Presto pronto

By Jane Swanson

Anyone visiting our house in the early 70s couldn’t have failed to notice a red orange stain splattered on the dining room wall. Like an abstract painting, the stain was made up of drizzles, splashes and drips. However hard we scrubbed, the stain wouldn’t come off and the wall had to be repainted. I have to confess that the stain was my doing.

Back then we spent our summer holidays in Rimini in Italy. My parents were friends with an Italian family who lived close by in the mountains. We visited at the weekends and whilst the grown-ups chatted my younger sister and I spent time with Nonna, grandma.

Nonna was short and stout and smiley with a soft wrinkled face and wispy white hair.  She dressed in black and wore black tights and black lace-up shoes. She spoke no English and we knew very little Italian but with laughter and simple gestures we understood each other. After a time, we learnt some of her Italian phrases and she learnt the English translations.  She would cup our faces in her gnarled old hands and tell us we were her, ‘angeli,’ angels.

The ground floor of the house was Nonna’s kitchen. It had double doors, which opened onto the street and an ancient wood fired range with a large oven. The room was dark and smoky; when the wind blew tiny pieces of bark scuttled across the stone floor like an army of cockroaches. Besom brooms made from bundles of twigs and hand-plaited straw bushes lay propped up against the far wall. To a child it was like being in the witch’s kitchen from the story of Hansel and Gretel and I have to confess that I was a little wary of the roaring oven.  When it was time to eat and we were seated at the dining table, I felt a childish sense of relief that my sister and I had escaped being eaten.

In the middle of the kitchen there was a large table covered in a grey oilcloth where Nonna rolled out the pasta dough with a giant rolling pin. Sometimes, under her watchful eye we were allowed to help. We rolled the smooth lump of dough out from the centre, one way at a time, until it was thin and stretchy. Sometimes, Nonna would cut it into squares and make ravioli. Sometimes she used the edge of the rolling pin as a ruler and would cut the pasta into long ribbons. We liked it best when she made ribbons because she’d wiggle her hips and dance across the floor to show us how perfectly cooked pasta ribbons should move across a plate like little snakes.

When Nonna filled the pan with water she added plenty of salt and would say, ‘the cooking water needs to taste like the sea.’  Whilst the pasta was cooking Nonna would warm the sauce in a pan.  When the pasta was ready, there was no time to lose and we knew to be quiet.  Nonna drained the pasta and put it in a large bowl. The process of mixing the pasta and the sauce was fast and furious; the pasta was flipped and spun until each ribbon was coated in a glossy layer of sauce. As she worked, she muttered, ‘presto pronto’, soon ready, and when she was finished we’d race upstairs to the dining room. Nonna’s pasta had a silky texture, a soft yellow hue and a rich eggy flavor.

Once, after a visit to Italy my parents invited Dad’s boss and his wife over for an Italian meal.  I must have been about eleven or so. My sister and I were bundled into our nightdresses and brought downstairs to meet the guests. Mum placed a steaming dish of spaghetti Bolognese in the centre of the table.

‘I picked up a good tip when we were in Italy.  If you add a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water when mixing the pasta and the sauce, the starch in the water helps the sauce to stick to the pasta. In Italy, they call it the ‘marriage’ between the pasta and the sauce. The starch works like glue and, like in any marriage you need a bit of glue to hold things together, don’t you!’ said Mum.

The grown-ups laughed.

‘I find the best way to check if spaghetti is cooked, is to take a piece out of the pan and bite it. If it’s hard in the middle then that means it’s not ready,’ said the boss’s wife.

I’m still not sure to this day why I did what I did next. Perhaps it was to show off that I had been to Italy and knew a little about cooking? Perhaps I was disgruntled at being packed off to bed? Or maybe it was just pure spite? I reached across the table and pulled a small handful of spaghetti out of the bowl.

‘I’ll show you how Nonna knows if the spaghetti is ready,’ I said.

‘You’re not supposed to do it with the sauce on!’ screamed my sister.

Too late. I flung it at the wall. The spaghetti sped towards the wall like a low flying jet and hit the wall with a soft plop like a stone dropped in water without making a splash. The spaghetti stuck, a perfect little snake surrounded by red orange splatters and a smattering of minced beef. Like a Jackson Pollock painting in the making, dribbles of sauce slithered down the magnolia wall.