Le Cirque’s Pasta Primavera
In May, 2012, Bon Appetit Magazine invited readers to request recipes from magazine issues “pre-internet,” in other words, readers could ask for un-google-able recipes printed before there was an internet to post upon or search. By far THE most popular recipe, the recipe that overwhelmed Bon Appetit with requests was Pasta Primavera, published in 1979. Who knew?
Pasta Primavera is a strange emblem of Italian food’s sometimes quiet, sometimes brassy, sometimes crooked march into the mainstream American kitchen. Created in the U.S., Pasta Primavera (which means spring in Italian) isn’t Primavera at all. Half the ingredient list says spring or at least close – baby peas, asparagus, parsley – but the other half says summer – – broccoli, zucchini, and tomatoes. So, it’s name alone is an issue, but now too famous to resolve.
For centuries Italians have made an art of coupling pasta shapes with sauces, the architecture of a pasta specifically supporting a sauce with complementing elements. The engineering to a bowl of macaroni with peas, ham, and cream, for instance, is poetry, an efficient use of the exact right ingredients – the sweet peas, the salty ham. The cream is the vehicle that transports all over the pasta, the macaroni acting like hundreds of little bowls to hold the peas so they don’t roll away.
In Pasta Primavera, the vegetables are steamed, and then swirled together in a shallow skillet with cream, Parmigiana Reggiano, and fresh basil. The cooked spaghetti is added into the pan, but physics will not allow those chunks of broccoli and straight-edged zucchini to cling to a strand of spaghetti, no matter how velvety the sauce. The dish often looks like a small garden sprouting from the top of a mound of pasta, the vegetables an accessory at best, if not excluded altogether from the strands of cheesy deliciousness. And yet, there is much to adore about this dish, created by one of the world’s most charming Italians.
Pasta Primavera SAID “1979,” maybe because it was about America STILL getting everything wrong about Italian food. And yet, it was created by an Italian – an Italian immigrant who left his impoverished country, like so many southern Italian immigrants, a very young man full of hopes. Siro Maccioni worked on cruise ships which took him around the world, and then to New York in 1956. His good looks, and quickly acquired polish sent him straight up the ranks of fine NY restaurants. By 1973 he was opening his own dining room, which was, of necessity, French/Contintental. Fine dining in those years was being created by toqued chefs named Pierre and Jaques. Italian food, which was really Italian-American food, nothing like what Maccioni or any of the immigrants had eaten at home, had caught on, but mostly by bohemians and artists. Italian-American food was what was being served in tiny places with cheap red-checked tablecloths. The Chianti poured quickly; the cliche was the reality in those years.
Sirio Maccioni, the immigrant of our Primavera story, missed the beautiful basics of his home cuisine, but was sure that the rich and famous, the clientele he had befriended at The Colony Restaurant, needed veloute, foie gras and caviar. So, with French chef Jean Vergnes, Maccioni opened Le Cirque, which was to become the most famous and sought after reservation in the country. Richard Nixon, Bill Blass, Paloma Picasso, Woody Allen, Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti all made Le Cirque a habit. The restaurant also launched a fleet of chef careers like Daniel Boulud to David Bouley.
Before I discuss how this great French/Continental New York Restaurant came to be synonymous with Pasta Primavera, let me give a little background on what had happened to Italian cooking when those immigrants first started arriving on U.S. shores around the turn of the 19th century.
John Mariani*, in his facscinating book How Italian Food Conquered the World, explores this in detail. Here’s a fact to start with: When Southern Italians first started leaving their native land at the turn of the 19th century for the U.S. they were desperate. They had been required to turn over 4/5ths of the food they farmed to their landlord, and were spending 75% of their income on food. When they arrived in New York, the pay was not much better, but there were plenty of jobs. The big difference came in the price of food, which was abundant and cheap, particularly meat. Suddenly these Italians were spending only 25% of their incomes on groceries. The Italian meatball is the perfect symbol of what happened in Italian American kitchens – what in Italy had been a tiny 3/4 “ ball made with scraps of anything – chicken, fish, even tripe – called “polpetonne,” became in New York a 1/4 pound ball of beef and pork. The Italian mama went from being a scrawny mother scraping together a weak soup for her family’s dinner to the plump matron of the kitchen who suddenly took pride in having the best recipes. Foods that had in the old country been reserved only for feast days – like cream filled pastries and buttery cookies dusted in confectionary sugar – were suddenly available every day. Other Italians opened businesses to serve the needs of these Italian communities, including bakeries and restaurants. These were inexpensive places that began to attract other adventurous, but unwealthy groups, like artists and musicians. The Italian cooks in these places began to realize that the new non-Italian American customer anticipated some version of meat and potatoes in a meal: spaghetti found its purpose as a required carbohydrate beside a plate of meatballs in marinara sauce.
Here’s another fascinating fact from Mariani’s book – The marinara sauce that came to be synonymous with Italian-American food? That came from Naples, the bottom of Italy’s boot, which had been home for so many of these new immigrants. In Naples many of the men had been fishermen, or “marinari.” Their wives would see their husband’s fishing boats sailing into port, and run to prepare for them a hot meal; the wives needed something that could be put together quickly, impromptu, at the whim of a fishing boat’s landing: this became a bowl of pasta with a simple, fresh tomato sauce, appropriately named “marinara!”
