Pasta Improvvisata: How to Improvise in Classic Italian Style


Do you, like millions of Americans, love pasta? Do you nonetheless find yourself preparing the same old pasta sauces over and over again? Wouldn't you like to be able to spice up your pasta routine, to use fresh new ingredients and discover new methods and flavor combinations? Now, with the help of Erica De Mane's timely and imaginative book, you can. You'll learn to throw together an impromptu and delicious pasta dish the way the Italians do, creatively making use of whatever's on hand or whatever looks good in ...
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Do you, like millions of Americans, love pasta? Do you nonetheless find yourself preparing the same old pasta sauces over and over again? Wouldn't you like to be able to spice up your pasta routine, to use fresh new ingredients and discover new methods and flavor combinations? Now, with the help of Erica De Mane's timely and imaginative book, you can. You'll learn to throw together an impromptu and delicious pasta dish the way the Italians do, creatively making use of whatever's on hand or whatever looks good in the market. You will develop the confidence and creativity in the kitchen to approach and cook pasta the way it's done in Italy.

Erica De Mane emphasizes pasta's enormous versatility and shows you how to think for yourself when it comes to combining ingredients. She explains the basic cooking techniques, sauces, and essential equipment so that you can move beyond the boundaries of recipes and conventional approaches to pasta cooking. She teaches you how to break down recipes and reinvent them, progressing from the fundamental to the complex, and how to customize recipes to suit your whim or your pantry -- so you'll always end up with an exciting, flavorful, and absolutely authentic Italian dish. Drawing on her extensive travels through the southern regions of Sicily, Apulia, and Campania, and on her respect for the innovations of American chefs, Erica De Mane provides a wealth of new ideas -- from Cavatelli with Morels, Montasio, and Arugula to Ravioli with Scallop Mousse and Red Pepper Sauce to Veal and Roasted Artichoke Lasagne -- that make an easy transition to the American kitchen.

If you're tired of slavishly following recipes all the time, or hesitant to include afavorite ingredient unless it's explicitly called for, fear no more. The clearly laid out recipe ideas and blueprints for creative pasta-making in this book are what every free-spirited pasta lover interested in taste and authenticity has been waiting for.

Among Pasta Improvvisata's unique features:
* Three superbly organized sections: Pasta and Vegetables, Pasta and Fish, and Pasta and Meat
* Twelve instructive pages of drawings, showing all the different types of pasta
* A list of recommended sources for all sorts of Italian specialty ingredients
* A chapter on making fresh pasta, including unusual variations such as Red Pepper Pasta, Saffron Pasta, and Fennel Seed Pasta

This all-inclusive, intelligent, and approachable cookbook will enable all pasta lovers, the novice and the experienced home cook alike, to have more fun -- and freedom -- in the kitchen than ever before.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
I met Erica De Mane, author of the just-released Pasta Improvvisata, at an in-store book signing where she had, in true Italian fashion, fed a crowd of book buyers, well-wishers, and on-lookers with platter upon platter of an absolutely delicious spur-of-the-moment pasta. What made our introduction more interesting was the fact that I had seen her, earlier in the day, buying the makings for the pasta in New York City's Union Square Greenmarket. So I could truly attest that Erica was a practitioner of the premise of her new cookbook — improvising a pasta meal from whatever is particularly good in the marketplace or whatever you happen to have on hand. The crowd at the book-signing was so enthusiastic that she didn't have time to chat, so we scheduled a get-together for the next day.

As we got to know one another, I asked Erica De Mane why she had written her cookbook. "I have a very different style of cooking — I play around in the kitchen," she answered. "I've found that so many cookbooks are very rigid and don't give home cooks the sense of joy that cooking should bring. I wanted my cookbook to be relaxed and to reflect the way that I cook, and I do think that I accomplished this." But just how relaxed can a cook be?, I wondered but didn't say. "Whenever I am cooking," Erica continued, "I am always thinking of other ways to do the recipe that I am making. In my book, each recipe has a section called 'Ideas' that, I hope, will encourage readers to do the same thing. If they like the way a recipe turns out, the ideas that go along with it can expand the tastesandtextures in other ways. I want cooks to understand that recipes are not set in stone — that they are living, breathing entities that can continue to grow and change." With this further explanation, I had to agree that her relaxed approach to cooking held enormous appeal.

Although Erica De Mane explains basic cooking techniques, sauces, and essential equipment required to become a well-seasoned pasta cook, she primarily concentrates on expanding the home cook's horizons so that one can break down and reinvent her recipes giving each one its own personal stamp. Her clear-cut instructions and free-wheeling enthusiasm for her subject lead the way to customized recipes that are authentically Italian in flavor and texture but totally American in approach and simplicity.

