Driving back after a few days by the sea, we passed a sign for a caseificio (dairy), a common sight in southern Lazio, as are buffaloes and swathes of prickly pears. This was a particularly pleasing sign, however, with strong letters elevated by stilts. So Vincenzo did a U-turn, which added adrenaline to the excitement that I may have stumbled upon the best mozzarella we had ever tasted. I’m not sure what it was about the driveway that gave me a bad feeling – maybe it was simply that the sun disappeared behind a cloud, and there was a strange smell in the car park, like burned plastic – but I had demanded the U-turn. Everything is great, I told myself, and walked into the shop.
I could, I should, have turned and walked straight out. Not that there was anything terrible about the place, but there was nothing particularly appealing about it, either, and we already had a beautiful globe of mozzarella in the car. Unfortunately, I suffer from a sort of paralysis in small shops: the less I want to be there, the worse it is; also, the need to talk, incessantly, to a girl with no interest in talking, or serving. Also, compulsion. Despite the fact that everything looked a bit sad, I bought not one, but four balls we couldn’t really afford, and a long, bright red salami, scrunched the receipt around the change in my fist and rushed back to the car. Vincenzo, pragmatic and experienced, read the scene: “They look perfect for baked pasta,” he said as he squashed the bag of bobbing balls next to the other mozzarella in the polystyrene box in the boot, before we drove back home along the SS148.
Like draining yoghurt for labneh, it is amazing how much liquid seeps from mozzarella, both buffalo and cow’s milk. Then, as you tip this liquid down the sink, you are reminded why recipes ask that you far sgocciolare bene la mozzarella (let the mozzarella drain well), otherwise the watery juices will flood the dish. For parmigiana, especially, I think it is important to let the mozzarella sit on a plate in the fridge for at least a day, and the same goes for baked pasta, too.
It is important that you cook the pasta for four minutes less than the recommended cooking time, because it will continue cooking as you mix it with the hot tomato sauce, tiny meatballs, grated parmesan and ripped mozzarella, and finish cooking in the oven. I adore a rowdy baked pasta – both making it, the mess and then the neat satisfaction as everything is packed in the dish and you wash up while it bakes. And eating it: strings of average mozzarella from mouth to fork, with a big green salad and lots of red wine. In the end, everything is great.
Pasta al forno – baked pasta with meatballs and mozzarella
Serves 4, generously
40g soft breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten
200g pork mince
1 pork sausage, meat squeezed from its casing
60g parmesan, grated
Salt and pepper
1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
6 tbsp olive oil
500g peeled tomatoes, fresh or tinned, chopped
Red chilli flakes (optional)
Big handful basil, torn
1 tbsp tomato puree (optional)
250g mozzarella, drained and ripped
500g pasta (penne, mezze maniche, maccheroni, rigatoni)
First, prepare the meatballs. Soak the breadcrumbs in the milk and beaten egg for 10 minutes, then squash together with the mince, sausagemeat, two tablespoons of parmesan (the rest is for later), and salt and pepper. Roll into small, walnut-sized meatballs and leave to rest.
Meanwhile, make the sauce in a deep frying pan for which you have a lid. Fry the diced onion in olive oil until soft, add the tomatoes, chilli, basil and a pinch of salt, then leave to simmer, mashing the tomatoes with the back of a spoon, for 10 minutes. Taste and add a squeeze of tomato puree, if you think it needs it. Add the meatballs, cover the pan and leave to cook for 10 minutes, shaking the pan every so often so the meatballs roll around and cook evenly.
Bring a large pan of water to a boil, add salt and, once it comes back to the boil, add the pasta and cook for four minutes less than the recommended cooking time. Drain immediately, then mix in a large bowl with the tomato sauce and meatballs and half the remaining parmesan. Tip into a large baking dish, poke the mozzarella into the gaps, scatter over the rest of the parmesan and bake at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 for 20 minutes. Finish under the grill for crisp, golden edges.