This is a difficult post to write. I have had it in my mind to do a sort of “Throwback Thursday” Italian feast homage to The Sopranos for a while now, because I feel it is one of the shows that stands out most as the embodiment of what this blog is all about- food creations inspired by entertainment. In my mind, my love of Italian food is directly linked with my love of The Sopranos.
That might seem like an strange statement, but it’s true. During the show’s final season, Sunday family dinners in our household were transported to the couch, regularly with a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs or baked ziti. You see, when these gangsters weren’t blowing people’s brains out, hanging out at the strip club, having sex with their gumars, or pushing drugs, they were at home. With their families. Eating. And they made you want to eat like them.
One of my greatest memories is my mom ordering in a giant feast of every type of Italian food imaginable for the series finale, even though it was only me and my dad there to eat it. The three of us ate our way into a food coma, then sat in silence as the screen turned to black, Journey blasting, Tony’s ultimate fate unknown.
That a show centered around violence and gangsters had turned into a weekly family gathering in my household is a testament to how brilliant The Sopranos really was, and is. (Particularly with a mother like mine, who thinks everything I watch on TV is “trash” and longs for the days when Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds and produced a miracle baby without ever even thinking about having sex.) It’s a testament to the writing, sure, but to me, it’s even moreso to the characters and the actors.
Which, of course, brings us to the tragic catalyst for this post, the untimely death of the man who embodied the role of Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini. Without him, there would be no Tony Soprano, and there would be no Sopranos. He made an sympathetic protagonist out of a murdering gangster. He captured the perfect balance of rugged exterior with glimpses of inner vulnerability. These are things that anyone who watched the show already knows, and if you haven’t watched it, well, what the hell are you waiting for, for Christ’s sake?
Being that this is usually a light-hearted, humorous food and entertainment blog, I wasn’t quite sure how to address such a sad loss, or if I should at all. But all I wanted to do last night was sit back with a big bowl of pasta and sad watch the first season of The Sopranos, becoming reacquainted with all my old friends that I haven’t seen on screen in so long. That emotional connection between entertainment and food is what inspired me to create this blog to begin with, so it only feels natural to share it on here.
Here’s what I cooked up last night- a pasta dish that is simple, fresh, flavorful, and comforting. Everything that Italian food should be. I can only hope that Tony would approve. Rest in peace, James.
Penne with Summer Tomatoes, Pancetta, and Capers
1 lb penne pasta
1/2 lb. pancetta, diced
2 large shallots, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp capers, drained
2 lb ripe summer tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
Red pepper flakes
Extra virgin olive oil
Minced flat-leaf Italian parsley, for garnish (optional)
Coat a large saucepan with olive oil and add the pancetta, sauteeing over low to medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the fat has rendered and the pancetta is brown and crispy. Remove it from the pan onto a plate lined with a paper towel, leaving a tablespoon or so of the fat in the pan. Add the shallots to the pan, season with salt and red pepper flakes, and allow them to cook for about 4 minutes until they are softened. Toss in capers and garlic, cook for just a minute, then add tomatoes. Turn off the heat. You want the tomatoes to heat through and soften slightly, letting off some of their juices, but not to completely turn to mush. Return the pancetta to the pan.
Meanwhile, get a large pot of well salted water to a boil. Add in penne and cook about one minute less than package directions for al dente. Reserve a couple tablespoons of the pasta water then drain the pasta. Add the reserved pasta water, then pasta, to the pan with the sauce. Add half of the cheese, and toss to combine. Garnish with the remaining cheese and parsley, if you wish.