Wine and food editor Robert Shoffner wrote in the March issue about how authentic Italian cuisine won out over French cooking to dominate Washington’s fine-dining scene.
No food is more typically Italian than pasta: It is a birthright, a passion. In Pastario, the catalog of pastas, authors Eugenio Medagliani and Fernanda Gosetti list almost 500 varieties.
Many pasta names have the melodramatic quality of opera. Italian is a naturally melodramatic language—only when an opera is sung in English translation do its most serious situations sound comical. That’s also the case when one translates the names of pastas, such as ditalini (little thimbles), farfallini (little butterflies), lingue di passeri (sparrow’s tongues), occhi di lupo (wolf’s eyes), and the large tubes of pasta named zitoni (husky bridegrooms).
Pasta in Italy and pasta in America are very different things. Italians appreciate the intrinsically delicate flavor of pasta and sauce it sparely so they can enjoy the flavors of both the pasta and the sauce. For many Americans, pasta is a neutral canvas that needs to be jolted to edibility with an assertively flavored sauce.
If you order tagliatelle alla bolognese at Diana, a restaurant in Bologna, the waiter will deliver a small portion of flavorsome house-made noodles, each strand of which looks as if it has been lightly painted with the city’s famous, long-simmered meat sauce. The balance achieved among the pasta, its sauce, and a tableside sprinkling of Parmesan allows the diner to savor each of the dish’s elements. When you finish the last strands of tagliatelle, a little sauce is left on the plate—at most, a streak or two of the sauce’s mixture of butter and oil, tinted with tomato.
The portion is small enough—two to three ounces of pasta—not to dull the appetite for the main course. The pasta serves as an intermezzo between the antipasto and the poultry, meat, or fish that is the main course. That is the genius of a traditional Italian meal: Each course is served in small enough portions that there is appetite for the following course. Any hunger remaining after the main course can be sated with bread, cheese, and fruit.
In Italy, pasta rarely serves as a main course. The exceptions are spaghetti alla carbonara and lasagna di carnevale. Romans consider the robust dish of spaghetti tossed with diced pancetta, raw eggs, cream, and grated pecorino a restorative, a one-dish late supper eaten after a night of carousing. Lasagna di carnevale celebrates the Tuesday before Lent begins. One of the specialties of Neapolitan cooking, it is an exercise in pre-Lenten overindulgence. Its wide ribbons of fresh pasta are moistened with meat sauce and arrayed with meatballs, thick cuts of sausage, sliced hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, ricotta, and grated Parmesan.
Italian-Americans usually dine in the old-country style in restaurants—an antipasto, a half order of pasta, a main course of meat or seafood, and dessert. Many Americans start with a salad or an antipasto, then plow into a big plate of pasta as a main course.
The union of a pasta with certain meats, or the use of a tomato-sauced pasta as a garnish to veal pizzaiola or shrimp fra diavolo , is an invention of Italian-American restaurants. In Naples, it would be traditional to eat a small portion of spaghetti or paccheri (a jumbo rigatoni) with a tomato sauce in which meatballs or the stuffed meat rolls called braciola have been simmered. The main course would be the meatballs or the braciola with a bit of the same sauce used on the pasta.
It may be that the pasta and meat courses came to be combined into one dish in Italian-American restaurants for reasons of speed. That’s one reason Italian-American restaurants also adopted the deplorable custom of precooking pasta and reheating it when a customer orders it.
In Italy, pasta is cooked for a shorter time than in this country. In Naples, spaghetti is cooked so it retains a perceptible crunch, something that most Americans would reject as undercooked.
The Italian concept of pasta as a small dish preceding a main course never quite took hold in Washington, even in the authentic Italian restaurants that opened in the 1980s. Diners’ tastes had been formed by Luigi’s, A.V. Ristorante Italiano, and Anna Maria’s.
As the sophistication of the pasta rose, so did the price. That a restaurant would charge $19.50 for a plate of angel-hair pasta with a simple tomato sauce—as Teatro Goldoni does—seems outrageous when the ingredients cost less than $1.
But what at first looks like greed is simply restaurant economics. Taking into account not merely food costs but all the costs—from rent to insurance to salaries—a restaurant has to project a minimum check average to keep it in the black. If a good portion of its patrons order pasta as a main course, then it must be priced at a level high enough to yield the required check average.