Back to Maccioni, who became one of the world’s most famous restaurant owners in the U.S., and had for his friends some of the world’s most famous names, including the New York Times food writers Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. Maccioni admitted to missing the foods from his childhood, but his had become a tuxedoed life of Dover Sole and Chateaubriand. In an interview with Saveur Magazine, Maccioni describes how the first ever Pasta Primavera came to be: In 1977, he and his wife were all on vacation with a group of friends, including chef Vergnes, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey, at a lodge on Prince Edward Island. After too many days of wild boar and lobster somebody asked Maccioni to make pasta. Maccioni’s son described the dish his father prepared as actually being VERY Italian – “It’s called “frigidaire,” he said – when you make a pasta with all your leftovers in the refrigerator! (By the way, in another version of this story Maccioni claims that his wife made the dish that night.) Everyone loved it, Claiborne and Franey so much that they printed the recipe in the New York Times food section.
Suddenly, much to Vergnes’s French dismay, the clients at Le Cirque were demanding Pasta Primavera. Vergnes loathed all pasta, and now this was becoming the symbol of his kitchen. Pasta Primavera was at first sentenced to being prepared in a hall outside the kitchen, as Vergnes couldn’t stand to see it. Then, as its inevitability became apparent, the pasta was assigned a drama to be prepared tableside, often by Maccioni himself.
Here’s another fascinating aside: Mr. Vergnes had worked at The Colony, where Siro Maccioni gilded his reputation as a suave host, but left in 1962 to run the commissary at Stop & Shop which wanted to develop a prepared-food service. He was there for 3 years before returning to the boutique fine restaurant scene rising in New York. He joined Maccioni in 1973.
Mariani explains that something happened in the early 1980’s that helped to elevate pasta away from huge portions of meatballs in marinara sauce, allowing Americans to suddenly appreciate the lighter, fresher, more artful Italian ways with pasta, for them to understand better the meal Maccioni was creating that day on Prince Edward Island. Fed Ex. Fed Ex began flying special ingredients overnight from Italy to the U.S. Cheeses, artisanal pastas, a variety of risotto rice were suddenly available in quality and quantity, and beginning to star in cookbooks, in restaurants, in gourmet shops (Chuck Williams of Williams Sonoma began selling Balsamic Vinegar from Modena in his Beverly Hills store in 1973.) and therefore American kitchens. Whereas the Joy of Cooking in 1964 mentioned olive oil once, and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1968 not at all, but by the mid 1980’s Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking series devoted four pages to olive oil.
With the arrival of all these fresh new Italian ingredients, the American public began to understand the foods that had truly been made in Italian kitchens. Pasta Primavera was never one of them, but its principles – quick, economical, fresh, and delicious – are all there, and VERY Italian. When Pasta Primavera hit the big time, with the recipe printed in the NYT, people clamored for it, but, of course, no Italian chef or cook had ever heard of it!
Le Cirque and its many sister restaurants are managed by Maccioni’s three sons now. Pasta Primavera can always be ordered.
Recipe from the New York Times article by Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey
serves 4 as a main course, 6 as an appetizer
1 bunch broccoli
2 small zucchini, unpeeled
4 asparagus spears
1 1/2 cups green beans
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
3/4 cup fresh or frozen pea pods
1 tablespoon peanut, vegetable or corn oil
2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon minced hot red or green chili, or 1/2 teaspoon dried red-pepper flakes
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 cups 1-inch tomato cubes
6 basil leaves, chopped
1 pound spaghetti
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream, approximately
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts.
- Trim broccoli and break into florets. Trim off ends of the zucchini. Cut into quarters, then cut into 1-inch or slightly longer lengths (about 1 1/2 cups). Cut each asparagus into 2-inch pieces. Trim beans and cut into 1-inch pieces.
- Cook each of the green vegetables separately in boiling salted water to cover until crisp but tender. Drain well, then run under cold water to chill, and drain again thoroughly. Combine the cooked vegetables in a bowl.
- Cook the peas and pods; about 1 minute if fresh; 30 seconds if frozen. Drain, chill with cold water and drain again. Combine with the vegetables.
- In a skillet over medium-high heat, heat the peanut oil and add the mushrooms. Season to taste. Cook about 2 minutes, shaking the skillet and stirring. Add the mushrooms, chili and parsley to the vegetables.
- Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan and add half the garlic, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook about 4 minutes. Add the basil. 6.
- Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet and add the remaining garlic and the vegetable mixture. Cook, stirring gently, until heated through.
- Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water until almost (but not quite) tender, retaining a slight resilience in the center. Drain well. 8.
- In a pot large enough to hold the spaghetti and vegetables, add the butter and melt over medium-low heat. Then add the chicken broth and half a cup each of cream and cheese, stirring constantly. Cook gently until smooth. Add the spaghetti and toss quickly to blend. Add half the vegetables and pour in the liquid from the tomatoes, tossing over very low heat.
- Add the remaining vegetables. If the sauce seems dry, add 3 to 4 tablespoons more cream. Add the pine nuts and give the mixture a final tossing.
- Serve equal portions of the spaghetti mixture in hot soup or spaghetti bowls. Spoon equal amounts of the tomatoes over each serving. Serve immediately.
*I put together this story after reading John Mariani’s book How Italian Food Conquered The World. Most of the facts came from that book; others were culled from the Le Cirque website. The recipe is from the original NYT article.