"What do you want your readers to take away from cooking with Pasta Improvvisata?" I inquired. "I absolutely want cooks to have fun and loosen up in the kitchen. I want them to feel that it is okay to make mistakes — to not have every recipe be perfect," answered Erica. "You know, even when you follow a recipe to the nth degree, it may not taste good," she emphasized. "Hasn't that happened to you?" she queried. I nodded my agreement. "That's why I tell cooks to taste, and taste, and taste some more. Just keep tasting all the while you are cooking. Tasting will tell you where a recipe is heading and if you have well-seasoned taste buds, you'll learn how to adjust as you go so that you can avoid disasters."

Since we are in the midst of summer's bounty, I asked Erica if she had any recommendations about using garden-fresh ingredients in a pasta dish. "Definitely," she answered. "The quality of your ingredients are reflected in the finished dish. Italians really understand cooking with superb raw ingredients. I can't imagine a better time to experiment with Pasta Improvvisata since most vegetables are at their prime. I find the greenmarkets to be truly inspirational, and my kitchen resonates with this inspiration."

I couldn't get Erica De Mane to give us a favorite recipe from the book. I think that this is because it is her greatest desire that readers create their own favorite recipe using her recipes and ideas as guidelines. "You must learn to respect and trust your own palate and take responsibility for your tastes," she says. "Along the way, you'll find that the flavors you create will honestly reflect you."

I've already begun to perfect the Italian style of Erica De Mane's Pasta Improvvisata . I frequent the greenmarkets. I'm using my tastebuds to lead the way at the stove. I'm tasting, tasting, tasting. And I'm sitting down to delicious bowls of wonderfully aromatic pasta with friends and family. It's working so well that I'm even beginning to love opera! Get your copy of this easy-to-use and easy-to-expand-from cookbook and join us as our taste buds sing from the joy of learning Pasta Improvvisata. —Judith Choate

NY Times Book Review
...[A] book you will use....[She shows] apparently endless invention and love of actual cooking...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Encountering De Mane's book, the experienced cook will wonder if her imaginative advice is at all necessary. After all, the familiarity and simplicity of many pasta dishes inevitably invite chefs to toss in a bit of personal invention. Food writer De Mane is up to the challenge, however, and her book, divided into three parts (pasta with vegetables, with fish and with meat), will expand most cooks' thinking. Fresh ideas abound. She provides more than a dozen tomato sauces, from the usual to her Simmered Tomato-Fig Sauce and the free-spirited Tomato and Orange Sauce. With all recipes, De Mane offers substitutions to change basic results: for the Tomato and Orange Sauce, she suggests using mint instead of the specified basil or tossing the pasta with ricotta before adding the sauce. Rather than providing eye-opening revelations, De Mane reminds readers what can be done when combining or adapting Italian flavors. Classic linguine with white clam sauce becomes Linguine with Clams, Pancetta and Marjoram, which itself can be altered by using bacon rather than pancetta, by mixing the clams with parsley pesto or by adding fresh corn kernels. Other variations spring from Anchovy and Fennel Seed Sauce, Fusilli with Veal Capers and Lemon (a twist on veal piccata) or Baked Cavatappi with Chicken-Arugula Meatballs. Since improvising requires handy ingredients, an annotated Improviser's Pantry listing explains what to have at the ready. Good Cook Club and BOMC alternate selection. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Food writer De Mane obviously loves to cook, and she especially likes to cook pasta. Here she offers dozens of recipes for pasta dishes, along with literally hundreds of variations. Some of the variations are full-fledged recipes, others are ideas for adding an ingredient or substituting another, preparing the dish in a slightly different way, or even finding alternative ways of serving it. De Mane hopes her readers will learn not only how to build on a recipe to make it their own but also how to cook without relying on a recipe at all. She includes lots of informative boxes on topics both basic and more esoteric, and her recipes are unusual, sophisticated, and very appealing. Highly recommended. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
NY Times Book Review
...[A] book you will use....[She shows] apparently endless invention and love of actual cooking...
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684829722
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 6/2/1999
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 7.70 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Pasta Drawings


Making Tomato Sauce
Matching Pasta with Sauce
On Measuring
Some Basic Information for Cooking Pasta
General Quantities to Keep in Mind When Shopping for Pasta Sauce Ingredients
Cooking with Garlic and Olive Oil
Classic Italian Vegetable Sauces
Pasta with Spring and Summer Vegetables: Warm-Weather Cooking
Pasta with Fall and Winter Vegetables: Cold-Weather Cooking
Vegetable and Cheese Fillings for Pasta


Some Good Fish to Cook with Pasta
Fish Soups and Stews
Fish and Vegetables with Pasta


Long-Simmered Meat Sauces for Pasta
Pasta with Meat Fillings





Mail-Order Sources

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I loved my family's southern Italian American cooking when I was a child, and even back then, before I was aware of where it all came from, I was proud to invite my friends over for a dinner of lasagne layered with ricotta and my mother's long-simmered meat sauce.

