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11:46 PM Tue, Sept. 18th

Don't cut your spaghetti! It's not proper Italian etiquette

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Spaghettata: Impromptu spaghetti event with friends. Typically spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, anchovies.

Among Americans, including Italo-Americans, some restaurateurs, and etiquette books, the jury's still out on protocol for eating spaghetti. Not so in Italy, where more spaghetti is eaten than anywhere else.

Fork, knife, spoon. Dig in! Think you know how to handle that bowl of inviting strands coated with satiny red sauce, hugged by a blanket of grated cheese? Do you insist on meatballs among the mound of coiled pasta? Well, put down your knife and spoon; remove that napkin from your collar-unless you're a child. According to Alfio DiMauro, tour guide for our 10 days in Sicily, this is wrong, wrong, wrong! Although typically served and eaten this way outside of Italy, no self-respecting Italian "over there" would think of thus scandalizing one of Italy's national dishes.

During a bus trip, Alfio presented his spaghetti tutorial. Sicilian-born, he was passionately knowledgeable about Sicilian history, culture, politics and customs. However, while acknowledging Italy's diverse regional culinary preferences, he proclaimed there is no dispute on the "Italian way" to approach and enjoy a bowl of spaghetti.

"Spaghetti has its own soul," mused Alfio. "In Italy, spaghetti, meatballs and sausage do not appear on the same plate. That's American-style spaghetti."

Pasta, like risotto, is a first course (primo); meat or fish, the secondo. If they are served together, restaurants are simply catering to American tastes. My internet research of chefs, pastaphiles and The Pasta Manual confirmed Alfio's spaghetti-wisdom, combined here with those sources.

Spaghetti Savvy:

Don't:

• Call spaghetti macaroni! Spaghetti, vermicelli, angel hair are long strands. Maccheroni are tube shapes, long and short, like ziti, penne. Different.

• Overcook. Al dente means cooked outside, with some resistance to the teeth.

• Rinse cooked spaghetti, nor coat it with oil, which keeps sauce from clinging.

• Drown spaghetti. Italians don't bury spaghetti in sauce. Chef Mario Batali says the sauce is a condiment to dress, not drown, pasta. Professional chefs add pasta to the sauce in the pan versus pouring sauce into the pasta. You decide. Do serve with a spaghetti claw, gently swirling it onto a plate.

• Twirl spaghetti on a spoon. Italians never do this; they simply twirl spaghetti on a fork. If a spoon is there, it's meant to help toss the spaghetti with sauce and cheese, or to guide pasta toward the fork. Emily Post OK's a spoon, but that's "not Italian."

• Cut your spaghetti before or after cooking. Craig Claiborne writes, "Spoons and cut-up spaghetti are for children, amateurs and those with bad manners." Other aficionados agree.

• Overload your fork. Separate a few strands with the fork; angle fork tines against the side of the bowl. (Piatto fondo-a shallow, rimmed soup dish-is the smart plate for spaghetti.) Roll the strands into a tight little bundle the right size to go into your mouth. Too big? Too long? Drop it into the bowl, pierce a smaller bunch, twirl.

• Slurp up spaghetti - ever! Absolutely no sounds! Cut hanging strands with teeth only.

• Use a napkin as a bib-unless you're a small child, or if others do it at an informal setting. But it's still un-cool.

OK hints: Observe fellow diners to see if it's OK to use bread (aka scarpetta, little shoe) to wipe up remaining sauce. Enjoy the approving smiles. Unsure about looking cool, dignified and clean? Practice when alone. Avoid serving spaghetti at a formal party. Opt for short shapes (above).

Salute! Cin-Cin! per Alfio:

Toasting with an empty glass invites bad luck.

When clinking glasses for a toast, look the person in the eye, or risk bad luck.

Sicilian toast: Lie to save a friend. Cheat Death. Steal the heart of your love. Drink with a friend. Salute!

Cutline: Eggplant-Spaghetti Rolatini

Spaghettata recipes

Spaghetti Aglio, Olio, Acciughi - garlic, oil, anchovies - the easiest, most basic dish that most Italian men know how to make. Popular as late-night snack, lunch or primo course for dinner.

3 sliced cloves garlic, or to taste

Pinch of dried red pepper flakes

3 to 4 oil-packed anchovy fillets, or to taste

1/2 cup quality olive oil, plus as needed

12 oz. spaghetti

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs, toasted in 2 teaspoons olive oil

Freshly grated Parmesan

Fresh chopped Italian parsley

Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water to al dente. Meanwhile, in a 12-inch skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil; sauté garlic, pepper flakes 3 minutes. Add anchovies with their oil; mash into a paste. Keep warm over low heat. With pasta claw or slotted scoop, remove cooked spaghetti to sauce in skillet; toss. Add remaining oil (some pasta cooking water if needed); toss. Serve in shallow bowls, topped with parsley, bread crumbs, cheese. 4 servings

My eggplant-spaghetti rolatini (4-6 servings)

(The only dish that allows cutting spaghetti: Alfio)

2 large eggplants, as long as possible

Extra virgin olive oil for brushing

1/2 pound spaghetti, cooked to al dente

1/2 cup prepared marinara sauce

2 tbsp. tomato paste

1 tsp. chopped garlic

1 tbsp. capers, rinsed, chopped

2 anchovy fillets or 1 tsp. anchovy paste (optional)

Additional marinara sauce as needed

Shredded provolone cheese

Prepare eggplant: Trim off stem end. Slice from top to bottom into long 1/8" slices. (Optional: place in a colander, sprinkle with coarse salt. Put a plate and bowl on top for weight. Drain 30 minutes. Rinse, dry with towels.) Brush slices with olive oil, sprinkle pepper, salt (no salt if you drained them) on both sides. Place on oiled cookie sheet. Roast at 375F until softened and pliable. Cool. Drain pasta. Toss with next five ingredients (up to marinara and provolone). Place a generous portion of pasta on wider end of the eggplant; roll eggplant over pasta forming a tight cylinder. Place in oiled baking dish; top with sauce, provolone. Bake until bubbly-hot.