In a recent work trip to Sorrento, driven by an insane cheese fetish, I managed to get my hands on some serious dairy. The area of the Monti Lattari mountains – a name that speaks volumes – above the world-known vacation spot is the birthplace and natural habitat of a magnificent breed of cows called Vacca Agerolese, whose milk is otherworldly, containing 20% more fat (flavor) than the Frisone’s milk, but given the few specimens, producing a lower yield. On the brink of extinction, the milk of these precious animals is also known as “white gold”.
My love affair with fresh stretched and severed cheese the likes of mozzarella and fior di latte is almost embarrassing. I have done things for a taste of either milk or buffalo product that make me blush. It was mandatory then that in Sorrento I should find the best.
After each research trip I return home bearing ridiculous amounts of cheese purchased at the farms and agriturismo farms I visit. This time I came back with delicious smoked fior di latte, which is locally called “provola affumicata” – a fresh, only slightly smoked cow’s milk mozzarella obtained by placing the finished cheese in a cold chamber filled with the smoke of burnt chestnut wood.
This particular cheese is the key element of a favorite Neapolitan recipe I learned to make during my nearly 3-year residency in the city of Naples. It is a comforting peasant dish called pasta e patate azzeccata. This chunky and slow-cooked broken pasta and potato soup is perfect for this crisp Autumn weather. Like all unpretentious dishes, the successful outcome of this traditional soup is owed to two elements: cooking the pasta with all the other ingredients (the creamy soup retains precious starches, which would have been lost if the pasta had been normally cooked separately in salty water and then drained) and the smoked cheese. The term ‘azzeccata’ – which in pure Italian means to finalize successfully – in Neapolitan signifies “sticky” and “chunky”, and in this case the binding agents for this particular characteristic are the starch contained in the pasta and cooked tubers, and in the melted cheese. Are you drooling yet?
Here is how I make my ‘Pasta e Patate Azzeccata’
50 g (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil
1 celery rib, minced
1 medium onion, minced
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 kg (1.1 lbs) old potatoes, cubed
6 cherry tomatoes, halved – the best to use are the ‘Pomodorini del Piennolo’ kind
Fresh basil, about 3 leaves
1 quart of beef stock, heated
400 g (14 oz) small ditalini or mis-matched pasta (you can make your own with odd leftover pasta shapes, provided they all share the same cooking time) – the best to use is the bronze extruded kind from Gragnano
250 g (1 cup) smoked provola cheese, chopped
1 handful Parmigiano, grated
Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Start by heating the olive oil in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, and toss in the onion, celery and garlic. Sauté on low until translucent, careful not to char the onions (add a tablespoon of water if necessary). Season with salt and pepper.
Add the cubed potatoes to the flavored oil and toss with the tomatoes and torn basil leaves, stirring constantly for a few minutes so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Pour in 2 ladles of stock and gently simmer over medium-low heat until the potatoes are just slightly soft. They should not become mush!
Add the raw pasta to the pot and cook as you would risotto, that is ladling in broth a little at a time as the pasta absorbs it. The texture of the soup should not be too watery, remember, it should be ‘azzeccata’…