My family also ate out a lot, almost exclusively at Italian restaurants, and I always ordered pasta. That was where I first learned that the world of pasta went beyond the tomato, garlic, and dried oregano triumvirate of my home and into the creamy Alfredo sauces that in the 1960s and '70s became the hallmark of high-class Italian restaurant cooking (the dish was always made tableside by a tuxedoed waiter using elaborate arm movements). I noticed the attention and care that were paid to the preparation of food, not only in these restaurants but in my own family. And my dedication to the art of cooking took hold.

As a teenager, I began by experimenting. My first great discovery was aglio e olio (garlic and oil sauce), which was something my family never cooked because my father was not a fan of the straight taste of olive oil. As I entered adulthood, I'd make an aglio e olio sauce toward dawn for friends after a night of disco-hopping. It wasn't long before I varied the garlic-and-olive-oil base by adding anchovies, prosciutto, hot pepper, fresh parsley, and basil from my father's garden. Cooking was starting to become a life focus for me, a way of expressing myself.

Pasta sauces lend themselves beautifully to the kind of improvisation I was doing. Even in Italy, where town feuds are fought over the correct ingredients for a true Bolognese sauce, each cook makes the classic sauces a littr way into a pasta sauce and still retain Italian style. Looking through old Italian cookbooks, I've come across sauces containing beets, dried apricots, cabbage, squid ink, sweetbreads, walnuts, even chocolate!

My love is for pasta in true Italian style, and I favor using ingredients most Italians would approve of, so you won't find cilantro or miso paste here. Not that you can't make a great pasta dish using them; I just want to preserve the flavors and the feeling of real Italian cooking. My aim is to teach you how to use recipes creatively but within the framework of the Italian flavor palate. My recipes can be taken as starting points, with many enticing variations suggested.

As I show, Italian pasta sauces fall into two general categories: long-cooked and short-cooked. You can make a classic southern Italian sauce of calamari and tomato that is long-simmered, with a stewed, mellow character, or you can use the same ingredients, quick-sauté the squid just until it turns opaque and tender, add chopped fresh tomatoes and herbs, and have it ready to eat in four minutes. The sauce will be bright and the squid tender. Same ingredients, two different tastes.

Your memory will gradually become a resource you instinctively rely on to make such choices and improvise in the kitchen. The more you cook, the more olfactory memory you will acquire as well, enabling you to imagine beforehand what will result from a certain combination of ingredients or cooking techniques. Of course, there will always be surprises. I've been eating at a small Italian restaurant in my neighborhood since it opened four years ago. I frequently order the same dish, which is listed as farfalle with squid and saffron, a co mbination or variation of which I often make at home. The restaurant's version tastes different, deeper. For ages, each time I ordered it, I tried to figure out what was special about it. The sauce is yellow from saffron. It contains white wine, probably a fish stock, and butter instead of the olive oil I invariably reach for when I cook squid. But there was something else in the sauce. One night I figured it out. The cook added rosemary with the saffron. An unusual combination. I would have thought a strong herb like rosemary would overpower the delicate saffron. But it didn't. It blended into a delicious, rich taste. And the rosemary must have been added to the stock and strained out so no little green flecks appeared. That combination might never have occurred to me, but now I use it as a flavoring for seafood dishes -- it works particularly well with shellfish. Even if you've cooked for many years, you'll always make discoveries, and those discoveries will stay with you. So don't be intimidated by lack of experience. It will make cooking all the more exciting.

I have always felt that the best cooks are those who have a naturally inquisitive palate. I've always had one. I remember as a child accepting a sandwich filled with bacon and cocktail olives from a kid down the street. I didn't realize it was meant as a joke, and she laughed hysterically when I tasted it, but I actually thought it had potential. Constant tasting is extremely important for any cook. If you follow a recipe without tasting as you go along, you're not really cooking; you're just following orders. By tasting, you learn how each addition to a dish changes it. Tasting while you cook is also a big part of the fun of cooking. Y ou absorb a knowledge of what different foods are and what happens to them when they're cooked. Before adding the tomatoes, taste the chopped leek you've just sautéed in olive oil as a base for your sauce. Maybe you'll decide you don't need the tomatoes, and dine on a dish of fettuccine with leeks.

