During a recent visit to a (very popular) Austin restaurant, my best friend, in town for the weekend, ordered a plate of pasta, enticed by promises of local-only ingredients and housemade pappardelle. The portion was ginormous, for one, a forgivable offense but still wince-worthy. The cheese situation was confusing; though it TASTED like goat cheese, it had the stringy texture of mozzarella. And then the kicker: buried among the tomatoes and measly amounts of spinach were oversized, sliced, undercooked CARROTS.
You can chop up carrots for a bolognese and throw them into a pot of homemade chicken stock, but half-raw? In an Italian pasta dish? No.
On a completely different outing, the “Italian” restaurant we visited served their pasta covered in what can only be described as Velveeta, and then had the nerve to scatter raw lettuce and sliced veggies on top. Like a freaking salad.
Needless to say, there’s nothing quite like a plate of pasta to turn me into a HUGE snob.
Before you roll your eyes and quit reading, let me explain.
Pasta is one of the most simple and beautiful things my Italian ancestors have brought to this world. You can count the ingredients necessary to make a great pasta dish on one hand, so why complicate things? If you make a great sauce and pour it over a truly well made noodle, there are very few things more comforting and amazing and impressive than that.
Growing up with Italian relatives has me spoiled, yes. I watched my great grandmother cut her pasta dough with a knife, whether she was creating long, delicate noodles or perfectly misshapen ravioli. The recipe for her tomato sauce has an almost religious significance in my family, and I’m pretty sure Marc is marrying me because of her meatballs, made with oh-so-much garlic and half a loaf of ciabatta, then fried in olive oil. Though my mom saves the handmade ravioli and painstakingly time-consuming lasagna for special occasions, she knows that with the right amount of garlic, aggressive amounts of olive oil, and just the tiniest bit of freshness, Italian food should not be hard to make.
And make it I do. Pasta is not only my favorite thing to eat, it is hands down my favorite thing to cook. After years of trial and error, I know my noodles.
My “expertise” is due to a combination of voices in my ear. The executive chef at one of my favorite Cincinnati Italian restaurants, Sotto, taught me to turn off the heat before adding cheese to a pasta dish and to reserve a tiny bit of pasta water, just in case, to thicken any sauce. Stefano, a 27-year-old Italian wine connoisseur who made us carbonara during our visit to Florence, showed me why “al dente” is so important, and how to do it right. My food writing experiences in Philly and Cincinnati taught me that fresh, housemade pasta is always better, and to ask for it by name. My father taught me the importance of salting the boiling pasta water and being patient with your sauces. My mother taught me the versatility of store bought pesto and that adding more butter or olive oil at the end is entirely acceptable. My grandmother taught me that more than anything, it’s about the people at the table around you. And my great grandmother? She taught me to use my hands.
Still, to this day, when I make her meatballs and smash the ground chuck and bread and garlic and parsley between my fingers, I feel incredibly homesick, and I miss her.
To me, pasta is personal.
The female members of my immediately family were in town this past weekend to help me find a wedding dress. Ava, the older of my two younger sisters, arrived early, so we drank wine and made my mom a belated birthday cake and whipped up a big batch of orecchiette: little pasta “ears” swimming in a ragu of meat and white wine and capers and garlic. We salted the water, we added the cheese last. We used our hands. We sat around a table, piping hot bowls of pasta under our chins, and I felt completely and entirely at ease. Recipe here.
On my mom’s last night in town, we did the same thing, swirling pesto into fresh spaghetti, eating simply, enjoying each other’s company. I could feel the tears welling up then and there: so happy she was there, so sad she was leaving.
There are a few places in Austin that do pasta just right: reasonable servings of fresh things in rich sauces with ingredients that make sense together. Emmer and Rye is one of them. And I’m ok with that, and I’m trying my best not to take personal offense when the dish is mutilated into glorified mac ‘n’ cheese. I don’t live in Italy, I don’t live in New York or Boston, and unlike my college days in Philly, there is not a 10×10 foot trattoria with exposed brick that makes the best damn pappardelle in the world down the street.
Lucky for me, I have my kitchen, and my mother’s kitchen, and my grandmother’s kitchen. I have wise voices in my head telling me what to do each time I’m craving a really good plate of penne. I have two capable hands that aren’t afraid to “get involved,” as my dad says. And, if I’m really fortunate, I’ll always have visitors, from family to old friends to new ones, happy to sit around and eat with me.