Proprietors of authentic Italian restaurants may bemoan main-course pastas as an affront to Italian dining tradition, but they are crying all the way to the bank: The chef who charges $26 for a full order of fresh pasta with sausage ragu is making a greater profit on that dish than he does on a main course of pan-seared salmon with tomato-caper sauce and broccoli rabe—an even greater profit than he makes by charging $6 for a bottle of mineral water that costs him less than $1. This might help explain why Italian restaurateurs usually are more jovial than their French counterparts.
The Etiquette of Eating Spaghetti
Using a spoon to facilitate the rolling of pasta around the tines of a fork is considered poor form in Italy but is accepted as standard practice here. In Unto the Sons, his epic chronicle of Italian immigration to America, author Gay Talese recalls a Sunday dinner in the 1940s with his parents at the Venice, then a popular restaurant in Atlantic City: “As usual, my first plate was spaghetti with clam sauce—and my usual way of consuming this was with a fork and a round tablespoon to stabilize my fork as I attempted to twirl the spaghetti strands into a tight and tidy mouthful.”
His father, a tailor, disapproved of young Gaetano’s technique: “Only people without manners eat spaghetti that way—or people who are ignorant or those Italians who are cafoni (country bumpkins). But in Italy, the refined Italians would never be seen in public using the spoon.”
One of the most famous Italian-Americans of his time, Joe DiMaggio, was seated at a nearby table that night. Young Gaetano was pleased to note that “on the table in front of my hero was a steaming plate of spaghetti. Then his head leaned forward, his mouth opened, and everybody around him smiled—including me—as he twirled his fork unabashedly against a large silver spoon.”
Joltin’ Joe and Gay Talese to the contrary, the final word on the proper etiquette goes to a museum dedicated to spaghetti, Museo Storico degli Spaghetti, in Pontedassio on the Italian Riviera: “You should not roll the spaghetti into a ball around your fork in a large spoon. You should use only the fork, pressing the tines against the bottom of the plate, perpendicular to it, and turning it to twist a few strands around the fork.”
So why do Galileo and other restaurants dedicated to authentic Italian cooking present you with a soup spoon when they deliver spaghetti, linguine, tagliatelle, and other long pastas? Because they grew weary of customers complaining that they had to ask their waiters for spoons.
A Little Cheese With Your Pasta?
Also distressing to Italians is the American tendency to shower a dish of pasta with grated cheese regardless of whether the preparation calls for it. Time was when Italian waiters would not offer Parmesan or pecorino with a pasta it was not suited for, such as linguine with clam sauce or spaghetti alla marinara . But when diners complained about not being offered cheese, many waiters began automatically asking diners if they wanted a sprinkling.
On the subject of cheese with pasta, in Italy there are two traditionally inviolable rules: No matter where it is served, grated cheese is never sprinkled on spaghetti aglio e olio —the pasta glistening with garlic-scented extra-virgin olive oil and dappled with dried hot-pepper flakes and chopped parsley or whole leaves of basil—and never on spaghetti alla marinara, tossed with a briefly cooked sauce of tomatoes, garlic, and parsley.
Beyond that, the general rules of which pasta dishes should and should not get a last-minute sprinkling of cheese have innumerable exceptions, most of which reflect the rivalry among Italy’s regional cuisines.
A Neapolitan will tell you it is a travesty to add grated pecorino to pasta with either a marinara sauce or an arrabbiata sauce—a torrid puree of tomatoes generously seasoned with dried hot-pepper flakes—yet will reach for the grated pecorino to shower over his vermicelli with a sauce of tomatoes, red onion, and basil. Yet the same Neapolitan will accuse a Tuscan, who traditionally tops his tomato-sauced pasta with a pat of butter and a light grating of Parmesan, of knowing neither how to cook nor how to dine. And he has even greater contempt for the Piedmontese from Turin who enjoys his spaghetti with a sauce of tomatoes, eggs, and an excess of Parmesan.
In Italy, as a general rule, cheese is not sprinkled over pastas sauced with seafood, game, or mushrooms, and it is rarely used with sauces seasoned with dried hot-pepper flakes or where a vegetable or a combination of vegetables sauce the pasta.
