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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Red-Checkered Tablecloths and "Authentic" Italian Restaurants


A copy of the Clayton News Daily, a publication out of Jonesboro, Georgia, came my way the other day. It featured an article written by a reporter who usually covers the local government beat. He should stick to his beat.

The headline “The Bias Against America's Italian Restaurants” caught my attention and I prepared myself for an interesting, in depth piece on the topic. Not so much. What I got was a cazzata restaurant review, which I'd like to dissect here for the benefit of anybody who may not know better.

The writer begins: “It will be hard for any Italian restaurant in America to top what has to be my favorite restaurant in Italy. There is this little out-of-the-way pizzeria near the Stazione Termini, in Rome, called Ricci, Est! Est!! Est!!! It is the best truly Italian restaurant ever, and it puts all of the American imitators — and yes, I am talking about the national chains as well — to shame.”

Okay. In the first place, comparing the national American chains to real Italian restaurants is like comparing a Fiat to a Lamborghini – they both have Italian names on the outside, but there's no resemblance under the hood. And in the second place, the restaurant in question is a tourist trap. C'mon! The guy all but says it in his next paragraph: “Ricci has a great intimate atmosphere. It’s small and cozy, with brick walls and Italian sculptures on the inside. It’s like the kind of Italian restaurant you see in a Godfather movie, but never see in real life in America.”

Yes, pal, it's exactly like the kind of Italian restaurant you see in a Godfather movie! Where you don't see them in “real life” is in Italy. They are called ristoranti turista – tourist restaurants – and they cater to rubes – mostly Americans – who have stereotypical notions of what an “Italian restaurant” should be.

The writer then waxed rhapsodic about the food: “I had a marguerite pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, cheese ground beef and a heavy does [sic] of wine in the sauce.” If this doesn't scream “T-U-R-I-S-T-A!” at you in huge capital letters, I don't know what does (spelled correctly).

Buddy, to begin with, you didn't have a “marguerite” pizza. The closest approximation would be a “pizza Margherita,” and based on your description, that sure as hell isn't what you got. A pizza Margherita is very simple: thin crust topped with tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil. That's it.

Secondly, if you had “pepperoni” on your pizza, you were most definitely in a tourist trap catering to Americans. There is no “pepperoni” in Italy. “Peperoni,” referring to a type of bell pepper, yes; “pepperoni,” referring to a type of sausage, no. You might have had slices of salame piccante, but if they sold it to you as “pepperoni,” they sold you tourist food. Are you sure you weren't in Rome, Georgia? Because a “real” Italian pizza place would never load up a pizza with so many toppings. That's an American affectation. Italians seldom put more than two or three toppings on pizza.

The thing that had me crying, “Mamma mia!” – or words to that effect – was the writer's description of an ideal Italian restaurant: “I don’t want to walk in and see the same tired chic look that I can see in countless restaurants in America, regardless of what style of food is served. I want character in the design. I want exposed brick, and antique-looking Italian sculptures. I want the red-and-white checkered table cloth. I want to expect some guy with an accordion to come wandering through the room at any moment, while playing a tarantella. That is what it means to be in a great Italian restaurant.”

Oh, my God!!!! THAT is what it means to be in an Italian-American tourist trap! That is the stereotype that really pisses real Italians off. Let me guess; did the guy playing the accordion have a black mustache that curled up on the ends? Was he fat and jovial and named “Tony?” If there was a mutt and a cocker spaniel sucking spaghetti out back, I'd say it sounds like a scene out of “Lady and the Tramp.”

The writer then goes on to admit that he has never dined at any of the 30 eateries that made Travel & Leisure's” list of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. These include unauthentic little dives like Mario Batali's “Del Posto” in New York, Tony Mantuano's “Spiaggia” in Chicago, and Mark Vetri's eponymous place in Philadelphia. These are obviously sub-par imitators because there's not a checkered tablecloth or an accordion player anywhere in sight.

