Making good food from pantry staples is something we've all been thinking about recently. After a while, though, the concern goes from just making good food to keeping those meals interesting because the 17th appearance of the same recipe on the dinner table is enough to drive anyone stir-crazy.
I guess it's a funny coincidence that I've recently been working on recipes for spaghetti alla carrettiera, "the cart driver's spaghetti." That's recipes, plural, because it's a dish that comes in many different forms, a fact that strikes at this larger cooking challenge we're all grappling with: keeping things interesting in the kitchen.
The first time I learned about carrettiera sauce I was working for the chef Cesare Casella, who, for a while in the early 2000s, had me poring through obscure, old Italian cookbooks from Italy's Maremma valley—a geographic expanse that runs along the country's western coast from northern Lazio (home region of Rome) up into southern Tuscany—in preparation for a new restaurant he was opening at the time.
In those cookbooks, spaghetti alla carrettiera was presented as a slightly unusual sauce made from jarred or canned tomatoes, canned tuna in olive oil, and rehydrated dried porcini mushrooms. Those aren't the most obvious ingredients to toss together into a pasta sauce, at least not to me, but one bite will do more than enough to convince you it's a good idea.
The story of the recipe is that it was created by the carrettieri, cart drivers who more than a century ago would wind their way from town to town and city to city, selling all sorts of goods the locals might need. To feed themselves and others on the road, they'd whip up easy pastas using the kinds of shelf-stable pantry ingredients they were likely to have stowed away on their carts. Hence the canned tuna. Hence the dried mushrooms. Hence the jarred tomatoes. Some garlic and a tuft of parsley were all they needed to add some freshness to the dish.
Since then, I've come across recipes for spaghetti alla carrettiera online, and in other books, and they've often perplexed me. At times they varied so much from the version I knew that it was hard to make sense of why they shared the same name. Instead of canned tomatoes, these other versions used chopped-up fresh ones; instead of parsley, perhaps basil; and no tuna or mushrooms at all, instead turning to toasted breadcrumbs. And in those recipes, the sauce wasn't cooked but tossed raw with the hot pasta and some of its cooking water, just enough to warm it all through and bind everything together. Which one, I wondered, was the real carrettiera?
Eventually, I managed to make at least partial sense of it: The fresh sauce versions tended to come from Sicily while the canned tomato ones seemed to center around Rome. What they had in common was the cart driver, who, depending on the locale, seems to have had a different assortment of ingredients in their cart. Farther north, that meant preserved mushrooms and fish and tomatoes. Down south, fresh tomatoes must have been in even greater abundance for more of the year (there's also a Sicilian version with no tomato at all, ostensibly for when the fruit wasn't available in fresh form).
And this, really, gets to the core of why this pasta is so meaningful right now. It's not just that there is no one true version of spaghetti alla carrettiera—no, that much you can say about any recipe. It's that the defining character of spaghetti alla carrettiera is that it has very little definition at all. Even within the two broad categories of carrettiera that I've described, there's constant variation. Some Roman-style recipes use no tuna, some forgo mushrooms, some lack both, while others add olives or capers. In Sicily, the herbs can be parsley or basil, while cheese, usually a firm Sicilian Pecorino or ricotta salata, is sometimes added...but not always.
Spaghetti alla carrettiera offers two things to us all right now. The first is practical—recipe ideas that we can lean on to make mealtime a little more interesting. The second is more philosophical. At its heart, carrettiera is the pantry pasta sauce, demonstrating just how much possibility is already hidden within our larders. Let's take inspiration from that.