Photography by Kip Dawkins | Food Styling by J Frank | Prop Styling by Tyler Darden
Pasta nights were quite exotic when I was a child, and the grand offering was what we just about scoff at today, the humble spaghetti and meatballs. Really, there was not much else on offer in the pasta department. Does macaroni and cheese qualify? Checking with friends round about has unearthed few home chefs who bothered much with pasta meals before the 1960s. We’ve come such a long way since then. It’s not clear when the Italians infiltrated our standard cooking repertoire, but it was clearly a blessed moment.
Our meal choices today always include some wonderful pasta dishes—and we are all the better for them, I say! In fact, we have gone so much further than the standard, although some of us snobs do roll our eyes at versions that stretch fusion too far, like Thai chicken rigatoni or curried salmon lasagna. When it comes to cooking a pasta dish, by all means be informal, use ingredients that are as fresh as possible, and, if getting creative with the sauce, at least try to use ingredients normally found in the dish’s country of origin.
Pasta somehow seems to be a family meal—it inspires a gathering of many at the table, hearty appetites and a chef eager to fill some empty tummies. My best memories of excellent pasta meals seem always to be connected to a crowd of friends and family eager to partake of what’s been prepared.
At our Aussie friends Ross and Clare’s home in Canberra, my family can wander in at a moment’s notice. Early or late, stop to say hello or stay for the evening—the welcome is always warm, and being there just feels good. Curled up in a deep window seat in the kitchen, gazing out at their planted forest that is the back garden, smell the gorgeous aroma wafting from the stove. Ross is throwing together his pasta with salmon. “Stay for dinner, please,” he says. How can you refuse?
Our old family friend, Gianni, spends arduous days in front of giant canvases, painting ethereal images in his singular style. This passionate man loves people and music, his vivacious young family and good food. Modest to a fault about his art, he and I mostly talk about food. The simplest recipe of tossing warm al dente pasta with lots of olive oil, chili flakes and a cascade of fresh garlic slivers remains one of my favorites: a Gianni classic.
At a sidewalk café this summer, where we had gathered with old friends and our combined families, a glamorous Italian waiter placed before me, with grand flourishes, a dish that captured the essence of a fabulous pasta sauce: simple but intense flavors cooked with thought and care and a dash of panache. The tender morsels of veal cooked in a sauce made intensely aromatic by an abundance of lemon rind, fresh rosemary and garlic was my idea of heaven.
No matter which of these sauces you create, the final magic to the meal is to cook the pasta in lots of well-salted boiling water, as would any self-respecting Italian, and then only until it is absolutely al dente, or just cooked through. No sauce, no matter how inspired, is quite the same tossed into pasta that’s soggy and too soft. So, unleash some Latin vigor, and may these simple recipes entice you into the kitchen to cook. A good pepper mill at hand, a glass of wine, a bunch of friends and you’re in for a jolly good evening.