There is NO such thing as Spaghetti Bolognaise.
Okay, maybe I should amend that a tiny bit:
Only tourists order Spaghetti Bolognaise. Italians would rather cut off their tongues with a rusty pen knife and pull out their own vocal chords with poison-dipped pliers than utter the name of this made up dish.
I uttered it a lot while in Tuscany this summer. Sometimes because it was on the menu and I wanted to eat it, and sometimes for the sheer joy of watching my waiter squirm with the discomfort of a man having a prostate exam. Capital eff-you-enn. FUN.
I didn’t start out this mean. I love Italy. I love Italians. What is there not to love about people who would bleed themselves dry and trade their blood for a taste of true balsamic vinegar drizzled on their sweet and juicy melon wrapped with thin sheets of salty Parma ham (instead of the alleged garbage the rest of us use to drown lettuce in)?
And obsessed with control.
Everything good has to be checked out by food police and given a stamp of approval before it can stake claim to any share of the thunderous applause coming from hands that have just put down a napkin. The DOCG label, the collection of letters guaranteeing quality, strikes fear into the hearts of those hoping to tattoo them onto their products and has them waking in a cold sweat with the great possibility they may not reach the gold standard.
But victorious or not, the Italians have a boatload to be proud of. I say, with hand on my heart, that I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in Italian gas stations.
It was the first meal of my summer journey after landing in Pisa and driving toward Siena, and sadly, every dish was judged against it from then on. Nothing could quite compare. Guess what I had?
The seven-table cookshack off the side of the road showed nothing more than a mass of semis clustering around its dirt parking lot and front door; beasts crowding a fresh kill. The group of grubby drivers corking the flow of movement at the door waited patiently while their hands were busy talking to other guys in the same line of work.
The tablecloths were pieces of fresh yellow paper, the wine … your pick—a jug of red or a jug of white–the food mostly family style. Whatever the cook’s making in the back we’ll bring out. You’ll like it.
Have you got Spaghetti Bolognaise?
Of course we do.
Stupid question, right?
The folks at the truck stop could have stopped me right there, could have told me, “Hey kid, here’s a tip; unless you plan to give the whole of Italy a giant cardiac arrest, don’t ask for that dish.”
Apparently, one never has Bolognaise, one has ragu. And one does not put spag with one’s ragu. Only tagliatelle. It’s Tagliatelle al Ragu. Capiche?
But this fellow was just as nice as pie, or whatever the equivalent of pie is in Italy, and served me and all the truck drivers whatever we wanted without batting an eyelash. Everyone else, on the other hand, clutched hearts, clucked tongues and shook long, prodigious digits at me when I requested the combo.
Even if it was listed as such ON THEIR MENU.
Wouldn’t it be easier if they all agreed to not offer up a recipe that doesn’t exist and feign ignorance if it was asked for?
“Yes, but we put it on the menu for the tourists,” I would hear.
“That’s me,” I’d beam.
Usually, a sign of the cross was made, a few Hail Mary’s were uttered and once, even a couple of knuckles were cracked. These guys are serious.
I begged for an explanation.
“Spaghetti is from Naples. It’s made from semolina. It’s too slippery for ragu. Tagliatelle is egg pasta. This is what we serve with ragu in Bologna.”
“So you’re saying your pasta is like duct tape?”
Do not joke with Italians about food. They’re quite at ease with hanging meat for months at a time in cold dank storage facilities. It’s unnerving to see four thousand pig legs dangling from a ceiling and be told that you had to be a very special animal to find yourself in here.
So I guess I’ve learned a very important lesson. One I won’t ever forget. One that struck me to the core and left a deep impression upon me:
I want to be an Italian truck driver.