The New York Times reported in October 2021 that global supply-chain issues affecting the publishing industry will cause release delays and book cancellations. But happily for Italian cookbook fans, two eagerly anticipated works recently debuted…mostly on schedule: Pasta-The Spirit and Craft of Italy’s Greatest Food, with Recipes by Missy Robbins and Talia Baiocchi (Ten Speed Press), and Italian American-Red Sauce Classics & New Essentials by Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli with Jamie Feldmar (Clarkson Potter).
Today’s post focuses on Robbins’s Pasta, but a quick word on Rito & Tacinelli’s excellent cookbook. Italian American explores the food that traveled to the United States with Southern Italian immigrants and continues to evolve in Rito & Tacinelli’s New York restaurant, Don Angie. Italian American reminds me of a personal, chef-focused version of Nancy Verde Barr’s 1996 We Called it Macaroni: An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking. Rito & Tacinelli’s Lasagnas & Baked Pastas chapter especially shines in an outstanding cookbook. But on to a review of Pasta.
Both coasts of the United States boast talented chefs exploring pasta. Here on the west coast there’s Michael Tusk, Thomas McNaughton, David Nayfeld and Evan Funke. On the east coast, Missy Robbins ranks as one of the great pasta practitioners. So, when Missy Robbins pens a cookbook on pasta, it’s news. Robbins currently owns two New York restaurants, Lilia and Misi. Both serve handcrafted pasta, but Misi’s focus is pasta as evidenced by the restaurant’s slick glass-walled pasta-making studio.
Pasta contains a wealth of pasta-making information. This is a big (400 pages), heavy (1.5 kilograms) cookbook. Pasta’s seven main sections suggest a primer: How to Make Pasta; The Shapes; How to Cook Pasta; Italian American Classics; Regional Classics; Modern Classics; and Contorni.
Pasta, however, offers a lot more than basics. It’s Robbins’s discourse on how she makes pasta. Expect restaurant-level recipes. For example, her version of Fettuccine Alfredo calls for both buffalo milk butter and cow milk butter, along with 2-year and 5-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. In a recipe note Robbins shares that if you cannot find the 5-year-old product, the dish still tastes great with any Parmigiano-Reggiano aged a minimum of 2 years. And if you cannot lay hands on buffalo milk butter, Robbins says using “…all cow’s milk butter [totaling 10½ tablespoons] still yields a great dish.” Like her Alfredo, Robbins’s cookbook celebrates richness.
Consider Robbins’s egg dough recipe that calls for nearly equal weights of egg yolks and tipo 00 flour, specifically 454 grams of egg yolks (i.e., 24 to 26 egg yolks) to 500 grams flour. Although this amount of egg yolks may seem shocking, Robbins’s egg dough generally conforms to the yolk-to-flour ratios in other restaurant/chef cookbooks. For comparison:
- The Standard Egg Dough recipe in Thomas McNaughton’s flour + water pasta mixes 300 grams egg yolks (18 to 20 yolks) with 360 grams 00 flour along with 1½ teaspoons EVOO and 1¼ teaspoon kosher salt.
- The Fresh Pasta Dough Recipe in Sarah & Evan Rich’s Rich Table cookbook combines 12 large egg yolks (approximately 240 grams) with 210 grams of all-purpose flour.
- The Egg-Yolk Pasta Dough recipe in Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand mixes 8½ ounces of egg yolks (about 14 large egg yolks) with 10 ounces (or 283 grams) of flour and ½ ounce water.
Robbins states in her How to Make Pasta chapter: “This is my way of showing you how I make pasta so you can find out how you do it. The recipes are here to say ‘this way’ and to guide you for as long as you need until you know your way.” Whether a 26-egg yolk dough recipe represents a practical guide for a pasta-making neophyte warrants debate. But I suspect that the people interested in buying Missy Robbins’s pasta cookbook really want to know how Missy Robbins makes her pasta and her egg dough.
After covering How to Make Pasta and presenting a chapter on the ins-and-outs of crafting 45 pasta shapes, Robbins turns her attention to How to Cook Pasta. This chapter, especially its Rules to Cook By, stands out in a book full of insightful cooking instruction.
Robbins shares ten rules that, if followed, will result in better tasting pasta. All ten rules deserve attention, but especially “do not put too much sauce in the pan”. Robbins points out: “One of the most common mistakes that home cooks make is adding the pasta to the full volume of sauce they have prepared.” I read this to mean that adding too much sauce to cooked pasta throws a finished dish out of balance and prevents the cooked pasta and sauce to properly marry. Robbins notes that “…the recipes [in my book] will often yield excess sauce because they are best made at a specific volume, and because they are labor intensive. Refrigerate the surplus for later in the week or freeze for a future dinner. Whoever complained about too much leftover bolognese?”