In the recipes in this book, I give general amounts for all seasoning ingredients such as fresh herbs or capers, so you'll have some leeway. My hope is that I'll encourage you to think about what you are doing and participate more fully in the process. I do give fairly specific amounts for main ingredients, such as one large eggplant, two pounds of tomatoes, or half a pound of shrimp. This is to ensure that the quantity will come out to the desired serving size (all the recipes in this book are designed for four main-course pasta servings or six first-course servings, or for sauce for one pound of dried pasta).

It's also important to study a recipe for guidance before you begin. Get a sense of what the cooking style and principles are. Will you be sautéing or baking or grilling? Or simmering something in liquid? When you really start to become confident, try not bringing the book into the kitchen with you when you cook. You've got your ingredients, you know roughly the quantities you want to use, you understand the basic cooking method. Maybe you won't need to look at the recipe again. Maybe you'll want to take a look at it after you've finished, to see if what you did was what the recipe told you or if you went off and did something easier, better, or more suited to your own style. That is real liberation!

The last thing you should worry about is making mistakes. Very few dishes are liter ally inedible, and unusual is almost always better than boring. In most cases what you consider a mistake your guests or family will find delicious. Don't tell them you screwed up the recipe; you'll just make them feel wrong to enjoy it.

It takes a while to train your nose to sniff out flavor. Marcella Hazan, the great cooking teacher and author, once wrote that she could smell the salt in food. I thought this was amazing and tried to do it myself. I couldn't. I still can't, although I can now tell whether or not pasta water has already been salted by smelling it. But I cannot smell a tomato sauce and make this same determination. Maybe someday.

I'm still learning. Cooking, after all, is a continuous process of discovery. Out of discovery will emerge your personal style and the real joy that comes from pleasing your family and friends with your creations. Don't be afraid to grab a little freedom in your kitchen. You'll pick up techniques and learn while you cook. And there's nothing more inspiring than the flavors of Italy to serve as your well-seasoned guide.

Copyright © 1999 by Erica De Mane

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A Recipe from Pasta Improvvisata

Orecchiette with Roasted Corn, Red Peppers, and Ricotta Salata

Using American Produce in an Italian Way

I chose orecchiette for this sauce because I like the way the corn kernels get caught in the rounded hollows of the pasta. Corn's sweetness and texture, I think, go well with the wheaty taste of dried pasta. The pancetta is cut in slightly bigger pieces than we are used to in this country (I learned this style from eating pasta carbonara at restaurants in Rome), which gives the finished dish an earthy texture that stands up well to a sturdy pasta. If you don't have a grill, roast the peppers over a gas flame and roast the corn in a hot oven.

Makes 4 main-course or 6 first-course servings

4 red bell peppers
4 ears fresh corn
4 thin slices pancetta, cut in small cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
10 scallions, cut in thin rounds, with some of the green
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound orecchiette
A tiny splash of sherry vinegar
A large handful of basil leaves, chopped
About 1/2 cup freshly grated ricotta salata cheese

Roast the peppers over a hot grill until well charred on all sides. Roast the corn in their husks (or husk and wrap in aluminum foil), turning several times, until tender and lightly browned (this should take about 10 minutes, depending on the heat of your grill; a medium-hot grill with low flames is best). Peel and seed the peppers and cut them in small cubes. Remove the corn kernels with a sharp knife. Set aside.

In a large skillet, sauté the pancetta in the olive oil over medium-low heat until it gives off most of its fat and becomes crisp and golden brown. Add the scallions and sauté a minute longer. Add the corn and peppers, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until all the vegetables are soft and fragrant, 3 or 4 minutes. Cook the orecchiette until al dente. Drain, leaving a little water clinging to the pasta, and add to the pan. Add the sherry vinegar and toss well over low heat. Add the basil and ricotta salata. Toss well and taste for seasonings. Transfer to a serving bowl.


  • I also like corn with lima beans or string beans, both of which can be blanched and then briefly sautéed in this sauce, replacing the bell peppers. Fresh corn kernels sautéed with chanterelle mushrooms, loosened with a splash of white wine and finished with a scattering of chopped parsley make a fabulous sauce for fresh egg pasta.
  • Corn sautéed with chopped summer tomatoes spiked with fresh hot chiles is great tossed with green penne and topped with crumbled fresh goat cheese.
  • Replace the pancetta with bacon for a very American pasta dish.
  • Play with the herbs. I think corn goes best with basil or parsley.
  • Grilled or sautéed sausage cut in small pieces is a good addition; try merguez, Moroccan lamb sausage, or chorizo for a spicy touch.
  • Use yellow bell peppers, and you'll have a pretty pasta dish with all yellow vegetables.
  • If you don't want to grill the vegetables, make the entire dish in a sauté pan, sautéing the corn and peppers along with the scallions until tender. The dish will lack a smoky flavor but will still satisfy if you let the vegetables brown a bit to become sweet.
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