genovese in the freezer. Burtti ma buoni never stay here long enough to be considered staples, and I’m not at all fond of minne di virgini.