Imagine an evening in company, one during which you eat, laugh, joke and lose track of the time. It’s quite late, but there are still stories and anecdotes to tell, more bottles of wine to uncork. Someone invites everyone home to continue the evening together. It’s in this very moment that the intuition comes:
“Ce li facciamo due spaghetti?” (“Shall we have some spaghetti?”)
It’s a sincere, irresistible proposal and considering the hour, our appetites are peeping out. And after all, there is always room for two strands of pasta, which have never hurt anyone. A few movements that seem to be choreographed and there’s already water on the stove. The pasta is dropped into the pot and we all eat together. Tasty and timely, the midnight pasta satiates those who have an appetite, while reviving the spirits of those who are feeling sleepy.
This is how la spaghettata di mezzanotte (“the midnight spaghetti”) takes shape. This dish is one of the most representative rituals of Italian conviviality, which escapes the schemes of an ordinary meal, but still revolves around sharing the most iconic food of our culture.
Unlike most of the dishes that are created in Italian kitchens, there is no specific recipe to follow, there is no right or wrong, there are no strict methodological rules, there are no family cookbooks handed down from generation to generation. The only ingredients are good company and some pasta. Often, la spaghettata di mezzanotte is a simple spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, oil and hot chili pepper), because it doesn’t require much skill and is ready in a few minutes. This pasta is perfect, so much so that it has become the symbol of la spaghettata di mezzanotte. However, everyone prepares la spaghettata di mezzanotte as they prefer, in total freedom, according to the moment and their tastes.
This is the beauty of the midnight spaghetti. There are no strict rules, because la spaghettata di mezzanotte is neither a dish nor a meal–it’s an experience of sharing.
Perhaps it’s the only dining experience in which we don’t assume particular culinary expectations. Even if the resulting pasta is not gourmet, it’s still okay. In fact, the less elaborate the execution, the more heartfelt and spontaneous the result. For those who are not very gifted in the kitchen, preparing a heartwarming dish for those present is a good opportunity to regain points. Depending on what’s in the pantry, each person adds his or her own personal touch, so the simple plate of pasta becomes something unique every time, a piece of craftsmanship that is unrepeatable and almost never the same. The carefree dish doesn’t even need a set table: some people eat it standing up, some on the couch, some directly from the pan. At this time, all meal conventions are skipped and we don’t pay too much attention to formalities. The ritual of midnight spaghetti is flexible, even when it comes to time. I’ve been writing about “midnight” pasta, but it can be earlier or later in the night. There is no scheduled time: the right moment is perceived by the group as a whole. There are some who say that it is always the right time for the dish, and I do not feel like denying their beliefs. The last two late-night spaghetti parties I’ve attended took place well past midnight, and there was even a bit of tomato on the pasta. But what does that matter?
What really matters, and what you can’t turn a blind eye to, is the convivial atmosphere in which the spaghettata takes place. It is a moment that has the power to bring people together even more than an organized lunch can. One must be easy-going, have the right attitude, the desire to relax and the ability to enjoy every moment without taking oneself too seriously. There is the spark of improvisation, an art in which Italians are second to none. In fact, the best spaghetti is not planned, but happens almost by chance at the end of a long aperitivo, or on the way home after a concert or the cinema–usually when it’s necessary to control vocal volume because the neighbors are sleeping. It can be romantic, perfect for an indulgence after love; it can be a family reunion when siblings find themselves hungry late in the evening; it can be the end of a day between friends who do not want to say ciao, who want to continue the evening to the bitter end.
Today, because the meal takes place in homes, la spaghettata di mezzanotte brings people together in an intimate way. But once upon a time, spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino was the final dish at a trattoria dinner. For the most affectionate customers, or for those who had stayed longer than anyone else, the trattoria’s host would come straight from the kitchen with the big steaming pan, ready to hand out plates of pasta as if they were glasses of bitter digestive. Places like this should be (re)discovered. They celebrate the Italian spirit of simple foods, of the need for satiety even after a dinner out, of the informal sharing that transforms restaurateurs into hosts and customers into guests. At home, on the other hand, la spaghettata di mezzanotte is even more widespread and everlasting–in defiance of fast food, delivery services and late-night supermarkets–proving that a spaghetti in friendship is better than the convenience of a ready-made dish. In 1954, the Cetra Quartet sang about spaghetti and good humor: “There is no more valuable recipe […], a table of friends, two guitars and a song […]” They perfectly described the atmosphere of la spaghettata di mezzanotte–serene, with a pinch of fraternity.
The midnight spaghetti is the final act of the most successful Italian evenings, a filiform and flavorful curtain that slowly comes down on a day that we will talk about tomorrow, if only for the way it ended: in company, carefree, in front of a nice plate of pasta.