- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I’m just back from a trip to Rome, where I ate pasta every day and didn’t gain an ounce. Perhaps it was because my companions and I ate at a leisurely pace and because when we were finished eating, we walked briskly across town to our hotel.

Or perhaps it was because in Italy, where pasta is usually eaten as a separate course, the servings are modest compared with the larger portions we’re served in the United States.

The meals we ate in Rome almost always began with a dish of pasta. One night, I ate pasta with tiny clams; on other nights, I dined on pasta with artichokes, pasta with mushrooms, and pasta with eggs and bacon.

All were equally delicious, but one, pasta alla amatriciana, was most memorable.

It’s a luscious dish of thick strands of spaghetti sauced with tomatoes, chilies, onion, cheese and guanciale, a pork product similar to pancetta or unsmoked bacon.

For our second course, we usually ordered a salad or a vegetable. Italian cuisine is known for its excellent cooked vegetables.

Never a neglected side dish, vegetables are treated respectfully and always given equal billing on the menu.

We ate tangy grilled Treviso, an endive-type lettuce with red leaves like radicchio, and roasted fresh porcini mushrooms, expensive as a steak but so thick, meaty and richly flavored that they were worth every euro.

We ate extremely well, but we always reserved room for a dish of gelato, the rich Italian ice cream. Sometimes we ordered at the restaurant, but often we walked at a fast pace, of course to our favorite gelateria, where we enjoyed small scoops of gelato pushed into shallow paper cups.

My favorite combination was a scoop of pistachio and one of chocolate. Now that I’m home, I look for gelato in the freezer section of my supermarket.

The selection isn’t as extensive as what’s on display in Roman gelaterias, but I have discovered a lemon-and-ginger gelato from a small local company that is fabulous.

Preparation: Make the sauce, and pan-grill the zucchini. Cook the pasta.

Pasta alla amatriciana

This pasta dish is said to have originated in the town of Amatrice, just north of Rome. In its simplest form, it’s a thick spaghetti sauced with a tomato and bacon. The cheese of the region is pecorino, or sheep’s milk cheese. The preparation time is 10 minutes, and the cooking time is 20 minutes.

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup chopped onion

6 pieces lean pancetta or lean lightly smoked bacon, cut in ½-inch pieces

1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, drained

¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

Salt

12 ounces thick spaghetti (bucatini or perciatelli)

Grated pecorino cheese

Minced chives for garnish, optional

Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion and cook over low heat, stirring, until golden. Add pancetta or bacon; cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Do not brown.

Squeeze juice and seeds from tomatoes, and chop them. Add to skillet. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Add hot red pepper flakes and salt to taste.

Cook pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente, or firm to the bite, about 10 minutes; drain. Add to the sauce; stir to coat. Sprinkle with cheese and chives, if desired, and serve. akes 4 servings.

Pan-grilled zucchini with mint and vinegar

I selected zucchini as my second-course vegetable because it is quick-cooking and readily available. The splash of vinegar added to the hot pan and the sprinkling of fresh chopped mint give it a Roman profile.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 or 4 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add zucchini in a single layer. Reserve the extra slices, and add after the zucchini begins to shrink and room becomes available in the skillet.

Cook, turning, until lightly browned on both sides, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. When zucchini is tender, sprinkle with vinegar and mint, and turn to coat.

The vinegar will evaporate in the hot pan. Transfer to a serving platter; serve as a second course.

Makes 4 servings.

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