A notable exception to the no-cheese-with-spicy-sauces rule is bucatini all’ amatriciana, a splendid Roman preparation sauced with tomatoes, cured pork cheek or unsmoked Italian bacon, onions, black pepper, dried hot-pepper flakes, and grated pecorino Romano cheese. A rare exception to the proscription against sprinkling cheese on pasta sauced with seafood is a Neapolitan variation on spaghetti alle vongole whose clam sauce is cooked in lard—rather than the usual olive oil—with garlic, parsley, and dried hot-pepper flakes. As the cook tosses the spaghetti with the sauce, he sprinkles the pasta with a small amount of pecorino.
There are quite a few exceptions to the general rule that cheese is not suited for pastas with vegetable sauces. There are no exceptions to the rule that a plate of fresh fettuccine topped with slices of porcini— the aristocrat of wild mushrooms—that have been sautateed with garlic and parsley would be sullied by the addition of cheese.
Sometimes the decision of whether to sprinkle on grated cheese lacks rhyme or reason: In Naples, if the robust ragu alla napoletana sauces a plate of spaghetti, no cheese is added at table; but if you order a lasagna di carnevale, the same ragu alla napoletana that moistens its broad ribbons of pasta comfortably coexists with ricotta, mozzarella, and freshly grated Parmesan. If this is not culinary anarchy, what is?
Other than remembering the broad general rules—or becoming a scholar of the regional variations throughout Italy—the answer to the cheese-or-no-cheese quandary is simple: When you order an unfamiliar pasta, don’t ask the waiter for his opinion—he will be at your elbow with the grated cheese no matter what. Ask the waiter instead to ask the chef whether the preparation is traditionally served with or without grated cheese. Besides enjoying the dish more, you will become a more valued customer.
How Hollywood Corrupted Alfredo
There is no better-known noodle dish in America than Fettuccine all’Alfredo—now known simply as fettuccine Alfredo. So popular is it that you can go to the supermarket and buy a packet of dehydrated “Alfredo sauce.” Whether in frozen convenience meals or Italian chain restaurants, the creamy-cheesy sauce—usually thickened with flour rather than cream—is used to transform innocent vegetables and poultry into high-calorie treats. Chicken With Alfredo Sauce and Broccoli Alfredo come to mind, but the possibilities are endless—and often regrettable.
Fettuccine all’Alfredo is a product of Hollywood: In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the greatest film stars of their time, celebrated their honeymoon in Rome. There they fell in love with a dish of fresh noodles tossed with butter and Parmesan by Alfredo di Lelio at his namesake restaurant. They returned for the dish every day they were there. Back home in Hollywood, the stars raved about Fettuccine all’Alfredo. Recipes for it soon were appearing in print.
The problem was that the butter widely available in this country was not rich enough in fat to produce the creamy sauce of a true Fettuccine all’Alfredo. Whipping cream made its way into the formula, then hucksters began using flour to stretch the cream. In time, cookbooks spread the notion that Fettuccine all’Alfredo was a dish of fresh noodles awash in cream.
Alfredo di Lelio did not invent his eponymous dish of noodles—it had long existed as a Roman specialty called fettuccine al triplo burro (fettuccine in triple-rich butter). It was the showmanship that he exhibited in its tableside service that made the dish a specialty of his trattoria.
As prepared by a third-generation Alfredo di Lelio, the ingredients of the authentic Fettuccine all’Alfredo are fresh noodles, butter, two or three tablespoons of the pasta’s cooking water, and freshly grated Parmesan—nothing more, nothing less.
The noodles used in the preparation at the Roman trattoria Alfredo alla Scrofa are made by a commercial pasta company the day before they are cooked. It takes a day for the noodles to achieve a texture able to withstand the frenzied tableside mixing that produces the fettuccine’s lightly creamy butter-and-cheese sauce.
The butter is an unusually rich one that Italian and French chefs use for making sauces. Imported butters are available locally at cheese shops and specialty markets; a rich, domestically produced butter is Plugra. The cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano cut from the center of a wheel of Parmesan aged no more than the minimum 14 months required by law. The young cheese has a softer, moister texture and is less sharp in flavor than a Parmigiano aged two years.
