Pasta Showdown

Some years ago I was anxious to try out an Italian restaurant that had just opened outside of Boston, Massachusetts. The proprietors, a truly engaging and entertaining couple, were the new darlings of PBS’s food programming. They even approached Julia Child’s star status for a time.

Their Italian cookbook was swept up by thousands, and while I wasn’t particularly enthralled with individual recipes, I was impressed by the emphasis they placed on correct cooking techniques.

In their cooking show they were advocates of not overcooking pasta and of melding it into the serving sauce in a pan over the stove, or in padella, before serving.

In our last blog “Preparing Pasta Properly” we discussed how cooking pasta extra firm or al dente and finishing it in padella is the ultimate way to enjoy the flavor of pasta and to best benefit from all its healthy virtues.

Patronizing any Italian restaurant in the U.S. is something I rarely do. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve dined in one where I left saying “that was great,” or “God, I can’t wait to come back.” The one thing I have NEVER done is enjoy a pasta dish at any Italian restaurant in the U.S.

It’s not just the uninspired sauces; my main problem is the inane concept that pasta can be pre-cooked, stored in a refrigerator, and then re-heated when you order. The best analogy I can think of to describe this particular abomination would be a paper company suggesting you take your roll of newly purchased toilet paper and drench it in water before you put it on the toilet paper dispenser. A tragedy in the making for sure.

Combine pre-cooked pasta with truly dim witted versions of so called “authentic” recipes that exhibit a totally wrong-headed, “my mother’s secret recipe,” kitchen sink approach to ingredients, without as much as a nod to the original, and you have a pasta disaster.

In most cases if the cooks were tossed into a lagoon of the original or authentic version they wouldn’t recognize it from pond water. Here’s an example: why does almost every Italian/American recipe for red pasta sauce invariably include oregano? While oregano has a number of uses in Italian cuisine, red pasta sauce is not one of them. Pizza sauce? Yes. Pour it in. Red pasta sauce? It should be an oregano free zone. Ingenuity, creativeness GOOD. Desecration of inspired, tried and true, generations old recipes? BAD.

The line is long, so my good friends David and Doreen and I cool our heels for a table for over an hour outside the recently opened restaurant which had been lauded by every reviewer in Boston. Having spent the previous week in Buffalo, NY overdosing on chicken wings I was anxious for a nice plate of Pasta Puttanesca, while David and Doreen were dying to compare the highly recommended white clam sauce to the simple, elegant, yet overpowering version I had made for them on numerous occasions.

Finally seated we order quickly as the kitchen is about to close. I ask our server to make sure my Pasta Puttanesca is prepared extra al dente. He nods, assuring me that was a great choice, and rushes off to the kitchen.

Several minutes later our plates arrive. I’m already suspicious as even I, who only eats pasta al dente or extra firm, cook pasta longer than two minutes. I dare not look over at David and Doreen’s white clam sauce as the pasta is literally swimming in a broth that spills over the edges when the server places it on the table. More like white clam soup than pasta with white clam sauce.

I spear my Pasta Puttanesca and immediately call for the server as he is rushing away. “Excuse me, but this pasta is not al dente. It’s soft.” He eyeballs me sourly, grabs my plate and runs back to the kitchen. David and Doreen don’t look me in the eye as they know there is trouble ahead. Instead, they pretend to enjoy the slurpy mess in front of them. Long story short, I return my pasta order THREE SEPARATE TIMES! Each time, I tell him the same thing, “the pasta is NOT al dente, take it back.” The third time I proclaim it to be “pudding,” in a voice loud enough to be heard at the door, which prompts the immediate arrival of “The Manager.”

Instead of apologizing “The Manager” proclaims to me that his “chefs” have assured him that it is I who did not understand what pasta prepared extra al dente meant. I’ll spare you my tirade, word for word, but it prompted “The Manager” to invite me into the kitchen to prepare my own Pasta Puttanesca.

The restaurant was empting out at this point.  I was ushered into the kitchen by “The Manager” who remained at close range.  One could hear the clunking of pans and sloshing of water associated with a tired crew cleaning the kitchen at closing

I assured him it would take me less than ten minutes to prepare my Pasta Puttanesca. Fortunately there was pasta water still boiling on the stove. I filled a small pan with boiling water, salted it, and set it on a high flame. I refused their pre-cooked pasta, which confused both “The Manager” and his head chef. Instead I asked for some uncooked spaghetti. I broke the spaghetti in half and stirred it well. As it was cooking I made my Puttanesca sauce. I spied a large container of beautiful, small anchovies packed in oil. I mashed a dozen of them into a smooth paste with a fork and transferred this to a pan with hot olive oil and three finely chopped cloves of garlic. I immediately added a half dozen chopped, black, oil cured olives, two tablespoons of capers, some finely chopped celery, and a ladle full of uncooked, raw, tomato sauce. While this was sizzling in the pan I drained the pasta which had been cooking for less than five minutes and threw it into the Puttanesca mix. One more minute of tossing in the pan and the pasta was complete; extra al dente.

I invited “The Manager” to join me in sampling what extra al dente, in padella finished pasta tasted like. He was reluctant at first, but agreed. At the table I dusted our pasta with ample amounts of Romano cheese and coarse black pepper. David and Doreen’s terrified expressions soon melted as “The Manager” started to rave about never having tasted anything quite as good.

Unfortunately, the long lines turned to short lines and then no lines at the vaunted eatery birthed by the ingenious couple who made proper Italian cooking technique popular on PBS and it closed very quietly not long after it opened. David and Doreen tell the story of the thrice returned pasta to people far and wide until this day, many years later, and I still send soft, mushy pasta back to the kitchen until they get it right, both here, and in Italy.

In another blog we’ll examine just why cooking pasta al dente is not just the tastiest way but the HEALTHIEST way to enjoy it.

Written by Dino Romano, former Pasta Channel Italian Food Blogger, Italian Cook Extraordinaire,
Entrepreneur and Raconteur. Has taken Kyle Phillips (former Principle/Blogger for the
Guide to Italian Food) to task on several supposedly “authentic” Italian recipes.

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