Updated: Mar 25
I went with my friend Silvia to collect her daughter from school the other day. It was 1pm, and there was a gaggle of mothers outside the school gates, masked and immaculate, dressed in head-to-toe black and sunglasses. We began chatting.
How was Silvia feeling after her hernia removal? She'd lost so much weight! Poverina, how tired she looked! Pleasantries were exchanged for a few minutes and then, inevitably, one of the mothers brought up the subject of lunch.
'Today I've got ragu for India', she said, with unabashed pride.
'Che buono!' chimed the chorus of mothers, holding one hand out and flicking it back and forth to emphasise the statement.
'Marta has favette', trilled another (a stew made of dried broad beans which is very traditional in Sardinia)
'How traditional! Che buono!' echoed the chorus.
'I've got minestra for Elena,' said Silvia, eager not be left out, hernia operation or no.
'You know what I've been making recently,' said a mother dressed in pleather, lowering her voice to a confidential whisper and leaning in for added effect, 'Pasta in bianco. Stavo proprio desiderando'.
'CHE BUONO!' came the chorus, louder and more emphatic than ever before.
As we drove Elena home and ate our minestra I thought back over the scene I had just witnessed. I wondered if mothers in the UK had similar conversations at the school gates. Perhaps they did, though I imagine the response was less enthusiastic. Aside from the communal enthusiasm relating to edibles the thing that stayed with me was that phrase 'stavo desiderando'.
For professional translators, phrases like this must be a complete rottura di scatole (literally a 'breaking of the back', figuratively 'a pain in the arse'). It is almost impossible to translate accurately into English. 'I was desiring' sounds all wrong, 'I was wishing' plain odd, 'I was wanting' too cold and hard. But when applied to food this phrase means a bit of all three of these things, and yet also none of them.
Stavo desiderando is such a wonderfully emotive phrase, a phrase and sentiment so perfectly suited to the passion Italians feel for their food and something which doesn't easily translate into English because we have a historically complicated relationship with our cuisine (and perhaps with pleasure in general) in the same way that there is no equivalent in English for the words spoken before every meal in Italy, Buon Appetito. To desire food, to crave, to want, to dream, to wish for it like this is a pertinently pleasurable concept in itself, and this phrase in one of my favourites of all of those relating to food and lost in translation (there are many).
The dish that said mother was desiderando is a dish that most Italian children will grow up eating; Pasta in Bianco, or White Pasta, which simply means pasta cooked and served lightly sauced in a little melted butter, or occasionally olive oil. It is the sort of dish that you make for fussy children, for hungry children, for tired adults; if your fridge is empty, if you're craving comfort, if you've run out of ideas of what to cook. It's the sort of dish that I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life, and incidentally, the second dish I ever learnt to make (pancakes were first). It is the most simple, pure and comforting thing in the world and even before this mother brought it up, I am almost(!) embarrassed to admit I have been eating it at least twice weekly for the last year (quite honestly there have been a few weeks of lockdown where I have eaten it every night). Just writing about it here means that I am already desiderando a plate-full.
Unsurprisingly there are many ways to make Pasta in Bianco. There are those that use just butter, those that add grated parmesan, those that add a twist or two of black pepper. There are those that use olive oil instead. I make it a different way each time I do it, depending on my mood, altering the fat accordingly, as sometimes butter is just a little too intense if I've eaten a lot of cheese that day (this happens almost every day) so I want the pep and pepper of extra virgin olive oil instead. I always add a little grated parmesan too, for depth and that covetable umami-element, and I like a good twist of fresh black pepper. It's extra important, as this is such a simple pasta dish, that the pasta is nicely al dente, but otherwise this is very much about what you really desire at this crucial moment in your day.
I will attempt to give a recipe, but in reality this is very much a movable feast and, as I say, dependent on your individual desires. Not to be eaten in small quantities, and definitely not in formal setting, but instead with piled plate perched precariously on your stomach on the sofa.
120g pasta of your choice (I like penne, mezze penne, linguine, spaghetti, rigatoni)
a generous knob of butter or glug of oil
20g grated parmesan
Cook the pasta until just al dente in well salted boiling water. Drain, reserving a little of the cooking water. Melt the butter (or warm the oil) over a low heat and add the pasta water and the drained pasta. Toss well and add the pepper and cheese if using.