Primo Pasta -- Primavera Combines The Best Of Italy At The Hands Of An American

PASTA PRIMAVERA. IT WAS MORE than a dozen years ago, but I still remember the first time I had it. And the whoops of joy that ensued.

I was having lunch with Deloris Tarzan Ament, The Times' art critic, and we were looking for something out of the ordinary.

The place was a downtown Italian restaurant, the Ristorante Marcello, since closed. She had ordered pasta with four cheeses ("Ye gods, that was good!" she recalled), and I had the Pasta Primavera - which we agreed was even better.

The chef was John Farquharson, who later moved on to cheerful cheffery at places like Simpatico, Jazz Alley and even the Kingdome. I was so struck by the rich and yet savory, tart balance of the Primavera dish, that I called the next day and asked if I could come in and watch him make it.

He said sure.

It wasn't solely his invention, Farquharson said. Just something he had picked up along his professional travels, and he wasn't certain of its origins. But he thought it might have first gained popularity back east.

What made Pasta Primavera different was its basic flavor combinations. Back in the 1970s, there were two distinct kinds of Italian pasta and sauce categories: southern and northern. One was red. The other was white.

Pasta Primavera looked as if the cook had gotten geographically confused. The dish started out in one direction (north) like a vegetable and fettucini Alfredo, and ended up with a southern (Italian) accent.

Primavera means spring - or, literally, first green.

Farquharson was happy to demonstrate. First he boiled his pasta (capellini, or angel-hair pasta) and set it aside - still quite al dente. Then he made a fast garlic, butter-olive oil and heavy cream sauce. Next he tossed briefly blanched spring vegetables into the cream sauce - zucchini, broccoli and asparagus - to finish cooking. When all was tender-crunchy, he added the partly cooked capellini and a scattering of pine nuts. He topped off the presentation with a dollop of butter-fried garlic, diced tomatoes and pine nuts.

The pasta and vegetable saute was spun in the pan to send the green vegetables to the perimeter of the pan, and it was then swirled onto the plate.

The tomato sauce was ladled over the cream, vegetable and pasta blend, into a small swirled nest in the center. More pine nuts were added.

The result was spectacular.

"Those were the days," Farquharson mused. "It was sinfully rich."

I made the recipe many times at home, varying it as the season dictated the availability of fresh vegetables, but usually with broccoli, zucchini, green beans, asparagus, fresh peas and a handful of sauteed mushrooms. Over time, I discovered that I liked the asparagus better as a side dish - with a bit of olive oil, lemon, a touch of red-wine vinegar and salt - and thereafter left it out.

All through the years, I wondered where Pasta Primavera had originated. Was it in northern, southern (or central) Italy? I pored through the old, classic Italian cookbooks.

Waverly Root (in "The Best of Italian Cooking" and "The Cooking of Italy" for the Time-Life series) knew nothing of it. Marcella Hazan (in "Classic Italian Cooking") didn't even mention it. Neither did the most authoritative of the contemporary Italian food writers, Lorenza De' Medici, in her "Heritage of Italian Cooking."

Was it possible the origins of Pasta Primavera were not even in Italy?

It was.

A few weeks ago, at one of those high-powered lunches that Ray's Boathouse periodically stages to welcome visiting foodies (in this case several national food writers and the noted television French chef, Jacques Pepin), I met New York Times Magazine food columnist Molly O'Neill.

She is a remarkable food journalist, probably the best in the country. She insisted that Pasta Primavera was first conceived and executed in New York City.


Yes, she said. The dish originated at Le Cirque and was invented there by its owner-impresario, Sirio Maccioni. That opinion was seconded by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins in their "The New Basics Cookbook."

"When I was putting `The New York Cookbook' together," O'Neill said, "I had four graduate students working for a week on the source of Spaghetti Primavera. And as far as they could determine, there was no evidence that it had been created first anyplace else."

"I wonder why it died out?" I mused. "You find it in season, but not to the extent you used to."

She replied with one word: "Cream."

When I got back to Farquharson, he said that Le Cirque as the originator sounded about right to him - but that his distinctive version had been developed by himself and the Marcello's owners, Michael and Judy Brice.

Because the dish is seasonal, it usually doesn't appear on menus until at least April, and many restaurants treat it as a special. If the right stuff is available it gets made. It is, of course, popular with vegetarians - but not skinny vegetarians.

Most good Italian restaurants will make it to order, and I recently had a fine plate of it at Il Terrazzo Carmine, 411 First Ave. S.

I found the recipe for Maccioni's original version in Molly O'Neill's new cookbook. It goes like this:

Trim a small bunch of broccoli into florets, quarter two small zucchini and cut into one-inch pieces, peel and trim four asparagus spears and cut into thirds, cut 1 1/2 cups of green beans into one-inch pieces. Set aside 1/2 cup of fresh or thawed frozen peas.

Cook the first four vegetables in boiling, salted water until crisp-tender, about four minutes. Add the peas. Cook one minute more.

Saute two cups of thin-sliced mushrooms in a tablespoon of olive oil, along with a teaspoon of finely minced fresh red or green chili pepper - or use 1/2 teaspoon of dried red-pepper flakes. Saute for about two minutes. Add three more tablespoons of olive oil, a teaspoon of minced garlic, three cups of seeded, diced ripe tomatoes (with juices reserved) and cook rapidly for about four minutes.

Add 1/4 cup of chopped parsley and six fresh basil leaves, chopped. Stir and set aside.

Cook one pound of spaghetti or spaghettini until just al dente.

In a large, non-reactive pot, melt a half-stick of butter; add 1/2 cup of heavy cream and 2/3 cup of grated Parmesan cheese. Stir constantly until heated through and blended.

Add the spaghetti and toss to blend.

Add half of the vegetables and the reserved tomato juice.

Toss and stir for five minutes over low heat. If sauce seems dry, add extra cream, "but the sauce should not be soupy."

Adjust seasonings. Add 2/3 cup of toasted pine nuts and give one final toss. Spoon some of the tomato-mushrooms mixture over the top and serve.

The recipe will serve four very generously as a main course - or six to eight as a first course.

Farquharson didn't advocate using Parmesan cheese in the sauce (although you can pass it afterward).

"The reason we didn't use it was that it tightens the sauce too much. And I wouldn't use the dried red-pepper flakes - it's too aggressive. But I do like the idea of a fresh basil chiffonade laced over the top."

A light fruity red wine goes well with Pasta Primavera, like a young Chianti or a Beaujolais, but lately I have been enjoying the Farron Ridge (Ste. Michelle) table red, which often is available at bargain prices in the 1 1/2-liter bottle.

The dish was first called Spaghetti Primavera by Maccioni in the early 1970s. It was gentrified to "pasta" soon after and popularized throughout the country under that name.

It's rich, but cheap, and a terrific party meal.

Buon appetito! And run two miles in the morning.

(Copyright 1993, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.) John Hinterberger's food columns and restaurant reviews appear Sundays in Pacific and Fridays in Tempo. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times photographer.