It's getting cold. The economy is still kaput. The world is a baffling and often dangerous place. Some comfort is definitely called for.
And what could be more comforting than pasta casserole?
Most of us have an old favorite, a dish recollected from calmer times or one that sustained us in difficult times: Mom's macaroni and cheese, the tuna-noodle casserole that stretched the budget for a struggling young couple. . . . It's the perfect equation: Pasta plus love equals comfort.
Carmella Sartori knows all about that. She brought up eight children -- "and I never had a bit of trouble with them" -- on food from the Italian tradition she was raised in. She remembers some hard times, the Great Depression, but mostly she remembers the good times: All the family meals, the dishes she cooked for her children.
"In our days," she said in a recent interview in the Parkville house she and her husband built some 40 years ago, "you had to learn a lot of different ways to cook." She learned to make tomato sauce -- or "gravy," as it is traditionally called -- from her mother, who was born in Bordeaux, France. "Oh, she was a gourmet cook!"
Now, at 85, Mrs. Sartori is still cooking. The minute you walk in the door, you can smell the rich aroma of the sauce, bubbling in a pan on the stove with meatballs. Mrs. Sartori is standing by the stove with a big baking dish, spooning on the layers for her baked rigatoni.
She taps a few tablespoons full of ricotta cheese mixed with parsley, pepper and two eggs, and spreads them with the spoon. "So you make it a little bit rich," she says, with a laugh, "You don't eat it every day."
On top of the ricotta mixture she spoons a little more sauce, then she sprinkles it with mozzarella. Then more rigatoni, more sauce, more ricotta, more cheese -- she alternates layers of shredded mozzarella and grated Parmesan -- and tops it with the last of the pasta.
She pops it in the oven -- "I put it to 400 degrees to give it a start" -- where it will bake for about 30-35 minutes. "You look at it in half an hour," she says. It should come to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. "The best way to eat it is not right out of the oven," she says. "You let it sit a few minutes." That allows the flavors to "all get together."
While the pasta bakes, she reminisces about all the food she has cooked, all the things her children loved -- sauteed squash with peppers and scrambled eggs, tomato sauce with peas and eggs (the eggs cook right in the sauce) or sauce with string beans, greens sauteed in olive oil and garlic, thin pasta with tomato clam sauce, and spaghetti sauce with crab meat.
Italian cuisine is rich in comfortable food and most of the pasta dishes Americans are familiar with grew out of that tradition.
While it isn't true that 13th century explorer Marco Polo discovered pasta in China and took it back to Italy -- it seems the Etruscans were serving a version of lasagna in 4 B.C. -- it is true that Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World initiated a culinary exchange that ultimately introduced wheat-based pasta to tomato-based sauce. With Columbus Day approaching, there's no better time for all of us to celebrate this Old-New tradition.
Of course, most of us need little excuse. Pasta's ease of preparation -- a simple matter of boiling water and watching a clock -- and its intriguing variety -- about 150 shapes commercially available in the United States -- are two attributes that keep it on the perennial favorites list.
And Americans are taking more comfort in pasta than ever before. Per capita consumption of American-made pasta products was 18.4 pounds in 1990. That's a gain of almost 1 pound over 1989 (17.7) and of 5 pounds from a decade ago (12.9). Joseph M. Lichtenberg, president of the National Pasta Association, predicts that consumption will rise to 24 pounds per capita by 1995 and to more than 30 pounds by the year 2000, as more people discover its low cost, high nutritional benefits and versatility.
An average serving of pasta, or about 2 ounces, contains 7 grams of protein, 41 grams of carbohydrate and 1 gram of fat, and (this is for the pasta only) has about 210 calories.
In Mrs. Sartori's kitchen, the aroma of baking pasta fills the room. She checks the oven, and decides the casserole is done. She takes it out. It is red and golden and slightly puffed up. The ricotta has risen to the top; the fragrance is sublime.
She spoons out a plateful for her visitor, who pronounces it delicious.
Mrs. Sartori smiles. "If I were young, I'd do it all over again."
Here is Mrs. Sartori's recipe for baked rigatoni. You could use any large round shape -- ziti or mostaccioli would work as well. You could also make a lower-calorie, lower-cholesterol version by leaving out the eggs and using cottage cheese. But then it wouldn't be Mrs. Sartori's heavenly dish. The recipe for her "gravy" is from "The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook" by Baltimore native John Shields (Addison Wesley, 1990, $18.95).
Baked rigatoni Serves six to eight.