Before going to school and working in restaurants, chef Rocco Esposito first learned hospitality from his parents. “They didn’t work in the hotel business; dad worked in a glass factory and mum was at home and on the farm, but that’s where I got the virus,” he explains. “All they would do is entertain and cook.”
The hometown of the family Conversanoin the Puglia region of southeastern Italy, was surrounded by tomato fields and olive groves, just a few kilometers from the Adriatic Sea.
This meant that local vegetables, freshly caught seafood and homemade tomato sauce would always find their place on the table when the Espositos hosted large family gatherings.
The chef has fond memories of his mother preparing swordfish carbonara and calamarata ai frutti di mare (pasta cooked with tomato and seafood in a paper bag). Both dishes now make frequent appearances at Rosellahis restaurant at Melbourne’s Fitzroy.
As a child, he also remembers his father coming home late from work and cooking pasta directly in the pan with the sauce. But it wasn’t until he started working in local restaurants as a teenager that he came across a similar dish.
It was spaghetti all’assassina, a specialty of the capital of Puglia, Bari, half an hour from his home. The chef of the Bari Esposito restaurant where he worked at the time, did it for the staff at the end of the night. “He was debriefing the service while he was cooking, but we could only focus our attention on the pasta he was cooking in a cast iron skillet,” he recalls. “We asked him why it wasn’t on the menu, but the chef said it took too long and people expected the pasta to be cooked a certain way. I thought if I ever had a restaurant, I would.
For all’assassina, the dried spaghetti is put directly in the pan with garlic and chilli, and a tomato-based sauce. “You cook pasta like you would risotto, the method is called risottatura, risotto-style pasta in a way,” Esposito explains.
High heat and a cast iron skillet are essential to ensure proper cooking of the pasta portions.
“It’s the way it’s cooked that makes the dish magical. They call it the assassina because it’s like killing the dish, doing it in a different way that’s never been done before,” says Esposito. “Instead of being lost in the water, the starch in the pasta penetrates the sauce, binding the pasta and giving it an incomparable texture.”
The dish was invented in the 1960s in a restaurant in Bari. He even has a group dedicated to the preservation of the traditional recipethe Accademia dell’Assassina.
Esposito, which also owns Project Forty-Nine in Beechworthstarted preparing the dish for staff meals in 2020 in Rosella, and decided to add it to the menu once the restaurant moved from Collingwood to Fitzroy late last year.
“It’s the way it’s cooked that makes the dish magical. They call it the assassina because it’s like killing the dish, doing it in a different way that has never been done before.
“At lunchtime, there isn’t a single table that doesn’t have this dish on the table,” he says. “We are currently redesigning the menu, but this dish is not coming off!”
His version is sprinkled with dehydrated black olives to add another dimension to the dish.
With Esposito describing Rosella as having a strong southern Italian accent, spaghetti all’assassina feels right at home on the menu alongside dishes like octopus. salmorigliofriselle with sardines and fave and cicorie (mashed beans with chicory).
He even serves the same stracciatella he grew up eating in his hometown of Conversano (with pink pepper and vincotto), after accidentally discovering that the family that made it moved to Australia (ask him for the full story the next time you dine at Rosella).
Assassin-style spaghetti (spaghetti all’assassina)
For 4 people
The spaghetti all’assassina dish isn’t just plain tomato pasta, it’s spicy, crunchy and a bit burnt too. It is cooked using the risottatura method which requires a lot of attention during the cooking time. For best results, use a heavy cast-iron pan that is at least 36cm in diameter – so that the pasta strands fit inside without breaking.
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 400ml passata
- 2 tablespoons salt (optional
- 2 medium red chili peppers, chopped
- 1 garlic clove, whole
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 150ml extra virgin olive oil
- 320g drained spaghetti
- To prepare the spaghetti broth, combine 200ml water, tomato puree and 300ml passata in a 4 liter stainless steel saucepan. If the broth needs more seasoning, add salt to taste. Place the pot over medium-high heat and cook until the broth is red and hot (about 5-8 minutes).
- In the cast iron skillet, add the peppers, garlic and oil and heat over medium heat.
- When the garlic turns slightly golden, remove the whole garlic clove and increase the heat. Add the remaining 100ml of tomato passata – be careful as it will start to spit all over the place (which it should). An apron is strongly recommended for this step.
- Once the passata has reduced, evenly distribute the spaghetti around the pan. The spaghetti will start to stick to the pan after 5 minutes, so gently loosen the spaghetti with a wooden spoon – allowing the strands to caramelize slightly on one side. Keep the spaghetti towards the center of the pan, taking care not to break the strands.
- Slowly add the broth around the edge of the pan, a little at a time, avoiding the spaghetti. Allow the spaghetti to caramelize as the broth reduces. It’s okay if some strands stick to the pan – you’re basically “suffering” them, and you’re the assassin slowly “killing” the pasta. Continue for 8-10 minutes – some parts of the spaghetti will be al dente, while others will be crispy. Remove from pan and serve.