This pasta couldn't taste more perfect. Fresh fettuccine has been cooked to the definition of al dente, and mixed with prawns, broccoli rabe, garlic and other ingredients that make it a simple yet thoroughly satisfying dish.
And such is the beauty of pasta that wonderful dishes can be whipped up without an extravagant amount of time or expense. They could be as simple as a steaming plate of spaghetti with oven-roasted tomato sauce. Or you could create that pasta from scratch, as Biba Caggiano and her sous chef, Su Her, crafted on a recent afternoon at Biba Restaurant.
"This is how my mother used to make it," said Caggiano, positioning herself with one foot forward and rolling pasta dough with her hands. "Fold and push, fold and push. It is wonderful."
Whether the pasta has been made fresh or purchased at the neighborhood grocery store, cooking that impeccable plate of pasta can take some practice. It all sounds so simple at the onset: Boil water and add pasta. But there are plenty of other steps and considerations to keep in mind when it comes to pasta.
We spent some time with Caggiano, the longtime restaurateur and award-winning cookbook author, to get some tips on perfecting pasta. Heed her advice and you'll create dishes like a pro in your own kitchen.
Boil pasta with plenty of water
Pasta is inherently sticky. When making a fresh batch of pasta dough by hand, plenty of flour is required during the kneading of that dough so it all doesn't become a gooey mess while being cut into various shapes. Pasta then needs plenty of water when it's time to boil, so it doesn't start clumping together. A good boil in a large pot will keep the pasta moving around. Stir once or twice if needed, but don't overdo it. For a perfect pot of spaghetti, Caggiano recommends using a 6-quart pot.
"Use a big pot that's half to three-quarters full of boiling water even if you're cooking for two," said Caggiano. "If you put too much pasta into a smaller pot and it doesn't move, it sticks. You'll need a large pot to let it 'walk around.' "
Never rinse your pasta with cold water
And by never, we mean, "Never, never ever, and don't even think about it again." Mention the notion of rinsing any pasta with cold water and Caggiano immediately winces.
Some might have been taught to rinse pasta with cold water after it comes out of the pot to eliminate any excess starchiness. However, it's important for some starch to be left in the pasta. Without that bit of stickiness, sauces and other accompaniments won't bind with the pasta like it should. Instead of getting a pasta with perfectly integrated sauce, you'll end up with pasta and a bunch of sauce that just slips to the bottom of the dish.
"This infuriates me," said Caggiano. "It's a stupid, stupid thing. What's the point? If you add cold water, you're going to eat pasta that's cold. If you're afraid of starch, don't make pasta."
Salt your pasta water
To maximize the flavor of pasta, add salt to boiling water before cooking. Start with 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt per large pot of boiling water, and use sea salt if possible. Note: If you don't want to risk scratching your pots, add the salt to the water after it's boiling.
"The water should be tasty," said Caggiano. "It should not be bland. If it's bland, it's no good."
Adding salted pasta water to pan sauces can heighten the dish's overall flavors. However, be sure to taste that pan sauce carefully as you go along. You may need to dial back any salt that's required in a pan sauce recipe if pasta water is added. Taste and taste some more to achieve a palatable level of saltiness.
Be careful of overcooking
Gummy spaghetti. Ravioli that start falling apart. Fettuccine that turns into a mushy mess. That's all the result of cooking pasta too long. While some starchiness is a good thing with pasta, overcooking takes that starchiness to undesirable levels, and overcooked pasta is also said to spike blood sugar.
Caggiano suggests paying close attention to the suggested cooking time, and then "taste, taste, taste" as you go along. The final result should be perfectly al dente tender, but with a bit of firmness still evident in the pasta. That's to say, the pasta should still have some bite to it.
"Pasta is never overcooked," said Caggiano. "If the package says to cook for four to six minutes, use the lower end of that time. Then, keep tasting. When you put the pasta in the mouth, you should be able to enjoy the bite. If it's all over the mouth, it's overcooked."
Save your pasta water
Wait, don't dump that spent pasta water. Most pros and home chefs alike know that a little pasta water can help balance a sauce that's too thick, or add moisture to finished pasta that's been sitting too long.
Save a cup or so of that pasta water and keep it on standby. Pasta water can be poured over sautéed veggies and other ingredients for making pan sauces. Transfer cooked pasta to your skillet of pan sauce, add a little more pasta water if necessary, and you've got the makings of a great plate.
"The pasta water is the last thing you want to throw away," said Caggiano."Let's say you have a tomato sauce that's too thick. Just put in a couple tablespoons of pasta water and stir and taste."
The pasta is the star; the sauce plays second
"There is a pasta, and there is a sauce," said Caggiano. "The pasta is No. 1, but there should be enough sauce to toss. If you want a fast sauce, take a couple of eggs and some Parmesan (to make a simple carbonara sauce). There should be enough to coat the pasta. If you drown it in sauce, it's just too much.
"Remember, you're eating pasta with sauce not sauce with pasta."
Keep it Italian
Perhaps it's an homage to her roots in Bologna, Italy. But when it comes to cooking dry, store-bought pasta, Caggiano swears by Italian brands. Mention Golden Grain or other popular grocery store brands and it's sacrilege.
A range of imported Italian pastas can be purchased at such local stores as Corti Brothers and Italian Importing Co. Many of them, however, can be on the pricier side.
For a budget-minded home cook, look for the line of pastas from De Cecco, which are widely available. Even Caggiano keeps some De Cecco in her pantry.
"If you're going to the grocery store, get something from Italy," said Caggiano. "They know better."
Never top a seafood pasta with Parmesan
A little Parmesan cheese is the perfect way to add some savory zing to pasta, right? Well, if that Parmesan is going over any kind of pasta with seafood, that's considered a big pasta faux pax. You'll still find plenty of recipes that call for grating Parmesan cheese over a pasta that includes scallops or shrimp. But for many Italians, that idea just grates on the nerves.
According to Caggiano, the bold, umami flavor profile of Parmesan cheese will smother the nuances of seafood. Note that not every Italian chef follows this maxim, but we'll take Caggiano's advice on this one.
Eat pasta in proportion to your overall meal
Caggiano is usually at her restaurant six days a week. But on Sundays, if she's feeling up to cooking, she'll prepare a proper Italian dinner. A course of pasta will always be part of the feast, but not necessarily as a main course. She tends to serve it at the beginning of a meal; combined with salad, wine, cheeses and other courses, the pasta is part of a simple, yet satisfying feast.
On its own, a huge bowl of spaghetti or other pasta just might make you feel more bloated than anything by the end.
But hey, if you want to serve an overflowing plate of spaghetti as your entree, Caggiano has no quibble with that. As long as that perfectly cooked pasta is enjoyed, and good times are shared, that's the most important part of the meal.
"People are kings in their own homes, and people cook in different ways," said Caggiano. "This may be how we do it in Italy, but this is your house."