He mentioned a local place called “Vincent’s Italian Restaurant,” located on Ernest Barrett Pkwy, in Marietta. Of “Vincent's” he says, “It’s actually pretty close to an authentic Italian restaurant — the closest I’ve ever seen on this side of the Atlantic actually.” What he doesn't say is that the place is “actually” – to use an overused word – called “Vincent's New York Style Italian Restaurant.” And they serve typical Italian-American fare, replete with misspelled Italian words on the menu.

But there is hope. The gentleman has a glimmer of the concept of Italian food when he says, “Italian food isn’t meant to be gourmet, however. It’s soul food for Italian people, and other people just happen to like it.”

Well, said, signore, well said! Now you owe it to yourself to go out and find some of that Italian soul food in places that don't have stereotypical “Italian” trappings, but do specialize in real Italian cuisine. And they don't have to be places like “Babbo” and “Del Posto.” I discovered a little place called “Ristorante Sarnellis” off the beaten path in Orange Park, Florida and I fell fell in love with a place called “Zarrelli's,” owned and operated by a Neapolitan immigrant who made his way to Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately, after decades in business, both are now closed. But there are others out there. You have only to look for them.

Just don't look in places where accordion players serve overloaded pizzas on red-checkered tablecloths.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Tour of Three North Carolina Wineries

(Image courtesy of Bottlenotes)
Everybody talks about California wines. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley. But in our rush to praise West Coast wines, let's not forget the other coast and its superb winemaking facilities.

Most people, even dedicated oenophiles, don't know that winemaking was well established on the East Coast decades before the California wine industry was even a thought. According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, when Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition explored the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia in 1584, they found an abundance of grapes. One explorer wrote, "The coast of North Carolina was so full of grapes that the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them.” A huge 400-year-old Scuppernong vine on Roanoke Island, the storied “Mother Vine,” was the first cultivated grapevine in the United States.

From it, and others like it, came wines so fine as to induce Thomas Jefferson to write of North Carolina's burgeoning wine industry, its "wine would be distinguished on the best tables in Europe, for its fine aroma, and chrystalline transparence."

North Carolina's Medoc Vineyard, established in 1835, was the state's first commercial winery and led the nation in wine production. By the time the sixth federal census was conducted in 1840, North Carolina was the leading wine producing state in the U.S.

The discovery in the late 19th century that vinifera, or European grapes, could be grafted onto native stock gave a huge boost to the local wine industry.

By the turn of the 20th century, North Carolina was becoming widely recognized for its quality wines. North Carolina wines won prizes in Paris in 1900. A bottle of North Carolina's “Virginia Dare” wine won the grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in 1904. For a time, “Virginia Dare” label wines were the best-selling wines in the United States.

Prohibition briefly derailed the American wine industry, but today North Carolina is well on its way to re-establishing itself as a force in the wine world. Numerous incentives to grape growing, including a program to convert land formerly used for tobacco production to grape production, have been extremely successful. North Carolina, currently 7th in the United States in wine production, is home to three designated American Viticultural Areas and currently boasts more than a hundred wineries.

So it was on a recent late-Spring day that my wife and I, accompanied by one of our delightful wine expert friends, embarked on a tour of three of those wineries.
Our first stop was Shelton Vineyards, a 383-acre estate located in the Yadkin Valley near Dobson, NC. Established in 1999 by brothers Charlie and Ed Shelton, it is the largest family-owned winery in North Carolina. The winery itself is housed in a contemporary 33,000 square foot building, There are ten varietals planted and they are handpicked one variety at a time every season. The winery is a gravity flow facility, meaning the multiple levels of the building utilize gravity to aid in the gentle flow of grapes and wine through the processing steps.

The walking tour of the winery begins and ends in the nicely appointed tasting room/gift shop. The tour takes about a half hour. Our guide on this occasion was a very personable and knowledgeable woman who explained each step of the process clearly, adding interesting little facts and details as the tour progressed. We learned about the rose bushes planted at the end of the wine rows. These delicate flowers serve as “canaries” for the grapes. If something happens in the fields, the roses will be affected first, thus enabling the vintner to assess a situation before it damages the grapes. And we learned about the windmills that serve as frost protectors, keeping the air currents moving and inhibiting frost development.

