Without further ado: my greatest hit, the dish I’m asked to trot out everywhere I go. What makes my version of the most classic Italian pasta preparation so crave-able is, I think, that it’s the sum of a lot of parts treated with respect: the truly fresh tomatoes, the unhurried 45-minute cook time, and the inclusion of butter, which rounds out the acidity of the tomatoes and olive oil in the finish. (Finishing pasta with a touch of butter is a trick from restaurant kitchens that’s easy to do at home and adds depth to the overall flavor of the dish.) No single detail is the secret weapon per se—and nothing about this recipe is hard to do—but the key is not cutting any corners, because in a dish this straightforward, every nuance counts.
Note: The sauce recipe makes double what you’ll need for the finished dish, but I do not recommend cutting it down because you need that volume of ingredients to get the flavor right.
For the Pomodoro Sauce (Makes about 2 quarts/liters)
- 5 pounds (2.3 kg) ripe plum or Roma tomatoes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 cup (40 g) loosely packed fresh basil leaves
- Kosher salt
- Fresh Spaghetti or store bought
- 1/2 recipe Pomodoro Sauce (recipe above)
- Crushed red pepper
- 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks/115 g) unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup (70 g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus additional for garnish
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 sliced fresh basil leaves
- PREPARE A POT OF BOILING WATER and an ice bath. Core the tomatoes, cut a small x on the bottom, then blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water for 1 minute and, using a slotted spoon or a spider, transfer them to the ice bath. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins with a paring knife and discard them. Slice the tomatoes in half and strain through a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Discard the seeds but reserve the liquid. Combine the deseeded, peeled tomatoes, reserved juice, and salt in a large bowl. Mix the salt into the tomatoes and set aside.
- Place the garlic in a saucepan, cover with the olive oil, and cook over very low heat until the garlic is golden and soft, about 20 minutes. (Watch it carefully and shake the pan occasionally to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn.) Strain and reserve the garlic-infused oil).
- In a large heavy-bottomed stockpot, cook the red pepper flakes in the infused garlic oil over low heat for about 2 minutes, until the red pepper flakes become fragrant, and the flavor starts to bloom. Add the salted tomatoes and tomato liquid to the pot and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring the liquid to a slight boil and skim off the foam that rises to the top. Reduce the heat to medium low, and then, using a potato masher, mash the tomatoes very finely as they cook.
- Simmer until the sauce is reduced by one-fourth, about 25 to 30 minutes, then taste and adjust the seasoning with salt.
- Remove from heat and stir in the basil. Prepare with handmade pasta or store bought pasta according to the directions. (The sauce can be kept in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week, or in the freezer for about 1 month. Cool the sauce to room temperature before storing it.)
- Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil. (The water should have the salinity of broth.)
- Meanwhile, in a sauté pan over medium-high heat, reduce the Pomodoro sauce by about one-fourth, then season with crushed red pepper and salt; keep warm while you cook the pasta.
- When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until just shy of al dente (about 75 percent done), 4 to 5 minutes. Remove 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) pasta cooking liquid, then drain the pasta. (Do not rinse.) Add the pasta and a few tablespoons of the cooking water to the sauté pan to finish cooking the pasta with the sauce, adding additional cooking water as needed. Remove from heat, then add the butter, cheese, olive oil to taste, and the basil leaves. Toss to combine, so that the butter and olive oil emulsify in the tomato sauce. Serve immediately, with additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top.