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Sicilian Cartwheel Driver Pasta

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Delicious authentically Sicilian pasta and an excuse to tackle the intriguing Caciocavallo, the king of Sicilian cheeses.

This could be one of the most simple Sicilian pasta recipes were it not for the caciocavallo [catchaw cavALaw] cheese that is so hard to get outside Italy. But if you can find it, pasta alla carrettiera, the cartwheel driver pasta, will drive you straight up to heaven.

Pasta alla carretiera [KAray tyayra]
Main course for 2
500gr / 1lb paccheri or other large tubular pasta
1 bunch basil
4 garlic clove or as many you can withstand
200gr caciocavallo cheese
1 small onion
4 tomatoes or 1 14-oz / 400gr can of tomato purée
Salt and pepper

You don't see caciocavalli for sale very often outside of Italy, so when I saw this one on an Italian stand at my local farmers' market on Saturday, I decided to buy the whole thing. With its obscene shapes (they come by twos hanging on each end of a string), that cheese certainly made an effect. First order of business is to cut it in half lengthwise with the longest unserrated knife you have.

The cheese is a proud member of the mozzarella family, a so called pulled-curd cheese made in the shape of an elephantine tear-drop and then hanged on a stick for a couple month. A real signore of Southern Italian cheeses. The capo di tutti i capi, the boss of bosses of the caciocavallo family is the caciocavallo podolico, a cheese aged for up to 8 years until it turns red. It has never been seen in public for the last two decaded and I've never seen one. If a reader knows where I can get a caciocacallo podolico I'd be most interested!

On with the job now. Using your large knife, peel one cheese half. We'll keep the other one with the rind on so that we can store it in the fridge longer.

Grate coarsely.

Peel the garlic, remove the green sprout inside and crush.

Fry the garlic and onion in a little olive oil on medium high heat. Here I'm using a black La Chamba clay pot, a fine product made in Colombia. Cooking tomato sauces in earthenware is the very traditional way of doing in Italy, although I think the advantages are perhaps not as strong as usually said. But it's a great pot!

When the onion is soft, deglaze with a drop of any wine you have on hand.

In one sharp, self-confident movement, empty a can of chopped tomatoes into the pot. Many cooks are self-conscious about using canned tomatoes. They put the tomatoes in a little bowl and rush to hide the can. But who can really claim he's got access to quality ripe tomatoes all year round? I certainly don't. Even in the height of summer the fresh tomatoes I find taste more like red water baloons than real tomatoes. With the can at least you know what you get. Be shameless about it.

Crush the garlic and add to the pot.

Mix a little water in, toss, cover and simmer for 30 minutes or so.

To ensure that your basil remains fresh and does not turn black and soft, you need to actually slice it with a front-and-back-and front movement with a sharp knife. It just doesnt't cut it to chop it up-and-down like a guillotine. If you do this, you crush the edges of the basil leaves and your basil will blacken in less time than it takes to say cornuto. If you do this, you'll get to show off by calling it by its French technical name, chiffonade ([shee-faw-nad], with every syllable pronounced with the exact same length).

Should you add the basil while you cook or right before you serve? I've never been able to solve that question, and I always add basil both while the tomato sauce simmers and right before serving. After all, there is no such thing as too much basil, the herb of the kings, is there?

For most people oil is a necessary evil, something you just can't really totally eliminate when it comes to cooking. Then plan is to use as little as possible, right? Wrong. In Sicily, mamas flavor their tomato sauces with a generous amount of olive oil after they are almost cooked through. By generous I mean a 1dl / 0.3oz. Here I'm using a bottle I got from my friend Richard who visits the olive orchards in Tuscany. Very nice.

Cover and simmer on the lowest flame until you are ready with the pasta.

You can use all sorts of tubular pasta for this dish, as long as it is made from hard wheat and bronze extruded. Cook in your largest pot with a bit of salt and no oil.

Remove the still-slightly-undercooked pasta from the water with a sieve and place in the sauce.

I felt a moment of gastronomic guilt when I saw that one my paccheri had split open. Not so much for the pachero itself, but because the week before, in a luxury hotel where I had been invited to lunch, I sent back to the kitchen a plate of the same pasta as it was hopelessly overcooked. I didn't even have to taste, they looked overcooked from across the room. The maître d' came to me, more pissed off about the dish that had been served than about me sending it back, and said «You must understand it's a difficult pasta to cook, it takes 20 minutes.» I answered that I did understand, that I had ordered it more than 20 minutes ago and that clearly this one had cooked for a good 40 minutes and that if they were not able to cook them properly I could understand but then they should not put it on the menu. The maître d' admitted they precooked it and apologized. So when I saw that even in my kitchen I had ripped one pacchero open, you understand how I felt! But they were very bity and perfectly al dente.

