“Bis o tris?” Pasta, two or three ways.

Here at Cerines we enjoy pasta every ten days or so, which keeps this carb-rich food in check. On the menu today is Bis, a Latin term (meaning ‘two times’) used in Italian when two kinds of pasta are served, instead of just one.

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It is supremely practical. I use the biggest pentola there is, put a colander insert in it and cook two different kinds of pasta at the same time. There’s always variety to please four hungry boys and two adults. For a really special meal, we can make Tris­– three kinds of pasta. When you serve, it’s great fun asking, “Bis o tris?” Each person can choose two or three kinds or the cook–if he’s the mischievous type–chooses the pasta. No questions asked. You get what you’re served.

Funny story: In the summer of 1999, we were having dinner at Le tre piante in Urbino, Italy, a picturesque medieval village in Le Marche and an hour’s drive from Pesaro. That evening, we sat down along with our dinner companions Veronica and Thad and were greeted by an older, precocious waitress. You know the type: totally in control, no affectation, knows what she’s doing. I asked the waitress what ‘Bis o tris’ offered and she explained what were the evening’s choices of pasta. Thad, with just a basic knowledge of Italian, didn’t quite get the gist of the conversation and his girlfriend didn’t bother to translate. He was the last to order and he followed my lead, ordering “Bis o tris.” The waitress asked him which one, having already specified the choices a minute earlier to me, “Bis o tris?” He repeated himself once more, probably thinking she didn’t hear him, nodding his head, “Bis o tris.” The waitress asked him once more, more slowly this time, because neither she had any idea that poor Thad hadn’t understand he had to choose either bis or tris. Thad, sensing that she was perturbed for wasting her time, affirmed his choice in Italian with great effect, “Sì, sì, bis o tris!” We realized we were witnessing the Italian version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” At this point the waitress realized something was amiss and decided to have fun with it. She asked, “Allora bis o tris?” (So, bis o tris?) Thad–still in the dark despite our howls of laughter–responded emphatically, “Sì!” The vaudeville act was over when I leaned in and explained to him what was so funny. The waitress laughed and walked away without waiting for his answer. He ate tris that night. It was a joke told over and over again, long after that dinner ended.

Lots to do? Making two–or even three– kinds of pasta is counter-intuitive. It seems like a lot but it’s really the same amount of work, whether or not you’re making one or two. Apart from the prep time for the ingredients, both sauces are cooked at the same time, about 10 minutes total. Tip for success? It’s all about the choices. Select a tomato-based and another oil-based for greater variety. One of the sauces can be pre-made, like pesto or crema di noci. When preparing tris, this is especially efficient. Another simple, make-in-a-minute yet perfect addition is spaghetti all’olio e aglio, which is just garlic fried in olive oil with a bit of parmigiano tossed in. Bis o tris is a great way to cook for a crowd and to please a variety of tastes. Bring to the table on big platters. Ask in Italian, “Bis o tris?” and see what reaction you get. You’ll be making this quite a bit. Guaranteed.

Click on the picture for the recipe Linguine alla primavera