On a previous visit, our tour was conducted by a young lady who gave us a much abbreviated version of the experience afforded by our guide on this occasion, a fact that I pointed out. Our current guide's polite response was that every tour guide has an individual style based on their experience. As one with some personal experience as a tour guide, I recommend a good script and the ability to deliver it without sounding scripted, but that's just me. At any rate, the tour was interesting.

Back in the tasting room, a wine tasting flight of five varieties will cost you $5 – and you get to keep your glass. If you're interested in a tasting of the reserve wines, it's $20. Wine is also available by the glass. Prices vary from $6 to $10 per glass, depending upon the variety.

We opted for the dry reds that included a Dry Rosé made from Cabernet Franc grapes; a Harvest Red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec; the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; the Estate Merlot; and the house label Madison Lee Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Syrah, and Tannat. The last selection turned out to be the preferred choice and the one that went home with us for a reasonable $10.99 per bottle.

There is a fine-dining restaurant – the Harvest Grill – attached to the winery and a newly-opened brick-oven pizzeria and ristorante – Bello Vino – located near the entrance. We dined at Bello Vino, where the food was good and the service was not. But it was only their second day open, so the green was still apparent on the young waitstaff. I'll give it another try later.

Beyond food and wine, Shelton offers a busy schedule of special events that includes a summer concert series, a fall harvest festival, and a holiday open house.

Open daily (except for New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), Shelton Vineyards is located in Dobson, NC at exit 93 off I-77. It's just a few miles north of Winston-Salem and a short distance south of Mt. Airy and the Virginia state line. They are at 286 Cabernet Lane, Dobson, NC 27017. (336) 366-4724 is the phone number and they are on the Web at www.sheltonvineyards.com.

Our next stop was a short distance further south on I-77 at Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery. Now, whereas Shelton was a bit off the beaten path, there isn't even much of a path leading to Raffaldini. Google Maps driving directions, a good GPS system, and a decent sense of direction helped us negotiate the turns off the Interstate onto a couple of two-lane highways and a dirt trail replete with single-lane bridges. We were thinking of turning back and finding a sherpa – or at least a local Boy Scout – when we finally stumbled upon our destination. It was definitely worth the journey.

The approach to the facility leads through a beautiful garden – very Italian. You exit the garden and are stunned by the edifice before you: Lordy, Lordy! Somebody done went and stuck a big ol' Eye-talian villa right out thar in the middle of North Carolina! Ten points for “wow factor.” Raffaldini's website features an appropriate quote from Anthony Baratta, National 1st Vice-President, the Order of Sons of Italy in America; “Honey, I've just died and gone to Tuscany.” And it gets better.

La famiglia Raffaldini is the real deal, tracing their roots back to 14th century Mantua. To say they've been making wine for a long time would be an understatement. They've only been making it at their 43-acre vineyard in the Swan Creek AVA since 2001, but their ancient winemaking heritage is apparent in every aspect of their operation. The aforementioned practice of grafting European grapes onto American root stock is in full swing here. Raffaldini currently produces five single varietal wines and several proprietary blends including: Vermentino, Sangiovese, Sangiovese Riserva, Montepulciano, and Pinot Grigio. The vineyard also produces Sagrantino, Nero D'Avola, Moscato, and Malbec grapes. Some of these varietals are not only unique to the East Coast, but are also the first plantings in the United States.

The magnificent Tuscan villa houses a delightful tasting room which opens onto a spacious terrazzo commanding breathtaking views of the vineyard and surrounding countryside. The view alone is worth the trip. But we were there for Italian wine, and we were not disappointed.

Again, a wine tasting was $5 and included seven wines; four reds, two whites, and a dessert wine. The medium-bodied, “Chianti” style 2009 Sangiovese was very good, but we were most impressed with the mellow, rich “Il Mezzogiorno.” The unique red blend possesses a fruity bouquet reminiscent of berries and currants. It has a soft, subtle beginning that evolves into a fruity, oaky flavor and progresses to a long, spicy finish. At $14 a bottle, several went out the door with us.

