You can buck up the personality of a bowl of pasta by merely switching the order of how grated cheese and tomato sauce are blended with the noodles. Bring in smoky flavors and a snap of chile, and you have a modern improvisation.
- 5 quarts salted water in a 6-quart pot
- Good tasting extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 thick slices bacon, sliced into 1/4-inch sticks
- 1 medium to large onion, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
- Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 5 large garlic cloves, minced
- 2-1/2 to 3 pounds delicious ripe tomatoes, cored and fine chopped (do not peel or seed), or a 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with their liquid, plus a 14-ounce can, drained
- 1 pound imported linguine
- 1 generous cup fresh-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for the table
1. Have the salted water boiling.
2. Lightly film a straight-sided 12-inch saute pan with oil, add the bacon, and set over medium-high heat. Saute until the bacon is golden. Remove it with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but about 3 tablespoons fat from the pan.
3. Return the pan to the heat, stirring in the onions, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to medium. Saute the onions until they soften and start to color, 5 to 8 minutes.
4. Blend in the garlic, cooking for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes. If using canned ones, crush them as they go into the pan. Blend in the cooked bacon. Bring the sauce to a lively bubble and cook until it is thick, 7 to 8 minutes. Stir the sauce to keep it from sticking. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning, and cover the pan. The sauce can wait on the stove top up to an hour. Bring it to a bubble before adding to the pasta.
5. Drop the pasta in the boiling water, cook until tender but still at little firm to the bite, drain, and turn it into a serving bowl. Toss with the 1 cup of cheese until it clings to the noodles, then toss with the sauce. Serve hot with additional cheese at the table if desired.
Variation: Spaghetti alla Gricia
This is the grandfather of the bacon and egg pasta--Pasta alla Carbonara--and the great-uncle of our smoky tomato sauce above. Before the tomato took over the Italian kitchen, this pasta was made in the hills of the Abruzzo and Lazio regions.
Instead of the bacon, use 1/2 pound of guanciale (cured pork jowl), pancetta, or ideally, smoked pancetta. Cook as directed with the garlic, a lot of black pepper, and a bit more hot red pepper.
Just before draining the pasta, scoop out 1/2 cup of the pasta water and add it to the pan. Drain the noodles, and add them to the saute pan. Toss over medium-high heat 30 seconds. Blend in a generous amount of grated Pecorino Romano. The pasta should taste peppery with a good shot of hot pepper.