We are living in a golden age of pasta here in the U.S. It wasn’t that long ago that getting a good, properly prepared plate of pasta in a restaurant was a rare and wonderful thing. Either the pasta itself was overcooked, or in pursuit of “al dente” texture, it was still crunchy in the middle. Or, if it was fresh pasta, it came out soggy.
And don’t get me started on the sauces. Either they were too thick or they were watery, and American cooks had trouble getting used to the right amount—enough to coat the pasta generously but not so much that it pooled on the plate.
The simplicity and balance of a great pasta dish finally came into focus for me in the 1980s on visits to Italy. I don’t remember if it was the spaghetti with green tomatoes and olive oil in a Milan trattoria, or the agnolotti with butter and sage in Alba. Or maybe it was my first taste of the real fettuccine Alfredo in Rome untouched by cream. The revelation was in the balance of flavors and the texture, which I later learned came from a dollop of the pasta-boiling water, rich in starch from preparing dozens of servings, that helped bind the sauces and make them drape the pasta beautifully. (That’s one reason pasta in restaurants can seem a tick better.)
Lately I have had some of the best pasta dishes in my memory right here in America. American-born chefs are making pasta dishes that are right up there with the best in Italy. Among my favorite practitioners are Michael Tusk at Quince in San Francisco and Scott Conant at Scarpetta in New York. And by the way, the best pesto I’ve ever had anywhere is at a place called Farina in San Francisco, not in Genoa.
On my current visit to New York, it seems as though I encountered a great pasta dish every day. I flipped over Jonathan Benno’s agnolotti at Lincoln, the former Per Se chef’s new venue at Lincoln Center in the shadow of the Metropolitan Opera House. Filled with polenta and mascarpone, they were dressed with braised lamb and a puree of the juices and vegetables, the lamb a nice play on the name of the little ravioli, which means “little lambs.” The deep flavors and spot-on textures were great with the mineral freshness of Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco Haberle 2008.
I also loved the pasta with chunks of suckling pig and arugula at Maialino, Danny Meyer’s casual Italian restaurant at the Gramercy Park Hotel. What a simple idea, to dress delicate sheets of flat pasta with the sweet meatiness of porchetta, accented by the slight bitterness of the greens, and let the rich jus coat it all. (The menu identified the pasta shape as “malfatti,” which technically are like unwrapped ravioli, but the sheets were actually more like maltagliati. A fine point, but they should get it right.) Banfi’s new Lalus 2007, made from Albarossa, a cross of Nebbiolo and Barbera, had the supple structure and fresh red fruit flavors to mate with the pasta perfectly.
Yesterday at lunch I had something called boccolone at Piccolo Venezia, an old-line restaurant in Astoria, Queens. A generous ladleful of shredded osso buco meat and marrow were wrapped in ravioli dough and dressed with a lovely tomato sauce. One or two could have made a meal, they were so satisfying in depth of flavor. And last night, to top things off, I was wowed by a bowl of spaghetti with flakes of crab and a sea urchin-enriched tomato sauce at Marea, chef Michael White’s luxe Italian seafood restaurant on Central Park South. (Loved the langoustine crudo too.)
This upsurge in pasta proficiency in better U.S. restaurants has been going on for the better part of a decade, but it seems to me it has reached a critical mass. If you think so, too, what’s the best pasta dish you have had in the last month or so?
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — October 15, 2010 1:24pm ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — October 15, 2010 1:46pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — October 18, 2010 4:04pm ET
Terry Brady — Chicago, IL — October 20, 2010 2:54pm ET
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