Add the grated caciocavallo...

... the some of the op. cit. basil chiffonade.

Toss...

... and serve. You may curse like a cartwheel driver at never having eaten such ¬§°@#§°#@ damn good pasta before ever in your life.


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32 Comments

I used to have a sicilian neighbor who made this dish - or at least one very similar to it - all the time.  I don't think she had regular access to the Caciocavallo, though.    She called it "Carretiera Rosa", though - the "rosa" referrred to the tomatoes.  She made another version of it that was non-rosa, and instead used some toasted bread crumbs and onion to thicken the sauce.  That version remains to this day one of my favorite ways of preparing pasta.

Her recipes were great in the right hands.  Sadly, hers were not the right hands; she was sort of awful as a cook. She was always scorching the garlic or using underripe tomatoes, etc.  Whenever my family got our hands on her recipes - aracini, caponata, pasta ala carretiera - it became evident that these were some fine, fine foods abused by a siclian woman who had the lineage but not the aptitude.
  • #2
  • Comment by Richard
I concur that paccheri is tricky to cook! Particularly for any more than 2 people. You need a very large pan as full as you safely dare with rolling, boiling water.

I find it best to stand over them and give them the occasional stir to keep them from sticking to the base of the pan.

Superb recipe Francois. If one can't get caciocavallo cheese is there a near equivalent we can try that might be more accessible?
A little question. Is Caciocavallo a smoked/geräucherter cheese?

Chapeau, I discovered your blog at the week-end and found some mouthwatering recipys to recook.

Grüße aus Berlin,
Martin
www.berlinkitchen.com
That looks amazing!  I have never tried that cheese before but I will look for it a local Italian deli that imports straight from Italy.
  • #5
  • Comment by felix
Possibly your best article yet! ''capo di tutti capi''!!!!!! Cool shit!!!! Trying this out TOMORROW!!!
  • #6
  • Comment by Luci
Hi Francois Xavier,

What a beautifully simple dish.  I think that I have seen a similar cheese (who could forget that unique shape?) in Toronto, Canada, but didn't think anything of it.  If I see it again, I will surely think of you, pick it up and make this dish!

Would it be served with any other pasta shape or is it crucial to serve with tubes?  Thanks again, FX!
  • #7
  • Comment by Alys
Another tasty looking recipe. Thanks again!

Here in Vancouver caciocavallo is readily available. I love the smoked variety as a melting cheese for pasta and sandwiches.

1 dl (100 ml) should be approximately 3 oz, rather than 0.3, no?
According to Wikipedia -i know it is not the most reliable source- caciocavallo is related to the Turkish cheese Kasar -Greek kassere-. Shaped differently, the "old Kasar -Eski Kasar" i used eat in Turkey looks very similar to texture in the pictures. Those in Europe may have access to this cheese through their Turkish markets. I'll definitely look for caciocavallo to see if they actually taste similar.

As a side note, it is interesting to see how cheese from different parts of the world are very similar. There is a Middle Eastern desert called künefe-kenefeh, which uses a special fresh cheese from certain parts of Turkey. I could not eat a decent künefe in most of the restaurants in Turkey, as it is hard to get this traditional cheese. However the künefe in Berlin Turkish restaurants are exceptionally good. I learned later the reason was that the restaurants are using fresh mozzarella as a perfect substitute.  

And a humble suggestion, I add lemon peels towards the end to my tomato sauces. Works great if you have fresh fragrant lemons.
  • #9
  • Comment by ND
Hey FX! My somewhat shaky knowledge of various latin languages suggests that "cavallo" might mean "horse"—if so, I'm curious as to what "cacio" might mean?
FX, I saw cheeses that looked just like this in markets in some parts of Argentina when I was working there in 2006. Given how many people of Italian descent live in Argentina, I wonder if it was the same cheese?
  • #11
  • Comment by Gio
I checked a dictionary, since your answer made me wonder too!
There's no sure explanation for the name "caciocavallo".
"Cacio" refers to a cheese in Tuscany and Umbria (2 Italy's regions) and nowadays also in southern regions.
About the link between a cheese and a horse, my dictionary suggest that it might be because:
- of the shape
- of a mark burned in (as for horses, cows...)
- the cheese is conserved astride a board
I got no clue about which one is the true one... =/
  • #12
  • Comment by Paulina  C. L. Tognato
We've some cheese like this here. His name is "cabaça".
We've many italians in our country and much milk to made it.
My favorite is one year old.
But here, isn't a cheese with much "glamour".
I think you're right!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This is one of the best pasta in the world!!!!!!!!!!