So on to the pasta with sauces. Robbins divides her recipes into three sections: Italian American Classics; Regional Classics (from Italy’s north, central and south); and Modern Classics. The Italian American Classics feature different red sauces, including Robbins’s famous 30 Garlic Clove sauce and her fiery Diavola. She also includes a chef’s version of Penne alla Vodka,Spaghetti Meatballs, and Cannelloni.
The recipes in the Regional Classics section rival the Italian American Classics as the book’s best. Standouts include: Agnolotti dal Plin filled with brisket and caramelized onions; Timballo alla Teramana made with crepes; and Maccheroncini di Campofilone al Sugo Tradizionale (Pasta with Short Ribs and Tomato Sugo).
All of Robbins’s pasta recipes evidence her mastery of marrying flavor and texture. A great example comes from Pasta’s chapter entitled Modern Classics, which contain recipes Robbins developed or adapted to her tastes. Her recipe for Spaghetti with Colatura, Garlic, and Bread Crumbs blends briny anchovies, rich olive oil, spicy chile flakes and bright lemon juice. Add the crunch of fried breadcrumbs and a shower of fresh chopped parsley and you have a perfect portrait of Robbins’s cooking.
Spaghetti with Colatura, Garlic, and Bread Crumbs calls for 624 grams of extruded spaghetti using Robbins’s extruded dough recipe on page 41 of her cookbook. If you own an electric extruder, use Robbins’s recipe. If you own a torchio and a spaghetti die, make your own torchio-friendly dough for the recipe. But if you do not own either of these extruders, a good quality manufactured dried pasta can stand-in. When discussing ingredients, Robbins recommends these pasta brands: Rustichella d’Abruzzo; Faella; Monograno Felicetti; and De Cecco. The following recipe, according to Robbins, yields 4 (very generous) to 6 servings.
Spaghetti with Colatura, Garlic, and Bread Crumbs
30g/ 1 piece fresh country bread, crust removed and bread torn into pea-sized pieces
28g / 2 Tbsp olive oil
624g / 1lb 6 oz extruded spaghetti (page 123)
42g / 3 Tbsp olive oil
15g / 3 gloves garlic, finely chopped
40g / 6 to 8 oil-packed anchovy fillets, finely chopped
15g/ 1 Tbsp colatura [Italian anchovy fish sauce]
20g / ¼ cup finely chopped parsley
2g/ 1 tsp dried red chile flakes
1 lemon, cut in half and seeds removed
1. To make the bread crumbs, spread the bread on a sheet pan. Let sit at room temperature until crunchy on the outside with a bit of give in the interior, 2 to 3 hours.
2. Line a plate with a paper towel. Place a small saucepan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Transfer the bread crumbs to the plate and let cool.
4. To finish, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Generously salt the water.
5. Add the spaghetti to the water and cook for 5 to 8 minutes until al dente.
6. While the pasta is cooking, place a large sauté pan over low heat and add the olive oil. Add the garlic and gently cook until aromatic but without color, 10 to 15 seconds.
7. Add the anchovies and stir to break them up. Add 2 to 3 ladles (115g to 170g/ ½ to ¾ cup) pasta cooking water and stir to combine.
8. Using tongs or a pasta basket, remove the pasta from the pot and transfer to the sauté pan. Turn the heat up to medium. Toss for 1 to 2 minutes to marry the pasta and the sauce. If the sauce begins to tighten, add a splash of room-temperature water to loosen and continue to toss to marry. (Colatura and anchovies have a high level of salinity, so adding too much pasta cooking water during the marriage can tip the sauce into too-salty territory. Feel free to alternate between pasta water and fresh water or use only fresh water.)
9. Remove from heat. Add the colatura and toss to incorporate. Add the parsley and chile flakes and continue tossing. Squeeze in the juice from the lemon halves and toss again to combine.
10. Divide the pasta into bowls and garnish with the bread crumbs.
Apart from the dish’s interplay of flavors and textures, I love the recipe’s attention to detail. How do you loosen a salty anchovy sauce but still take advantage of the emulsion made with the starchy (but also salty) pasta cooking liquid? Splash in fresh, room temperature—so as not to arrest the pan’s heat—water as necessary.
Robbins’s Pasta joins a crowded field of recent pasta cookbooks, but with its own merits depending upon your interests. Pasta eschews the molecular science of gluten and the fresh-milled flour that Marc Vetri embraces in his Mastering Pasta. Compared to Thomas McNaughton’s flour + water pasta, Robbins goes deeper into pasta-making and covers more pasta shapes. If you prefer nonna-like pasta recipes (e.g., those in Vicky Bennison’s outstanding Pasta Grannies or in Rachel Roddy’s recent An A-Z of Pasta (here)), then I suggest flipping through Robbins’s cookbook to see if it is your cup of tea. I recommend Pasta because it offers insightful, expert information to improve one’s pasta-making and overall cooking skills.