In Alfredo’s kitchen, the cooked fettuccine is drained and put in a large oval serving platter whose bottom is covered with thin squares of chilled, triple-rich butter. Two or three tablespoons of the cooking water are sprinkled over the pasta, and the dish is blanketed with a thick topping of grated Parmesan. The dish is then rushed to the table, where a waiter uses an over-size fork and spoon to toss the fettuccine with extraordinary vigor.
Surprisingly, the fettuccine emerge unscathed by the waiter’s assault, each ribbon of pasta lightly glazed with a creamy butter-and-cheese sauce subtly textured with specks of unmelted Parmesan. It is a great dish that fully merits its fame. And served in the traditionally small portion of a pasta course, it is light despite the richness of its ingredients.
The closest Washingtonians came to enjoying an authentic plate of Fettuccine all’Alfredo was in the mid-1980s, when Vince MacDonald was serving fettuccine al triplo burro at Vincenzo. The dish owed its success to a butter churned from an extra-rich fresh cream MacDonald purchased at the Eastern Market. Today you will not find authentic Fettuccine all’Alfredo on the set menu of any of Washington’s Italian restaurants.
Fresh Pasta or Dried?
Perhaps the greatest myth about Italian cooking is that fresh pasta is superior to manufactured pasta. This notion, which began spreading in America in the mid-1970s, never existed in Italy. It was as foolish as dividing northern and southern Italian cooking by the color of regional sauces: white (cream and butter) in the north, red (olive oil and tomato) in the south.
When it comes to freshly made pastas versus commercially produced ones, there are too many exceptions for there to be any rules. While Neapolitans prefer the great commercially produced pastas that have made the region of Campania famous, their regional pasta specialty, lasagn di carnevale, separates its layers of meat sauce and cheese-rich sausage chunks and meatballs with sheets of fresh pasta as light and thin as handkerchiefs. And in Bologna, restaurants offer both fresh tagliatelle and commercially produced spaghetti with their ragu alla bolognese.
Whether to use fresh or commercial pasta comes down to which has the texture best suited to a sauce: Tender, freshly made tagliatelle is the ideal cushion for slices of the season’s first porcini mushrooms sauteed with minced garlic and parsley but would be overwhelmed by a classic white clam sauce, which wants the firmness of commercial spaghetti or linguine to go with the resilience of its clams.
The right pasta for astronomically priced truffles depends on the color of the fungi. White truffles are always shaved raw over fresh tagliatelle. Black truffles with pasta are found in Umbria, where they are briefly cooked with garlic and anchovies in olive oil, then tossed with commercial pasta to make spaghetti alla nursina.
One curiosity of commercially made pasta is that it varies in flavor and quality in different shapes, even though they are made from the same mixture of durum-wheat semolina and water. Many Washington chefs buy different brands of pasta according to which shape is best. Some even claim to detect differences of texture and taste in spaghetti of different lengths made by the same manufacturer: Roberto Donna and several of his colleagues give Lucio Garofalo 20-inch spaghetti the thumbs up but the widely available 10-inch version thumbs down, even though both lengths are the same thickness.
Franco Nuschese, owner of Cafe Milano, Sette Osteria, and Sette Bello, and his executive chef, Domenico Cornacchia, are serious about—some would say obsessed with—the varying quality of pasta shapes sold under the same brand names. Nuschese is from Campania, and Cornacchia is from Abruzzo, both regions highly regarded for their manufactured pastas. Depending on the shape of the pasta, Nuschese and Cornacchia purchase Di Martino, Latini, Martelli, Produttori Gragnanese, Riscossa, and Spinosi. That’s how serious some Italians are about the quality of manufactured pasta.
Italian Restaurateurs Rate Commercial Pastas
Eight prominent Italian restaurateurs recently gathered at Galileo to rate commercial pastas. The tasting was inspired by chef Roberto Donna’s displeasure with American food writers’ oft-repeated opinion that pasta—either fresh or homemade—has little intrinsic flavor and requires a hefty infusion of sauce to be brought to life.
To be authentically Italian, pasta should be sparely sauced. As Donna once tartly observed to a student in one of his cooking classes who complained that a pasta was too lightly sauced, “If you want to eat sauce, use bread.”