  • #13
  • Answered by fx
Eric, ah yes, the ladies often must cook out of social duty rather than choice, and the quality suffers from it. Us males we cook when we damn please and of course it makes us, on average, better cooks, as those of us who don't like cooking can get away with never cooking a day in their life!
  • #14
  • Answered by fx
Richard, yes indeed those damn paccheri tend to stick to the bottom of the pots and then tear open, those ungrateful bastards. You could replace caciocavallo with a good, hard vintage Cheddar for instance, if you grate it this might work out OK. Caciocavallo does not have a very strong or particularly excellent taste, but with its funny shape and sweet distinctive taste, it is always nice to use. Never buy less than a whole head!
  • #15
  • Answered by fx
Berlinkitchen, thanks for visiting! No, caciocavallo is not smoked but there are other cheeses of the same pulled curds variety that are indeed smoked, they look like smoked mozzarella.
  • #16
  • Answered by fx
Louise, if you can find it in a local deli do buy it, but beware as there are many other cheeses that look like this one but are different. Most of the caciocavalli I see around my parts are plastic ones for store decoration!
  • #17
  • Answered by fx
Felix, thank you for your praise.
Il capo di tutti i capi
FX
  • #18
  • Answered by fx
Luci, I think you can serve this with any hardwheat (durum semolina) pasta. The cheese is well worth buying, you can have some friends over and show it to them, very memorable!
  • #19
  • Answered by fx
Alys, I think the smoked one is actually proval affumicata from Naples, caciocavallo comes from Sicily. They look much the same, but are different cheeses and I've been had by unscrupulous Neapolitan cheesemongers a couple times myself!
  • #20
  • Answered by fx
Ahmet, thanks for your comments! Could you tell me what are the very best Turkish cheeses and from which parts of Turkey they come from?
  • #21
  • Answered by fx
Nathan, the cheese is named 'On a horseback' as it is prepared by twos and left to hang on a pole like the balls of a bull on each side, or the legs of a horseman. Hence the name!
  • #22
  • Answered by fx
Lyra, there are a couple cheeses that look like caciocavallo, such as provolone and scamorza. They are different cheeses but unless you have tasted them or really know them well you won't be able to tell.
  • #23
  • Answered by fx
Paulina, this sounds like a nice Italo-Brazilian cheese, and if they mature it for 12 months it must be pretty good. Are there many cheese varieties made in Brazil?
  • #24
  • Comment by stumo
I have to second that caciocavallo is quite easy to find in Vancouver, Canada. And not just at specialty Italian food stores, some supermarkets regularly carry it, and I've been using it for years. And it's definitely caciocavallo, not provolone or provola affumicata.
are some of the pictures missing? yesterday it looks like there are only a few pictures for each recipe, where yesterday each was complete  :(
  • #26
  • Comment by simon
Am I missing something??? I see the ingredients list, and the prep of the cheese, but I don't the procedure for cooking the pasta and it's sauce, or a picture of the final product...
  • #27
  • Answered by fx
Simon, FXcuisine.com caught the Chinese flu yesterday but now all articles are back online!
  • #28
  • Answered by fx
Kara, FXcuisine.com caught the Chinese flu yesterday but now all articles are back online!
  • #29
  • Comment by Marcelline Thomson
Loved this recipe, love this beautiful site. Now all I have to do is find this cheese, which, in Manhattan, may not be impossible.  Two things, however:  you say add garlic to sauce when, in fact, garlic and onion had already been sauteed and the tomatoes added to IT.  And I'm also confused as to the size of the can of tomatoes -- a 4-oz can?  I don't think the can in the photo is only 4 oz?  And, in any case, seems too little.

Thank you.  Marcelline
  • #30
  • Answered by fx
Marcelline, indeed you have a sharp eye and found these mistakes in my article. The tomato can is 400 grams or about 14 oz. As for the garlic, you cannot add too much. Some people fry the garlic in the olive oil to flavor the oil, then discard the garlic before proceeding. And then you can add some crushed garlic for a less subtle garlic taste - something right up a Sicilian cartwheel driver's alley!
  • #31
  • Comment by James
Just tried this recipe tonight and it was terrific. Once I was able to track down the Caciocavallo, everything else was a snap. Great article!
  • FX's answer→ James, glad you got around to try this Sicilian classic!




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