I stumbled across Benito Urgu’s Facebook site recently. It was a hoot. Mr. Urgu, with his Mario mustache and Sardinian beret was cooking a spaghetti dish he called “breakfast spaghetti” over some flaming logs in the hearth. It was a one pot deal, you added 2 glasses of water and brought it to boil, then the spaghetti, tomatoes, garlic and some olive oil goes in all at once. When the spaghetti absorbs all the water, you dumped it on to a plate, put some pecorino cheese on it and ate it.
It’s called spaghetti al cafonara. The word “cafonara” takes on its original meaning of “contadino” or “poor peasant”. It has come to mean an uncouth, boorish, ill-mannered person, but Mr. Urgu explains he doesn’t mean it that way. It’s the way the country folk got the house warm and made an exceedingly easy and satisfying dish to start the day at the same time. And there’s only one pot to wash.
I like the very idea of spaghetti al cafonara for other reasons as well. It’s the recipe. It calls for two glasses of water. Not cups or liters. It’s imprecise, like life. When Mr. Urgu makes his dish in a small pan, be breaks the pasta like many Americans do. Expat Americans will smite you for such an ignorant act. But hey, we’re just making it fit in the pot. It doesn’t cook when it’s out of the water. Sheesh. No contadino worth his salt is going to stand for precise measurement and culturally mandated rules of whole pasta worship.
As I waded through his prodigious output of video my eyes were opened. In some, he put on Sardinian country drag, raised his voice up an octave (when he remembered) and made food video as the iconic Sardinian widow in black dress in a separate facebook page called in Cucina con Desolina.
Let’s not forget that we’re talking about a man born in 1939. His name hints at the era; like many males of the time he was christened “Benito” in honor of the strongman who was going to fix Italy: Mussolini.
So who is this man, Benito Urgu? I don’t personally know him. But he’s an actor, known for The Man Who Bought the Moon (2018), The Referee (2013) and Every Dumped Boyfriend Is Lost (2001). He’s also a comedian. And I was beginning to think he was some kind of Sardinian hero, an iconic figure that everyone adored even more than his namesake.
So I asked my favorite Sardinian Tourist Guide Paola Loi, who verified that Mr. Urgu was a cherished cultural treasure of the autonomous region of Italy. Everyone, apparently, knows and loves him.
And that’s the story I’ve pieced together about Mr. Urgu. He’s a thoughtful guy. His favorite character is, in fact Desolina, “because she is an icon of Sardinia. Desolina is found in every city in Sardinia. You can go anywhere in Sardinia and you’ll find a Desolina.”
His Desolina imparts the many tricks of everyday life that make living in a rural environment unique and interesting. She forages for greens amongst the chickens who run from her and declares them afraid of an old man dressed in such a manner with a mustache. Each green she snips is a wonder, “Oh, look at that beauty!” and it appears she cannot stop her mad snipping for the beauty of green leaves. The chickens get the benefit of the cinders cleaned from the fireplace; the ashes set out under a comfortable tree so the birds can wallow in them, “because is scares the parasites.”
Pretty soon, as you struggle to maintain a tenuous connection with his Italian, you realize you’re in the middle if a very odd and very intriguing living museum of rural life, what you might call an ethnographic museum. This may be the one reason you need to induce you to study Italian until you get fluent.
I’m an Urgufan for life. I hope some of you will take up the challenge as well.
Catch Benito Urgu on his official Facebook page