The chefs who took part in the tasting represented Italy from north to south: Teatro Goldoni’s Fabrizio Aielli from Venice; Cafe Milano’s Domenico Cornacchia from Abruzzo; Enzo Febbraro, then with Filomena Ristorante, from Naples; Ristorante Luigino’s Carmine Marzano, who spans the boot of Italy, having been born in Calabria and grown up in Turin; Cafe Milano’s owner, Franco Nuschese, whose native Campania is renowned for the dry pasta produced in Gragnano; Christianne Ricchi, who lived many years in Florence and learned the art of Tuscan cooking in the original i Ricchi just outside that city; and Francesco Ricchi, the Florentine chef who introduced Washington to Tuscan cooking at i Ricchi and now directs the kitchen of Bethesda’s Cesco Trattoria.
The ten commercial pastas, cooked by Galileo’s executive chef, Amy Brandwein, were lightly sauced with a briefly cooked tomato sauce. Each plate was identified only by a number, and pastas were tasted at random so judges seated next to each other would not be influenced by one another. After the ten platters of spaghetti had been winnowed to five, freshly cooked platters were presented so the judges could make their final decisions from properly hot plates of pasta.
The result was amazing for the unanimity of opinion: Montebello spaghetti, an organic pasta made in the Marche region of Italy, overwhelmed the competition with six first-place and two second-place votes. Available at Whole Foods Markets for $2.99 for a one-pound package, its flour is produced from locally grown wheat rather than wheat imported from the United States or Argentina, as most pastas made in Italy are. It has a rough texture created by extruding the spaghetti through hand-crafted bronze dies.
Second place went to Rustichella d’Abruzzo, $5 for a one-pound package at Dean & Deluca. It is made in the town of Pianella, in the central Italian region of Abruzzo. It too has a rough texture from being extruded through brass dies.
Tying for third place were Don Pepe, a 99-cent bargain at Rodman’s made in Avellino, a province east of Naples, and the all-American Mueller’s ($1.29 at Giant). Fifth place went to Bionaturae, an organic spaghetti made in Tuscany ($2.19 at Whole Foods). For sixth place, the well-known American brand, San Giorgio, edged out De Cecco, the best-selling Italian brand made in Fara San Martino, a town in Abruzzo famous for its dried pastas. Both are widely distributed: The grand old Italian market A. Litteri regularly sells De Cecco for $1.59 a pound; San Giorgio is $1.39 at Giant.
Although its package boasts that it is “Italy’s number 1 brand of pasta,” the Barilla spaghetti, which finished eighth, is not imported but made by Barilla USA; it is a staple at Safeway and Giant for as little as $1 a box. Ferrara, an Italian import, was another 99-cent wonder from Rodman’s, but its ninth-place finish put it well below Don Pepe, the tasting’s other bargain, which tied for third.
Lucio Garofalo ($1.50 at Dean & DeLuca) was the biggest disappointment, finishing last. Manufactured in Gragnano, a legendary pasta-making town near Naples, it is one of the pastas of choice in a number of Washington’s authentic Italian restaurants.
Some Favorite Restaurant Pasta Dishes
When it comes to traditional regional pastas, Washington’s authentic Italian restaurants offer an embarrassment of riches. Given the vast pasta repertories of Italy’s 20 regional cuisines, chefs need not expend creative energy “inventing” new preparations for pasta: Even if a dish is more than 100 years old, if one has not previously tasted it, it is a new dish. And sometimes a flawlessly prepared version of a familiar dish—say, a perfectly executed spaghetti with white clam sauce—can seem as if it is being tasted for the first time.
Many pastas on Washington menus today were rarely seen outside their native regions only a decade ago. But local pasta lists have two shortcomings. First, they change so frequently that some diners are disappointed when their favorites are missing. (Remedy: Give the restaurant a couple of days’ notice and your favorite is likely to be among the daily specials.) Second, we are missing the great variety of pastas with the vegetable sauces one finds throughout Italy. Why? Because they are hard to sell to patrons who order pasta as a main course and therefore desire substantial sauces of seafood or meat or game. Even the stellar combination of artichokes, capers, garlic, and black olives tossed with spaghetti that is such an appetite-whetting first course will lose the interest of diners who order it as a whole rather than a half portion.
The pasta dishes described below may be seasonal or may have been replaced by the chef’s newest favorite. Call ahead to see if the one you seek is available or ask if the kitchen will prepare it as a special order. And always order in half portions as a first course to follow a shared antipasto.
