There is a tattered snap shot saved in my mind. Taken on a drizzly street somewhere off Columbus in that light grey city of love. It’s foggy in North Beach, very film noir. Blue hued cigarette smoke wafts towards the ceiling and intermixes with steam from the espresso machine. Ccccssshhhhhhhhhh. Ccccshhhhhhhh. Condensing on the inside of windows. Tiny glasses clinking, plates upon plates clattering. I am wide eyed at attention, tucking my chin into my pillowy soft scarf, soaking in and savoring every tiny detail. A waitress with too much eyeliner drops dishes, porcelain clamoring on the tabletop and gorgeous men, young and old argue with each other in Italian while expertly spinning saucy strands of spaghetti around forks inside saucer sized spoons. The noise in the dining room is deafening, then it drops off, I can see him in the back, strong arms, white shirt, cranking and laying noodles on racks to dry daintily as if they are made from glass. He is careful not to brake them, his mother would be proud. So strong and so gentle. There is a plump, French vanilla bean bulldog tied to the table next to me, she looks up, begging me to run away with her. The waitress walks over, bringing my plate, with pappardelle so golden yellow, I am convinced it is spun egg yolks. Lemon, sage and parmeasen, grassy olive oil, is that pumpkin? Can’t stop, won’t stop.
This memory is in shades of black and white, which means… I might have made it up. But then why can I taste it!?Never the less, soon after said heaven sent plate, I became an almost manic student of pasta. My most beloved text book was 100 Ways to BE Pasta. Not to make, boil, cook, toss, or sauce pasta. But BE pasta. The lovely authors of the book, a mother daughter team that run a Sicilian Bed and Breakfast, have become my adopted aunties, teaching me many, many important things about BEING pasta.
One of the most important things I have learned from them, is you always finish cooking your pasta in the condimento or sauce that you will be serving with it. You cook it in water with a fistful of salt until just under done and then let it finish slowly, soaking up its sauce.
Bring two cups of real whole milk to an ever so slight simmer, and add a cup and a half of pasta. For this recipe I choose cassarecce, because they are curved, short and folded a little, perfect for catching and keeping the sauce. Preheat the oven, 350°.
After about twenty minutes check the pasta for doneness. Heat two tablespoons of butter in a skillet until melted and then add two table spoons of flour and stir to combine, leave on the heat until it is a dirty blonde, this is called roux. If the pasta is almost done add a splash of cream, a pinch of nutmeg, a couple cracks of fresh pepper and two and a half pinches of salt. This is a loose recipe, so add more milk if you need to during cooking, or more roux if there is too much milk. Stir in the roux to thick and then add in the three cheeses, mix again. Top with bread crumbs and move your pot into the oven. Don’t open the oven door again for at least fifteen minutes. The breadcrumbs will be toasted and the cheese enticingly bubbly when it is done.
Let it cool before serving it to one of those boys that is so handy around your house, and his gorgeous girlfriend who lets you borrow him every once and awhile for giant picture hanging and Swedish shelf constructing. Maybe her sweet dad too because he was, once again, at the right place at the right time.