Another favorite was the dolce or dessert selection. Called La Dolce Vita, it is a semi-sweet lightly sparkling wine in the style of a Moscato d'Asti. The $15 price tag ensured that a few bottles of that variety were leaving with us, too.

There is no on-site eatery at Raffaldini, but there is an adequate selection of Italian foodstuffs available in the tasting room. We thoroughly enjoyed some flatbread and a fig spread as we sat on the terrazzo and drank in not only our delicious wine but the astounding scenery as well. Nobody wanted to leave.

Like Shelton, Raffaldini has more to offer than tastings and tours. The beautiful grounds at Raffaldini lend themselves to lots of events. The Knot magazine, a publication serving the wedding planning industry, has named Raffaldini as one of its Top Ten Wedding Venues in NC. The winery also schedules a number of special seasonal events including their popular “Festa Italiana” in the fall.

Raffaldini Vineyards is open daily, except Tuesday. They are closed for New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Hours of operation vary. As noted, tastings are $5 and include a commemorative glass. Walking tours of the vineyard are conducted Wednesdays through Sundays. (Naturally, we were there on a Monday. Next time, for sure.) Raffaldini is located near Ronda, North Carolina, not far from Winston-Salem. They are at 450 Groce Rd, Ronda, NC 28670. Exit I-77 at 73B, the exit for US 421. It gets tricky from there. Go online for complete directions. Call (336) 835-9463 or visit them on the Web at www.raffaldini.com.

Continuing south, our final stop was at a place we'd been before and one I've previously reviewed. (http://ronjamesitaliankitchen.blogspot.com/2011/04/visit-to-north-carolinas-childress.html) Childress Vineyards is still located near Lexington, NC off US 52 at exit 89. And it's still huge. The winery itself measures 35,000 square feet, including the tasting room/gift shop and the upscale dining and banquet facilities. Of course, the Tuscan villa architecture isn't quite as impressive anymore on the heels of a visit to Raffaldini, but it's still pretty far up the list. After all, Wine Enthusiast Magazine includes the tasting room at Childress among its Top 25 in America.

On my last visit I commented on the friendly, knowledgeable, efficient staff. That goes double for this occasion. We got to Childress quite late in the day; so late, in fact that we missed the last scheduled tour and were pretty close to the cutoff time for tastings. No matter. When I explained that we had come quite some distance to see the winery and that we had just gotten delayed by traffic (which was true), the staff arranged a private tour for us after we had finished our tasting. And it wasn't an “okay, I'm off the clock so let's get this over with” kind of tour. It was very detailed and informative and included all the points and places covered on their regular scheduled tours, including a stop in their beautiful “barrel room,” a feature no other winery I've toured could equal. The extra service and accommodation on the part of the staff was very much appreciated.

While the tour is free, the tasting at Childress is a little more expensive than some others. For a $10 “classic” ticket, we sampled five wines; including a classic white, a classic blush, and a classic red. The $12 “barrel select” tasting also includes five more expensive varietals, and the $15 “signature tasting” offers a selection of five premium wines. Each tasting, of course, includes a crystal souvenir glass which has been upsized and upgraded since my previous visit.

Childress produces good stuff. Their wines have garnered more than 650 medals in the relatively short time the winery has been around, including over 60 golds and double golds and four Best of Show honors. They currently have 77 acres under vine with twelve varietals planted.

I guess it depends upon what you're looking for in a wine, but after sampling the exquisite Italian varietals at Raffaldini, the more common wines at Childress failed to impress our oenophile friend. In fact, he was a little put off by what he perceived as a “tobacco” flavor lingering on his palate after sampling some of the wines. But this is from a guy who is deeply into wine and really knows his stuff. He is very.......shall we say “discerning”........about his wines.

Childress cultivates the local muscadine or vitis rotundifolia. My wife has had some unpleasant experiences with other muscadine wine, but she always enjoys the muscadine wines produced by Childress.