A.V. Ristorante Italiano (607 New York Ave., NW; 202-737-0550). A reminder of the Italian-American restaurants that many diners cut their teeth on, A.V. is a guilty pleasure. Guilty or not, the linguine with either impressively large shrimp fra diavolo or with tender baby squid in a spicy tomato sauce are pure pleasure. A half order of either ordered al dente is a good preface to a whole rockfish, the roast veal with Marsala-flavored pan juices, or the rabbit alla cacciatora, the last served in a portion more than sufficient for two.
Cafe Milano (3251 Prospect St., NW; 202-333-6183). To appreciate the cooking at Cafe Milano, go at lunch, when the decibel level is low enough that you can hear yourself eat. Pastas on the set menu change with the season: Last fall it offered spaghetti alla nursina, an Umbrian specialty that sauces spaghetti with fresh black truffles, garlic, and anchovies, for the first time in Washington. The kitchen makes an impeccable linguine alle vongole, which if not on the menu is available for the asking. You can count on finding linguine with lobster in a lightly spicy sauce, and you can order it with 20-inch spaghettoni, the way proprietor Franco Nuschese prefers it. With either pasta, you won’t find this classic prepared better.
Cesco Trattoria (4871 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-8333). A half order of spinach pappardelle with duck ragu alone is worth a trip to the only authentic Italian in Bethesda’s sprawling bazaar of international cuisines. Francesco Ricchi, a master of long-simmered sauces, also has passed on the secret of attaining a vivid green color and fresh spinach flavor to the cook in charge of making these wonderfully tender, broad ribbons of pasta. The rich ragu is sparingly applied, as it is in Ricchi’s native Florence. A half portion is just enough of a very good thing.
Etrusco Trattoria (1606 20th St., NW; 202-667-0047). This is the only Washington restaurant that offers a reasonably authentic facsimile of Fettuccine all’Alfredo. Listed simply as “fettuccine with butter & cheese,” it is as close as you can get here to Rome’s fettuccine al triplo burro. The other pasta treasure at Etrusco is the bucatini alla pescatora, hollow spaghetti generously topped with an assortment of seafood quickly stewed with tomatoes. It is reminiscent of the dish as prepared at Bastianelli al Molo on the outskirts of Rome—and as good as it gets in Washington.
Galileo (1110 21st St., NW, 202-293-7191; while this location is being renovated, the restaurant will operate at 2250-B Crystal Dr., Crystal City). Roberto Donna has led local chefs in promoting pasta dishes rarely encountered outside Italy. Spaghetti with a sauce of sea urchins is one of his favorites. The presentation, with a fat, fresh shrimp nestled in a sea-urchin shell atop the coils of pasta, is striking. The intense flavor of the sea urchin is somewhat tamed by the starch in the spaghetti. Diners who have never eaten sea urchin should be prepared for its intense taste of iodine. The dish is subject to the availability of live sea urchins, so call to find out if it is available.
Available with advance notice is bigoli, a fresh pasta traditional to Venice that is rarely offered in this country. Made by extruding dough through a press called a bigolo, the pasta resembles thick spaghetti but has a pleasantly resilient texture. Donna offers two versions: one made with unbleached flour and sauced with a lovely saute of diced chicken livers and another made with buckwheat flour tossed with the classic Venetian sauce for bigoli, a mixture of wilted onions and anchovies. Either is worth calling ahead for to enjoy as a pasta course.
I Ricchi (1220 19th St., NW; 202-835-0459). When i Ricchi opened in 1989, it served a famous Tuscan specialty, pappardelle sulla lepre —broad ribbons of fresh pasta topped with an intense ragu of wild hare. The gaminess of the sauce displeased diners with timid palates and sent the dish into oblivion. The pappardelle at i Ricchi is now sul coniglio, a delicate sauce made with gently flavored domestic rabbit. It’s the best rabbit sauce in town, but it is no substitute for the magnificent, original hare ragu.
Unchanged since opening day is the penne strascicate, a plate of firmly cooked, ridged penne briefly stewed with a Tuscan beef ragu. I Ricchi’s half orders of pasta are authentically Italian in their portions, and in this dish, a bit more penne and sauce would be a bit too much.
