ONLY RECENTLY has pasta come out from, under a blanket of sauce in this country and, however limply, stood up for itself. In the not-so-long-ago, pasta was a vehicle, a carrier, a chameleon-like starch that provided cooks with a bland canvas on which to create and the excuse to fashion toppings rich in flavor, color and calories.
Some like pasta cold, as Marian Burros' story nearby explains. So do I, but I love it hot, and with almost any sauce that isn't two-thirds tomato paste and hamburger. Pasta has gone (or been) international and has been introduced in the world of fast food. (I have it on good authority that do-it-yourself pasta bars, based on the salad bar concept, are almost here.) But pasta without sauce is like several days without sunshine.
In hopes of stirring up something, I've reviewed the hit parade of pasta sauces. As with operas, the popular favorites tend to be Italian, and among them the choice is virtually endless. Let me single out half-a-dozen, though, as pasta sauces beyond compare. Thousands may want to disagree, but I feel confident by the time they have eaten their way through these choices, they will be pacified. LUIGI ZARA'S ALFREDO SAUCE (4 appetizer servings) 1/4 cup sour cream 2 tablespoons whipping cream 1 stick (4 ounces) butter, cut into pieces Salt and pepper 3 tablespoons freshly ground parmesan cheese
Mix sour cream and whipping cream. Place butter in a pan or mixing bowl. Drain cooked pasta (about 1/2 pound fettuccini) and toss in bowl with butter, salt and pepper. Transfer to a hot serving platter. Add cream mixture and toss until noodles are evenly coated. Add 2 tablespoons cheese and toss again just before serving. Sprinkle remaining cheese lightly over each portion. GIULIANO BIGUALLI'S SAUCE OF UNCOOKED TOMATOES AND HERBS (4 servings) 1 pound very ripe tomatoes (or 12 ounces canned) 4 medium-sized cloves garlic 25 large leaves fresh basil, or a few more to taste 1/2 cup olive oil Salt Generous amount of freshly ground black pepper 1 pound dried pasta, such as shells or penne
Wash tomatoes, then cut them into small pieces and put in a bowl.
Chop garlic coarsely and add to bowl, then tear the basil leaves into thirds and add to the bowl, along with the oil, salt and pepper. Mix all the ingredients together, then cover the bowl with aluminum foil and place it in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving time.
Cook pasta al dente. While the pasta is still extremely hot, pour the refrigerated sauce over it. (It is the reaction of very hot to very cold that releases the unique flavor of this dish.) Toss very well and serve at once; absolutely do not add grated cheese. CURRIED MUSHROOMS AND SWEETBREADS (6 to 8 servings) 1 1/2 pounds sweetbreads (1 pair) 1 onion, coarsely chopped 1 carrot, coarsely chopped 1 clove garlic, minced Bouquet garni made from several sprigs fresh parsley, dried thyme and small bay leaf 2 1/2 cups chicken broth 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick) 1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced thin 1 tablespoon curry powder, or to taste 1 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper to taste Lemon juice to taste 1 1/2 pound fettuccini or linguini 1/2 to 3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Soak sweetbreads in two or three changes of cold water over 30 minutes. Place in a saucepan and cover with fresh water. Bring water to a boil, simmer 5 minutes, drain and plunge in cold water. When cool, put sweetbreads under a weighted plate and refrigerate.
Place onions, carrots, garlic, bouquet garni and chicken broth in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Add sweetbreads and cook for 5 minutes.Drain, reserving 1/2-cup of broth. When sweetbreads have cooled, trim off tissue and membranes and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Reserve. (This process may be done the day before or early on the day of the meal.)
For final preparation, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and saute mushrooms until soft. Add curry powder, stir briefly, then pour in reserved broth. Simmer a few minutes, then add cream. Bring to a boil and allow sauce to reduce and thicken slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning with more curry (if desired), salt pepper and a little lemon juice. Add sweetbreads and allow them to heat through.
Cook pasta to al dente stage. Toss with remaining butter (cut into pieces), then add hot sauce and mix well. Top with cheese, toss again and serve hot.
(The original of this recipe is from the Villa d'Este resort on Lake Como. This version is an adaptation of a translation by Craig Clairborne.) MARCELLA HAZAN'S FETTUCCINE (6 servings) 4 ounces soft (not crumbly) gorgonzola cheese 1/3 cup milk 3 tablespoons butter Salt 1 pound fettuccine 1/4 cup heavy cream 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Choose a shallow, enameled iron pan, or other flameproof serving dish, that can later accomodate all the pasta. Put in the gorgonzola, milk, butter and 2 teaspoons salt and turn the heat to low. Mash the gorgonzola with a wooden spoon, and stir to incorporate it into the milk and butter. Cook for about 1 minute, until the sauce has a dense, creamy consistency. Turn off the heat and set aside until you are almost ready to add the pasta.
Just seconds before the pasta is done, turn on the heat under the sauce to low and stir in the heavy cream. Add the drained, cooked pasta and toss it with the sauce. Add all the grated cheese and mix it into the pasta. Serve immediately, directly from the pan with a bowl of additional grated cheese on the side. Cantina d'italia nutty fettuccini (6 to 8 appetizer servings) 2 cups walnuts 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts 2 cloves garlic, cut coarsely 1 tablespoon water 1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese 1 tablespoon minced parsley 1 cup olive oil Salt and pepper to taste 1 pound fettuccini 1 stick butter, cut in small pieces and at room temperature. 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Use a morter and pestle, blender or food processor to make a smooth mixture of walnuts and pine nuts, garlic and water. Transfer to a bowl and combine well with ricotta and parsley. Stir in olive oil slowly and season with salt and pepper.
While pasta is cooking, heat sauce in a large sauce pan. Add drained pasta and butter and toss until noodles are well-coated. Sprinkle with cheese and serve from the pan (or transfer to a serving dish and add cheese). VERMICELLI WITH CLAMS (4 to 6 servings) 1/4 cup olive oil 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 1/4 cup warm water Red pepper flakes to taste 24 to 36 small clams (about 2 pints ), well scrubbed Salt to taste 1 pound vermicelli or linguini
While pasta cooks, heat olive oil with garlic. Before it begins to brown, add 1 tablespoon parsley and oregano. Add water and bring liquid to a boil. Add clams in the shell. Cover pan and shake occasionally during 3 to 5 minutes, or until clams open. Add a shake (or several shakes) of pepper flakes and remaining parsley. Remove clams, taste liquid and boil down if it doesn't have a salty taste. Drain pasta and place on a platter or in bowls. Arrange clams atop pasta and pour 1/2 cup or so of broth over the platter or a couple of tablespoons over each portion. Serve no cheese with this.
Note: If you feel compelled to strain the broth, add the remaining parsley, pepper flakes and some additional minced garlic to the clear broth.