Many of my readers will know that I lived for four years in Italy. In fact, it’s where I started cooking. So I have a passion for Italian food. It means almost as much to me as Indonesian.
The first house we lived in, Villa Sant’ Antonio, was on a hillside overlooking Lake Garda. It was a magical place. 40 years on, Gardone Riviera remains my favourite place to visit in the whole world.
above: view from the villa
top right: Villa Sant’ Antonio
right: centre of Gardone Riviera Sopra (upper village)
I found this recipe written on a scrap of paper soon after we moved into the villa. My cooking skills were still pretty rudimentary, so the fact that it didn’t require any actual cooking beyond boiling water for the pasta made it rather appealing! Like Gardone, this simple pasta dish is still one of my favourites. As soon as it starts to feel like winter is over, the sun is getting warmer, the evenings becoming longer—that’s when I think about making pasta primavera again.
I’ve always called it pasta primavera — primavera means ‘spring’ in Italian. I think that’s what was written on the piece of paper I discovered. Fact is, the name doesn’t exist in Italy — a bit like spaghetti bolognese. There is a pasta primavera in America — but that’s made with cooked vegetables. The Italians just call this one pasta pomodoro, mozzarella e basilico — tomato, mozzarella and basil pasta. I think ‘primavera’ sounds more poetic, and it’s shorter, so I am sticking to what I’ve always called it!
Quantities for four people. These are not critical. And don’t be scared to make more than you might eat at a sitting. This pasta works perfectly cold the next day.
- Tomatoes | about a dozen
The sweetest, tastiest you can find. I usually use cherry or baby plum varieties. The best ones seem to come on the vine—though there’s little evidence that they taste any better for this.
- Mozzarella cheese | 2 or 3 balls, depending on taste
Use the fist-size balls that come in a pouch. If it’s available it’s worth paying a bit more for buffalo mozzarella which is without question more flavoursome.
- Black olives | a cupful
Try and avoid the small, smooth, pitted ones in brine you find in jars in the supermarkets. They don’t really pack enough punch for this recipe. You want to go for the larger, juicy, wrinkly olives still with their stones in, in olive oil, or dry-packed in pouches or tins.
- Basil | a small pot
You mustn’t skimp on this. The basil has to be fresh, and abundant—only a growing pot will do really.
- Garlic | 3 or 4 cloves
- Dried red chillies | a small handful
This is very much a matter of taste. I add chillies to most things, and was delighted to discover that many Italians do the same.
- Olive oil | a cupful
This is not going to be used for cooking, so should really be extra virgin—and, like the basil, abundant.
- Pasta | 400g
I used linguine in the video, but the chunky, relatively dry ingredients suit a more meaty pasta, like penne or rigatoni.
- Quarter the tomatoes (or halve them if they’re small)
- Tear the mozzarella balls into bite-size pieces
- Pull the leaves off the basil plant—the resulting pile should be about as big as the tomato pile
- Crush the garlic
- Cook the pasta as you would normally, boiling it vigorously in plenty of salted water.
- Mix all the fresh ingredients in a large bowl.Once the pasta is cooked (and please, never, ever overcook it) drain it quickly in a colander. Don’t try and get it completely dry—a little water on the pasta is no bad thing since it will provide a bit of moisture to the mix of ingredients.
- Tip the pasta into the bowl with everything else and thoroughly mix it all together. As you can see in the video, I find a large pair of tongs useful for doing this—an Italian would probably use a large fork and spoon, or a pair of forks. Provided you haven’t overcooked the pasta (you haven’t, have you!) you can be quite vigorous with the mixing—the pasta shouldn’t break up.
- Serve with a sprig of basil and a grind of black pepper. (And tell your diners that the olives have stones in them!)