Luigino (1100 New York Ave., NW; entrance on H St. between 11th and 12th; 202-371-0595). Chef Carmine Marzano, who once headed the kitchen at Galileo, loves fettuccine with fresh porcini mushrooms. From the dining counter in front of the open kitchen you can watch him remove a large, fresh mushroom from its shipping crate, wipe it clean, and slice it. The slices are slipped into a saute pan of hot extra-virgin olive oil with minced garlic and parsley and rapidly cooked. The fettuccine is drained, added to the pan, and mixed with the porcini by tossing the contents of the pan several times. In half portions, Marzano’s fettuccine with fresh porcini mushrooms is a luxury at a surprisingly modest price.
Marzano’s signature pastas include trofie, spindle-shaped gnocchi dressed with pesto, a specialty of Genoa; pleasantly chewy ravioli stuffed with a flavorsome mixture of braised meats and moistened with a briefly cooked tomato sauce; and ravioli del plin, “little purses” shaped like Chinese pot-sticker dumplings.
Ristorante Tosca (1112 F St., NW; 202-367-1990). There is no better argument for ordering pasta in half portions as a first course than Cesare Lanfranconi’s ravioli stuffed with a forcemeat of veal and prosciutto, sauced with melted butter tinted with veal juice and topped with translucent squares of Parmesan. Although the pasta is incredibly light, the combined elements are so exquisitely rich that the fourth raviolo sates and the fifth begins to cloy. Use a spoon to eat these gems so you can enjoy the pasta, sauce, and Parmesan simultaneously.
The veal-prosciutto ravioli are usually offered on the daily menu, and chef Lanfranconi’s signature pasta, scapinasch, is always available by request. Also a stuffed pasta, it is a specialty of the region around Lake Como. The combination of ingredients in the stuffing—aged ricotta, fresh ricotta, Parmesan, golden raisins, and crumbled amaretto cookies—makes it unique on the local Italian circuit. Despite the raisins and amaretti, the stuffing is not sweet, but served with a glaze of browned butter and a showering of Parmesan, the scapinasch are so opulent that four or five are more than enough to preface a main course.
Sette Osteria (1666 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-483-3070). The long-simmered tomato sauce used to braise meatballs, sausages, and the beef or pork rolls in Italian-American restaurants is descended from the ragu alla napoletana that immigrants brought to the New World. With few authentic Neapolitan restaurants in this country, one rarely encounters the superb original sauce. But it has reemerged at Sette Osteria, Franco Nuschese’s popularly priced spinoff of Cafe Milano. At Sette, it is served over paccheri, a traditional Neapolitan pasta that resembles rigatoni but is shorter and wider.
The other pasta unique to Sette is the “calamari” served with mixed seafood in a garlic, olive oil, and parsley sauce traditional to Nuschese’s native Amalfi Coast. Squid is not part of the assorted-seafood garnish—it is represented instead by pale white rings of pasta, about the width of a wedding ring, that look like rings of squid.
Teatro Goldoni (1909 K St., NW; 202-955-9494). Let the battle of the bigoli begin: At long last, chef Fabrizio Aielli has added the indigenous pasta of his native Venice to Teatro Goldoni’s menu, thus joining Galileo as one of the rare restaurants in the United States where you can enjoy it. Unlike Roberto Donna, who uses a traditional Venetian bigolo to extrude the thick, spaghetti-like pasta from freshly made dough, Aielli uses dry, commercially produced bigoli, as many restaurants in Venice do. The dry pasta, cooked to an Italian al dente, has a pleasant resilience. Aielli’s interpretation of the traditional sauce is weighted more toward its anchovies than its wilted onions and acquires a subtle sting from specks of hot red pepper. The dish once again demonstrates that fresh pasta is not “better” than dry pasta.
Although pastas change fairly frequently on Teatro Goldoni’s menus, one of Fabrizio Aielli’s more recent creations, tomato agnolotti stuffed with artichoke puree and sauced with a spicy lobster ragu, deservedly endures as a house signature. From the impossibly thin, tomato-flavored dough wrappers about to burst from the plumpness of their stuffing to the sweet-acid-spicy flavors of its ragu, the dish achieves a marvelous contrapuntal balance among its principal ingredients—artichoke puree and lobster—and its creamy sauce. It is nothing short of splendid.