As with other area wineries, there's more to Childress than just wine. They have a busy schedule of activities that includes live music events and much more.

Childress Vineyards is located at 1000 Childress Vineyards Road, Lexington, NC 27295. Call (336) 236-9463 or log on to http://www.childressvineyards.com.

Like the grapes themselves, North Carolina wineries seem to grow in bunches. I lost count of the number of roadside signs we saw advertising other wineries as we traveled among the three we visited that day. And we won't even mention crossing the state line into Virginia, a state which boasts even more vigorous viticulture than North Carolina. All I can do is paraphrase Horace Greeley's advice to young men seeking their fortunes: “Go east, young wine lover, go east and experience the bountiful wine country.”

Mangiare, bere, e divertirsi!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Storing Eggs

I was visiting friends. Having offered to cook breakfast for my hosts, I headed to the refrigerator for some eggs. I opened the door and there it was.......<insert weird, shrieking “Psycho” SFX here> the dreaded egg basket! It wasn't really a basket at all. It was just a plastic bin that was supposed to be holding ice cubes in the freezer. But there it was......sitting on a shelf in the refrigerator......holding hostage at least a dozen innocent little eggs. Having tried on previous occasions to intervene on behalf of the hapless ovoid prisoners, I cried, “Why? Why is this abomination still here?” Came the chilling reply, “Habit.”

Eggs are often called “nature's perfect food.” Part of that perfection lies in their hardy little self-contained storage units. The shells are primarily made of calcium carbonate. Resting within is the nutrient rich yolk, surrounded by albumen or “whites” containing still more vitamins and minerals. These components are encompassed by inner and outer membranes and anchors, called “chalazae,” that all combine to protect the contents and keep them centered in place. (By the way, that's pronounced “kuh-LAY-zee” in case you were wondering. Or you can just call them the thick, stringy things you see when you crack open an egg.)

Egg shells may look solid, but they're not. They contain thousands and thousands of little openings, like the pores on your skin. The interior shell membrane keeps nasty stuff like bacteria out, but egg shells are still gas permeable. As a result, as an egg cools after it is laid, an air cell develops in the larger, blunt end of the egg. Over time, the air cell increases in size. In a fertilized egg, this is the place where the emerging chick would obtain its first breath. In an egg destined to be scrambled, fried, or poached, this is the first line of defense for overall freshness.

You can tell a really fresh egg by the set of the yolk. With only a small air cell – about 1/8-inch deep – inside the shell of a very fresh egg, the yolk presents as small and tight when the egg is opened. It sits high above the surrounding white and remains centered within it. As the egg ages, a degree of evaporation occurs and the air space increases. This causes the albumen to thin slightly and results in a flatter, more spread out yolk when the egg is cracked open.

Eggs will eventually spoil and if you ever crack into a spoiled egg, you'll know it pretty quickly. But it takes a long time for an egg to degrade to the point of spoilage. Properly stored, they'll last for weeks, sometimes months, although the quality will diminish as the egg ages.

The first point of proper storage is refrigeration. Yeah, I know. Grandma kept her eggs in a basket on the counter and nobody ever died from eating them. And as I said in the previous paragraph, it takes an egg a long time to spoil. That said, it should be noted that a fresh-laid egg will age about one week for every day it is left unrefrigerated. Do the math. Then put your eggs in the refrigerator.

Ideally, eggs should be stored at temperatures between 50° and 55° with a relative humidity of between 70% and 75%. At an average of 40°, home refrigerators are a good bit cooler – or at least they should be. So avoid storing eggs in the bottom of your refrigerator, as this is usually the coldest spot.

Refrigerator manufacturers are so clever. They put neat little egg holders right in the refrigerator door. How wonderfully convenient! Just don't put your eggs in them. Two reasons: instability and uneven temperature.

