Last year during a beautiful trip to Southern Italy, I spent a day in the Avellino public library looking through old Italian cookbooks. I wanted to learn about the traditional dishes of Campania and its provinces. The experience reminded me of the kindness of librarians.
It was a very hot day, and if the library had air conditioning, it was either broken or not capable of overcoming the hot ambient temperature. Giovanni, my guide, and I asked for help in the old books collection housed on the 4th floor. At first, Silvia, the librarian, wilting in the heat, was curt and not very helpful. After some polite pleading, she let us into the small room with metal shelving stuffed with old texts that reached all the way to the ceiling. Another librarian sat at a small desk, intently working behind a computer screen. Giovanni and I began to pull books and leaf through them, finding all manner of old recipes. One old text from 1834 in Naples, written all in poetry, gave recipes for preparing wild game.
Just as a cat cannot resist playing with a mouse, or a dog cannot resist the smell of cooking meat, soon Silvia completely immersed herself in our project. Before long, the three of us poured over recipe collections, pulling things off the shelves, intent and completely consumed. The librarian behind the desk, who had cerebral palsy, helped with the search. When she found something, Silvia would translate. Silvia would leave the room for several minutes, coming back with a stack of books from another collection from somewhere in the bowels of the library. In one afternoon, I fell in love with these two women who clearly had a true love of information and a deep respect for each other. It was a gift to witness.
This recipe for cheesy vegetarian rigatoni and mushrooms comes from an old cookbook found that day.
The original recipe calls for sausage, but I adapted it to a vegetarian version. The mushrooms make the dish meaty and add umami. I’m okay with changing an authentic recipe. Italian cuisine, just like the others, is always evolving, keeping up with the times. This rigatoni recipe is still very Italian and Mediterranean: the olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms and rigatoni make it so. As a fun aside, in 1834 it was called maccheroni, not pasta.
Cheesy Vegetarian Rigatoni with Mushrooms
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 12 ounces mushrooms, sliced
- 1/2 medium onion- diced
- 2 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 15.5 oz can whole tomatoes, diced - can use 4-5 medium tomatoes
- 1/2 lb rigatoni
- 3/4 cup grated parmigiano
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease a 8 x 8 baking dish.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. When the water is boiling, add a healthy pinch of salt and add rigatoni. Stir well and cook according to package instructions. When done, drain (do not rinse) and set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and saute onion and garlic until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
- Add sliced mushrooms and continue to saute until mushrooms are just soft, but still firm, about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add diced tomatoes and bring to a gentle simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste, simmer for 2 more minutes.
- Pour cooked rigatoni into the baking dish and pour sauce over the top. Mix slightly by stirring a few times with a wooden spoon. Top with grated parmigiano cheese.
- Place in oven, uncovered, and cook for 15 - 20 minutes until cheese is melted and dish is hot and bubbly. Serve with a side salad and a glass of red wine. Makes a hearty main dish.
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