Pasta alla Sorrentina

Oh boy. I love pasta. I’m sure I’ve harped on about it enough, but if you aren’t aware I could eat nothing but pasta for eternity without too much complaint. Pasta (be it rigatoni or penne or fusilli or whatever I happen to have in my cupboard) alla Sorrentina is on constant rotation at Casa Hare/O’Connor, not only because it’s delicious (which it is), but also because it feels a little fancier than a bog standard tomato sauce whilst being almost the same thing and therefore just as simple, which is perfect for a mid-week treat.

“What makes it fancy?” I hear you cry. It’s mozzarella. Lots of mozzarella. The cheese gives it a beautiful creamy consistency while adding its trademark stringiness, which is nothing if not fun, let’s be honest. I imagine that this would be a great dish for kids. Traditionally this sauce is most commonly found with gnocchi in Sorrento where it originates from, hence the name, but it’s just as delicious with its less potatoey cousin.

Another good thing about this particular recipe is its reliance on store cupboard ingredients. If you’re quarantined due to COVID there’s a good chance you have most of the ingredients on hand, even if you need to ask a neighbour to put some mozz through your letterbox. It also means it works year round, although you could certainly swap out tinned toms for a handful of fresh cherry tomatoes in the summer when they’re in season.

Pasta alla sorrentina on table

How to tell when mozzarella is good

Mozzarella can be found in almost every supermarket and deli, but as a result there are many different varieties and price points covered, so how do you tell if it’s a good one?

The main two types you’ll find are buffalo mozzarella and cow’s milk mozzarella. These are both made in the same way by separating the curds and whey using enzymes before shaping the curds using a method called pasta filata. Pasta filata includes lots of stretching and pulling, which leaves the mozz with the stretchy texture we all know and love.

Pasta alla sorrentina being served

Unsurprisingly, you’ll pay more for mozz made with buffalo milk due to its relative rarity, but outside of that buffalo milk also has a higher level of acidity than cow’s milk and so the mozzarella is tangier and more flavoursome. You may also notice that some are labelled as ‘di Bufala Campana DOP’, which means that they were produced with buffalo milk in specific areas of Italy.

For this dish I’d happily use a cow’s milk mozzarella and save the buffalo for salads or on it’s own, drizzled generously with olive oil.

What to look for

  • Regardless of which animal’s milk the cheese is made from, mozzarella should be made from only 4 ingredients: milk, enzymes, rennet and salt.
  • It shouldn’t be bright white in colour, but a more natural tone. Huffpost described it as ‘pearlescent’, which is too poetic not to mention.
  • The texture should be soft and stretchy not tough and rubbery.
  • It shouldn’t be dry. When pressed the ball should give out a few drops of whey.
  • Don’t even bother with that grated stuff.

A note on burrata

Burrata differs to mozzarella in that it’s mozz that has been stretched around a filling of cream and unprocessed curds. The result is a richer, softer cheese that almost bursts when you cut into it. It’s delicious, but I believe it would be a waste to cook with it.

Penne alla Sorrentina recipe

Plate of pasta alla sorrentina

Serves 2

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Ingredients:

  • 250g penne
  • 400g tinned tomatoes
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 1/2 tbsp salted capers, rinsed
  • 1/2 tsp chilli flakes
  • Olive oil
  • 125g mozzarella
  • A few basil leaves
  1. Start by roughly chopping your garlic and capers, before frying them off in a little olive oil over a medium heat.
  2. This is as hard as this recipe gets. Add in the tinned tomatoes and crush with the back of a spoon to combine. I always buy whole tomatoes over chopped, as more additives are needed to ensure that that diced pieces of tomato stay firm. In season, a big handful of fresh cherry tomatoes would be delicious in place of the tinned variety.
  3. Make sure the heat is medium-low and keep an eye for the next 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep the empty tin on hand to use as a tomatoey vessel for water and add a little splash every now and again, as needed.
  4. After 45 minutes have passed it’s time to put the pasta on and cut up the mozz. I never cut the cheese at the beginning, because I cannot promise there’ll be any left when it’s time to add to the sauce.
  5. When the pasta is nearly cooked add a spoonful of the starchy cooking water to the tomato mixture. The starch helps to create a silkiness in the sauce that makes sure it clings to the pasta.
  6. Add the mozzarella and stir until melted and fully combined. Pour in the cooked pasta, scatter with fresh basil and serve.
Pasta alla sorrentina is served