Food & Drink

Create your own masterpiece

Start the New Year off with simple, Italian fare the whole family can enjoy. No, we're not talking pizza -- but rather pizza-flavored pasta: baked pasta alla pizzaiola.

For a festive supper, let your family or guests customize their own pasta by setting out a variety of prepared meats and vegetables to add just as you would when ordering your favorite pizza. We like to bake individual dishes so everyone can make their favorite combinations. If you don't have small baking dishes, simply make one or two larger dishes. We've even been known to make a 13-by-9-inch pan half sausage and pepperoni and half spinach and mushroom.

The recipe looks long, but it's really quite simple: Combine a quickly cooked tomato sauce, cooked pasta, cheeses and a selection of goodies to flavor the dish. Our favorite combinations mimic our pizza loves: sausage and pepperoni, shrimp and olives, chicken with spinach and mushrooms, tofu and grilled veggies.

As with pizza, the better the quality of ingredients, the better the finished dish. If you've never added nuggets of fresh mozzarella to your baked pastas (or your pizzas), you'll be mighty pleased. The fresh cheese melts into luscious pockets of goodness reminiscent of the best pizza margheritas.

Be sure to seek out Italian tomatoes such as San Marzanos, either in cans or aseptic boxes, at specialty and Italian markets as well as some supermarkets. These are the preferred tomatoes of the best pizzaiole in Italy and in this country as well. The deeply flavored tomatoes do not contain citric acid (which adds unnecessary tang to the sauce) or calcium chloride (which keeps the tomatoes firm) like so many domestic brands do. The imports taste cleaner, less acidic and more like fresh tomatoes.

To accompany the pasta, toss bagged salad (preferably one with pieces of red cabbage or radicchio for crunch and color) with a simple vinaigrette dressing.

Our version of garlic bread is supersimple: Cut 1 oval loaf of Italian bread lengthwise in half. Put the two halves onto a baking sheet. Brush both sides with a couple of tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with seasoned garlic salt (we like Lawry's), sweet paprika and shredded Parmesan. Bake at 400 degrees until crusty, about 5 minutes. Cut crosswise into serving portions.

For dessert, lemon ice and lemon drop cookies from the local Italian bakery.

Now we're fortified for 2009 -- whatever it may bring.