Pasta Alla Tavola is not a dinner party for the neat and petite. This Old-World Sicilian tradition is all about throwing a big pile of pasta in the middle of the table and letting everyone have at it. In our opinion, Sicilians really struck gold when they came up with this rustic dinner party. After a long early autumn day spent harvesting fruit, vegetables and everything in-between, there’s nothing like an Italian dinner party to lull you into a carb coma.
We’re lucky enough to have a neighbor who knows all about throwing an Alla Tavola. Rose Marie Trapani is our neighbor in the most literal sense (seriously, she’s a stone’s throw from the farm) as well as in the meaning of what it means to be a good neighbor. When we were working on our cookbook A Seat at the Table, which features many of Rose Marie’s recipes, she taught us all about Pasta Alla Tavola (Alla Tavola translates to “at the table”) and even invited us to one at her house. Being able to eat Rose Marie’s delectable pasta while being taught about the traditions and events she grew up with during her childhood in Sicily was the most delicious research we’ve ever had to do.
When it comes to throwing your own end-of-the-harvest Italian dinner party, you won’t need to stray far from the traditions of the Old World. You just need to bring your appetite.
Pasta All Tavola is all about simplicity. While men worked in the fields during the day, the women of the village would prepare the space for the meal. A large millstone would be scrubbed down and placed in the center of the dining area. Since most Sicilians during that time lived on their farms, this meant placing the millstone in their backyard. This large millstone set on a stone pedestal would serve as the table because it was large enough to seat everyone. Also, no one wanted to bring their nice dishes out to the fields and potentially break them, so the need for something easy to clean and eat off of was a must.
For those who couldn’t fit around the table, or just enjoy some solitary time, you could ask one of the men to make you a “plate.” These plates were made out of prickly pear pads. Whoever had a pocket knife on them would take a few of the pads, scrape the thorns off, cut the pad in half lengthwise and scoop out the innards. A quick rinse in the fountain and you had a clean plate to eat off of.
For a modern Alla Tavola, you don’t need to have a millstone. According to Rose Marie, most modern versions of the Alla Tavola are served on the same boards that pasta is made on. These pasta boards usually have a lip running around the edge and are helpful for catching any food that goes astray. A table covered in a thick vinyl tablecloth or heavy-duty aluminum foil are good alternatives. Big plates can be used for whoever can’t fit at the table.
When it comes to utensils, the weapon of choice back in the day was a willow or bamboo branch. Rose Marie’s dad would be in charge of making the forks for everyone by whittling down the end of a branch so it was able to reach and pull food out from the center of the millstone. A fork with a long handle can be used for your modern Alla Tavola and you could even lessen the mess factor by providing a few pairs of tongs to your guests. But this is all about the mess, so embrace it.
For beverages, any table wine will do. In Sicily, this would be a pouch or jug of wine served in tin cups. Not a drinker? Well lucky for you, the nearby fountain would have all the fresh water you could drink.
Now for the main event. In a traditional Alla Tavola, the eating process goes pasta, then meat, then bread, and you set up the meal in that pattern. When Rose Marie does an Alla Tavola, the pasta is fresh, but we won’t judge you for using store bought (you’re going to need a lot of pasta after all.) After the pasta is done cooking, a small amount of sauce is mixed in. You want to just coat the noodles (over-saucers will be dealt with later). Take your cooked and sauced pasta and pour it in a large circle around the center of the table.
Then it’s time for the meat. Alla Tavolas were a feast for everyone, so any meat available could be used (you could even go meatless if times were especially tough.) Meatballs, sausage, beef and even rabbit could find its way onto your millstone. Whichever protein you choose, it should also be lightly sauced and then set in the circle of the pasta.
With a ladle, make small divots in the circles of pasta and meat and fill the divots with sauce. If you like adding fresh herbs to your pasta, now is the perfect time to tear up some basil and sprinkle it onto the meal. Now you can pass around your bread basket and fresh parmesan.
Make sure everyone has a bib (like we said, this meal is messy!), a full glass and dig in. Don’t be shy, or your neighbor may have some fun and try to “steal” your food away. It’s every man for themselves in this pasta free-for-all.
After talking with Rose Marie and experiencing the Alla Tavola ourselves, we know that it will be a staple in our lives for years to come. If you decide to have one in your own home, take plenty of pictures and share them with us! We love to see Neighbors making new traditions.