You open the door, you close the door. You open the door, you close the door. Sometimes you jerk the door open and sometimes you slam it closed. And every time you open and close and open and close the door, you jiggle the eggs around. Eggs don't really like jiggling. Sometimes they even get a little cracked up about it. Sometimes those little anchors – the chalazae – loosen up and the contents of the egg starts to float around inside the shell. And every time you open and close and open and close the refrigerator door, the eggs, parked in their convenient little door tray, get warmed and cooled and warmed and cooled. They don't much like that either. Will door storage affect the safety of the eggs? No. Not unless they develop cracks that allow bacteria to enter. But door storage, with all its vibrations and thermal fluctuations, can affect shelf life and quality.

The next worst way to store eggs is piled up in a basket, bowl, ice bin, or whatever else you have on hand. Again, two reasons. Again, cracking. You know what will crack an egg almost faster than anything else? Another egg. Think I'm kidding? Roll two of 'em together so they barely make contact. You'll see. And when you store them all jumbled on top of one another in a basket, they make a lot of contact. And this is a food safety issue. “But it's just a little crack!” Little cracks let in lots of bacteria.

The other factor is orientation. An egg should be stored “pointy” side down. This keeps the air cell up in the blunt, rounded end of the egg where it naturally belongs. And this helps keep the innards of the egg centered in the places where they naturally belong. Are you going to get sick and die from eating an egg that's been lying on its side? No. But here again, it's a matter of preserving the quality of the egg.

In both door storage and open container methods, eggs are exposed to whatever else is keeping them company in the refrigerator. You know how when you open the refrigerator door, that leftover onion and garlic and pepper casserole kind of reminds you it's still there? Well, it's been making itself known to the eggs in the open container right next to it ever since you put it in there. And remember what I said about egg shells being porous and gas permeable? Hey! If you want to pre-flavor your eggs with onion and garlic and peppers, go for it. Might be good in an omelet, but not so much in a cake.

Once it leaves the chicken behind – or the chicken's behind, if you prefer – the best place for an egg is an egg carton. The egg carton as we know it today was invented back in 1911 by a Canadian newspaperman named Joseph L. Coyle. See, in those days eggs were collected, delivered, and stored in open baskets – kind of like the one in my host's refrigerator. But there was a big fight going on between a local egg farmer and his customer at a local hotel. Each side blamed the other for the broken eggs caused by the prevailing primitive and inefficient method of storage and transportation. So Mr. Coyle, who was also something of an inventor, came up with a paper alternative that kept the individual eggs cushioned and separated. The concept was an immediate success, and other than some changes in basic materials, the idea hasn't been improved upon in over a hundred years.

Although I do still keep my mother's 1950s-vintage molded-plastic egg carton around, I generally prefer cardboard or molded pulp paper cartons. A lot of people like the “modern” Styrofoam alternative, but once it hits our landfills that stuff has a half-life equivalent to radioactive isotopes. Whatever type floats your boat, however, it is important to freshness and quality to leave your eggs in their cartons. The cartons keep the eggs stable, oriented, and protected from jarring. They keep odors out and they help regulate temperature and humidity. Ice bins are for ice; egg cartons are for eggs.

So if you're in the “habit” of inappropriately storing your eggs, stop! Change your ways before it's too late! Move into the modern age! Give your eggs a break! (Oooo. Sorry.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pasta Water: An Italian Cook's Secret Ingredient

When it comes to cooking pasta, if you are like most Americans, you probably use the “dump and drain” method. When the spaghetti or macaroni is finished cooking, you upend the pot and its contents into a colander and send the cooking water down the drain, right? Oh, but that is so wrong!

It's not your fault. That's the way your mom and your grandmother did it. And they did it that way because popular cookbooks told them to. As far back as 1931, Irma S. Rombauer, in her Joy of Cooking, was exhorting cooks to drain pasta in a colander. Of course, those venerable old tomes also encouraged the ruin of perfectly good pasta through practices like cooking it for ridiculous lengths of time and rinsing the cooked pasta with cold water. Some advocated the despicable practice of oiling the water to inhibit sticking, a shameless waste of oil at best and a greasy, unappetizing mess at worst.

