In the fall semester of my senior year of college I went to Rome to study at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies, fondly known as the Centro. Scores of Latin students have spent a semester with this phenomenal program, learning about the history and culture of ancient Rome right there in the midst of it all, visiting practically every piece of Roman ruins in the city, and many more elsewhere in Italy.
The ancient city was only part of the educational experience. We all learned to navigate our way around the city — in my time long before cell phones, never mind smart phones — on public buses with an ingenious map called the Falk Plan, merely the size of a small thin guidebook, which was specially folded so you could open it to any section of the city without unfolding the whole thing. (Yes, I still have mine, and, yes, I still take it with me whenever I go to Rome.)
Of course, the food was an education in itself. There were local specialties that had not yet made their way onto restaurant menus at home, such as supplì and pizza rustica and carciofi alla giudia, and we learned that pasta had many more iterations than thick with sauce plus a few large meatballs. One of the more unexpected pasta dishes I first ate during that semester was pasta with a walnut sauce. Although there are versions that make a walnut cream sauce, I prefer to make a ricotta-based recipe, which I find a bit easier. The most common shape for this is casarecce, but any medium pasta shape will work, such as shells or penne.
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If possible, I like to use ricotta from a relatively local producer, rather than a major national brand. The seasoning usually needs some adjustment, because while the creaminess of the ricotta suggests a need for more salt, the grated cheese will vary in its saltiness. For this reason, I prefer to start with a modest amount and taste before adding more if needed.
PASTA WITH RICOTTA AND WALNUTS
Serves 2-3 as a main course, 4-6 as a side
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped medium
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
8 ounces dried pasta, preferably a shape such as casarecce, medium shells, or penne
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano or Parmesan, plus more for sprinkling on top
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste as needed
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper, plus more to taste as needed
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
While the water is coming to a boil, in a medium sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the walnuts and sauté, stirring frequently, until beginning to take on some color, about 3 minutes. Don’t walk away from the stove as nuts can burn quite suddenly. Add the sage, nutmeg, and crushed red pepper flakes, mix, and take off the heat.
Fill a large glass or ceramic bowl with hot water to warm it so when you mix in the pasta, it will not cool off too quickly. Cook the pasta according to package directions.
A few minutes before the pasta is ready, empty and dry the bowl. Add the ricotta, pecorino or Parmesan, salt, and pepper to the bowl, and stir to combine.
When the pasta is al dente, remove from the water with a spider or strainer* directly into the bowl with the ricotta. Add the walnut mixture and mix to combine well. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. If the ricotta sauce is too thick, add a couple tablespoons of reserved pasta water. Serve immediately, passing more pecorino or Parmesan at the table.
*Note: Alternately, you can use a colander, to drain the pasta, but if you do so, be sure to save some pasta water.