When it comes to cooking pasta, there’s plenty of knowledge that gets passed down at grandmothers’ knees. Italians, for example, absorb those little details at a tender young age—details that recipes often gloss over.
We asked Riccardo Felicetti, CEO of Italian pasta company Felicetti, and Fitz Tallon, the executive chef of Eataly in Manhattan, for their tips on making amazing pasta. Here’s what we learned.
Pasta Suffers From Loneliness
“The biggest mistake you can make with pasta is [to] put the pasta into the water and go,” Felicetti said. “La pasta soffre di solitudine.” Or in English, “Pasta suffers from loneliness.”
“You have to take care of it when it cooks. Pasta needs attention,” he said.
Use Plenty of Water
Here’s a simple formula for cooking pasta: 10-100-1,000. It makes more sense if you have a scale, but basically, use 10 grams of salt for 100 grams of pasta for 1,000 mL (or 1 liter) of water.
Think of pasta as fish swimming in the ocean—the water should be just as salty (yes, that means give it a taste) and just as plentiful. Add the salt when the water comes to a boil, add the pasta, and bring the water to a boil again.
“You have to keep the pasta boiling,” said Felicetti. Give it a nice stir now and then to keep the pasta moving.
Forget the Directions
Forget the directions on the package and rely on your tastebuds. There are too many factors involved, including how much water you’re cooking it in, said Tallon.
As to what al dente means, it depends on you. “We [Italians] know exactly what al dente is but each of us has a different perception of al dente,” Felicetti said. “My al dente and one of my colleague’s al dente is totally different. … It’s more ‘al chiodo,‘ which means ‘to the nail’ … not only to the tooth but to the nail.”
And don’t add oil to the water. In the past, Felicetti said, it was done so the pieces of pasta would not stick together, but the quality of production today is such that this step is not needed.
Go Easy on the Portions
Pasta is oft reviled as a waist buster, but the reality is more about the quantity consumed.
What Felicetti finds at restaurants in the United States are single portions of pasta that are easily two or three times the amount that would be served in Italy.
Eataly’s Tallon said 3 to 4 ounces of dry pasta is an appropriate serving. “To me 3 ounces of pasta is a lot of food. When you eat slowly, it’s going to fill you up. A lot of times, people eat really fast. They don’t realize they’re already full.”
“It’s not just Italian,” Tallon said. “If you get a huge sandwich on a huge piece of bread, you’re eating unhealthily not because you’re eating carbs, but because it’s ridiculous how much you consume.”
Use Quality Ingredients
What is paramount, Tallon said, is the quality of the ingredients—and the flavors you can coax out of them. “If you’re using really good, really fresh things, you don’t need a lot of it. It’s not just the pasta, it’s how much fat you put in there, how much butter, how much olive oil. You don’t need to use so much of it.
“If you’re using a fake Parmiggiano—like that grated stuff in the shaker, I don’t know what that is—it’s not very flavorful and consequently you have to use a lot of it.”
Instead, spend more on Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese—you’ll actually end up using less of it. “A little bit goes a long way,” he added.
Also be mindful while you are adding ingredients.
If you’re using butter, don’t cook everything in it. Instead, toss the pasta in a small amount of butter at the end. “You’re not even cooking it, it’s just to bring those flavors together. Same deal with cheese. You don’t want to add cheese like parmesan or pecorino until the pasta is off the heat, or [else] it gets stringy and oily,” Tallon said.
Bringing It All Together
When the pasta is done, well, it’s not done.
“If you take the pasta out of [the pot], when it’s completely done cooking, toss it [with sauce], and put in a bowl, it’s not a dish,” said Tallon. “It’s two different things—pasta and sauce. You want homogenous flavor. The way to do that is to cook everything together at the end.”
Don’t forget the water that the pasta was cooked in. That’s gold right there—full of starches that will bind flavors together.
While the pasta cooks, Tallon cooks the ingredients to go with it—local clams and red onion in one pan; broccoli rabe, garlic, and chili in another. He takes a ladle of the pasta water now and then and adds it to the pans with these ingredients.
“I’m not going to do it but I could throw away everything in this pan except for this water [in the sauté pans] and it’d be delicious. It’s going to taste like broccoli rabe, it’s going to taste like garlic, it’s going to taste like chili oil, it’s going to taste like olive oil,” Tallon said.
“It’s another reason to not cook huge amounts of pasta because virtually no one at home has a big enough pot to cook pastas and whatever else you’re putting in there,” he added.
Finally when it’s time for the pasta to be drained and then added to the sauce, along with a bit more pasta water, Tallon gives it all a good toss in the pan. “When I toss this, it’s going to tighten it up.”
You can also give a good vigorous stir, which serves the same purpose.
The Italians call it “mantecare,” literally mixing up, which serves the purpose of amalgamating the flavors together. In practice it’s like cooking magic. It made his orechiette pasta taste not like wheat but rather of all the other ingredients he’s put in—the broccoli rabe, the garlic—while the strands of linguine tasted just like clams.
And finally, “Always finish with olive oil. At the end you’re going to get all the flavors. It’s going to make it shine, it’s going to make it tasty,” Tallon said.
Recipe for Eataly’s Spaghetti With White Clam Sauce
Recipe for Eataly’s Pasta With Broccoli Rabe
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