There are few things better than a perfectly executed dish in which you taste the three or four ingredients. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It followed me like a mirage, a Julia Roberts-sized phantom of tomato essence in noodle form. When the waiter came back to ask if I wanted cheese on my spaghetti I said no. It didn’t need it. Basil may have improved the pasta, but I wouldn’t know; I plucked the one-leaf garnish off before digging into it. The nudity let the distilled pomodoro flavor expand. My spaghetti was all tomato, and nothing more.
Food stylist Susan Spungen, who cooked Roberts’ spaghetti on that set, recently shared its recipe and praised the chefs at the original Coco Pazzo, an Upper East Side restaurant where she was a pastry chef in the early ’90s. The alchemy of pomodoro is really realized when the sauce marries pasta, she told me, emphasizing that the key to a good plate of spaghetti lies in the technique of that last one to two minutes in the pan. “A pasta is almost like a salad,” she said. “You try not to drown it.” A cadence at the end of a long concerto, the sauce stage is what makes a pomodoro sing. You can make a great sauce, but if you don’t know how to blend it into the starchy spaghetti just right—so that it stains the noodles instead of draping them slippery—are you even Eat-Pray-Loving?
Spungen’s Julia Roberts recipe is restaurant-fast, relying on high heat and just eight to 10 minutes of boisterous bubbling on the stove, which is easy to do with single servings and à la minute cooking for paying customers. “It’s important not to overcook the sauce,” added Milan-based chef Diego Rossi, so the freshness of the tomatoes can shine. But when I returned to the States to try and recreate the pomodoro I had in Como, I found that I preferred a longer cooking time when working with fresh tomatoes (and all their liquid), about 40 to 45 minutes, a range I noticed in older recipes, such as Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato-onion-butter sauce, or Italian-born British food writer Anna Del Conte’s tomato-garlic-olive oil sugo from her “Gastronomy of Italy.” Tomatoes take time to cook, as Samin Nosrat writes in her own recipe, “until the sauce tastes savory and all the raw tomato flavor is gone.”
After bushels of tomatoes, I arrived at a sauce that relies heavily on three ingredients: fresh summer tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and a little garlic. I like to crush whole garlic cloves gently with the flat side of my knife and roast them, just, in the oil before I fish them out and sniff them. It’s a good aperitif. As for the tomatoes, any combination of low-water, flavor-rich varieties such as plums, grapes, cherries and Campari – plus evaporation – will provide the most concentrated result. Thin spaghetti tastes best here as it spins effortlessly on the fork, but regular spaghetti would work too; avoid bucatini in this case as it will envelop the fresh tomato flavor with its thickness.