I have a colander. It looks very decorative hanging on my kitchen wall. Oh, I use it from time to time for draining other things, but almost never for pasta. Watch the cooking shows on TV and you'll see how the pros do it: they use a pasta pot. In fact, on her popular PBS series, Ciao Italia, Mary Ann Esposito firmly states, “If you don't have a pasta pot – get one.”

A pasta pot is a big pot, usually eight quarts or more, that has a lid and an insert designed for draining pasta. They can be a bit pricey. The cheap ones average around thirty bucks and you can spend more than a hundred for some of the fancy name brands. If you don't want to invest that much, at least find a way to get out of the habit of dumping all that wonderful water down the sink.

You see, pasta cooking water is an Italian cook's secret ingredient.

"Cloudy gray water? A secret ingredient? What are you, crazy?"

Ah, but think about it. What makes that water so cloudy? Salt, for one thing. Especially if you did it right and added two or three tablespoons to the water at the start. And starch, too; a useful byproduct of cooking pasta. Together they impart a unique flavor element. On the one hand, cooking water allows you to thin a sauce without thinning the flavor. At the same time, the starch can be a valuable thickening agent, especially in non-dairy sauces and in “sauceless” preparations like aglio e olio, carbonara, and a “real” fettuccine Alfredo.

Now wait a minute! Everybody knows that fettuccine Alfredo is made with a thick, rich cream sauce. You can even buy the stuff in jars! True. But notice, I said “real.”

Of course, there is no “real” Italian dish called “fettuccine Alfredo.” Not outside of the ristoranti di turisti, anyway. But Alfredo was a real Italian cook and the “sauce” for his simple dish contained three simple elements; butter, cheese, and pasta water. When blended together properly, they form a rich, unctuous sauce that will make you forget all about cream.

The starch in pasta water can help light, thin sauces cling better to the pasta. And here's where the pasta rinsers and oilers go wrong; cooked pasta needs surface starch. Otherwise, nothing sticks to it – including your sauce. Rachael Ray says of pasta water, “it marries the sauce to the pasta.” Never mind what Julia Child used to preach in the '60s; when you rinse the pasta after cooking or pour oil on it to keep it from sticking together, you also inhibit its ability to hold on to a sauce. Adding a little extra starch in the form of pasta cooking water enhances that ability. And because the water is hot, it won't cool your sauce or your pasta.

Don't get carried away about it. Don't use pasta water as a sauce. We're talking tablespoons here, not cups. What Italians refer to as “quanto basta” – just enough. I generally reserve about a half-cup. Just enough to do what I want it to do.


Now, it should be said that in restaurant cooking, the same water is used over and over to cook multiple batches of pasta. This will, of course, result in a much higher concentration of starch than you'll probably achieve by cooking up a pot of spaghetti at home. Some people advocate using less water to up the starch content, but I'm not sure the trade off is worth it. Good pasta needs lots of water and lots of room. You might try to experiment with less water if you're only making a small batch, but, by and large, I'll stick with my four to six quarts. You'll still get bang for your buck since any pasta water at all is a good thing and even a little bit of a good thing is still a good thing.

So buy yourself a pasta pot – or an insert for a pot you already have. Use lots of water – four to six quarts – and lots of salt. The water should, as Italians say, taste “like the sea.” Don't cook the pasta for twenty minutes like your grandma's cookbook says; eight to ten minutes is more than enough for most pastas. And when it comes time to drain, don't rinse away all the goodness and, for goodness' sake, keep the oil on the shelf. If you must cling to your colander, at least dip in a cup or ladle and reserve some of the water before you dump it down the drain. The water will add a little flavor to your sauce, it will help develop your sauce, and it will help your sauce stick to the pasta. Win-win-win, and it won't cost you a dime.

There you go – a secret ingredient that's been handed down in Italian kitchens for years. Water. And if you want to keep it a secret so you can look really brilliant for your family and friends, it's okay. Only you and I – a generations of Italian grandmothers – will know.

Buon appetito!