My Italian food trail: Rigatoni (but not con la pajata)

Name your favourite pasta. If it’s spaghetti hoops I suggest you’re reading the wrong blog. For brothers Michael and Alex de Martiis it has to be rigatoni. That’s why they’ve invested in a state of the art extruding machine to create daily batches of this ‘pastasciutta’ (dry, a bronze die giving it a useful rough texture) to be sauced up and served at their back to basics new project called, naturally, Rigatoni’s.

That’s the rebranding for all four pasta-led eateries formerly known as Sud, which originated as Sugo in Altrincham back in 1915. Reviewing it then I was wowed by the sugo, just like Nonna used to make – a dense sauce of beef shin, pork shoulder and spicy Tuscan sausage that felt like it had been simmered for days, if not decades. It coated a substantial bowl of that ear-shaped pasta called orecchiette, fresca (ie fresh) as in the de Martiis family’s native Puglia.

Unfortunately, nonnas are thin on the ground in the pressured world of eating out Italian style 2024 and change is necessary.

At a launch for the new menu at Rigatoni’s Ancoats Michael defends their decision to concentrate on a single basic, if adaptable, pasta treated with simple fresh sauces. “The days are gone when we could a spare a member of the team to stir rich meat sauces for hours or roll out a variety of pasta shapes. Our starters too are simpler, yet no less delicious.”

On this first acquaintance i can’t see what all the dumbing down accusations on social media are about. A selection of focaccia toasts, topped with grated tomato, garlic and salt or black olive and caper spread splendidly partner a carafe of fruity house Barbera. Even better at a quid more (£6) is the whipped gorgonzola and honey topping.

But the pasta is the thing and my sharp topping of brown crab, vodka sauce, and tarragon at £12.50 is 50p less than that ragu of eight years ago. A FAZOOL! white beans, garlic, fresh chilli & parm is just £9.50 and a cacio e pepe take with lots of extra-virgin is a remarkable £7.50. Amatriciana and Puttanesca options cost a tad more.

Tasty food for straitened times; I get it. Only the Italophile foodie in me seeks something a little more adventurous. Which brings me to that divisive Roman rigatoni speciality you’ll never find in the UK, let alone Manchester – Con La Pajata.

Not for the squeamish – a classic quinto quarto dish

Just as I always associate rigatoni with that great Sicilian speciality Pasta alla Norma, so ‘when in Rome’ it’s essential with traditional rib-tickler Carbonara. But the Eternal City also offers a classic offal-based rigatoni sauce that was banned in 2001 in the wake of Mad Cow Disease and only allowed to be reinstated on menus in 2015.

You’ll mostly come across rigatoni con la pajata (rigatoni con la pagliata in Standard Italian) in the old school trattorie of the Testaccio (it even sounds like balls) district. Until 1975 this was home to the city’s main slaughterhouse and the nose-to-tail culture lives on. The Italians call it quinto quarto (the fifth quarter) cooking, ie using leftover bits such as oxtail, feet, tongue, testicles, intestines and tripe.

Pajata is the name for the intestines of an unweaned calf (one fed only on its mother’s milk, never grass). They are cleaned and skinned but left inside is the chyme – the pulpy acidic fluid consisting of gastric juices and partly digested food. Stay with me.

The intestine is cut in pieces 20–25 cm long, that are bound together with thread, forming rings. A long cooking progress, allied to the enzymes present coagulate it, forming a creamy, ricotta-like sauce.The rings can be simply grilled or stewed with tomato, aromatics, lardo and spices to make a classic sauce for rigatoni. Top with oodles of pecorino romano, per favore.

So out of reach, but maybe not. In Florence I was wary of trying lampredotto (the stewed fourth stomach of a cow in a bread roll) and loved it. Now I’m scanning the schedules for air tickets for Rome. Will the suckling veal soon be in season?

Rigatoni’s, 46 Blossom Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 6BF. Also in Altrincham, Sale and Exhibition Manchester.