The Science of the Best Fresh Pasta

A bowl of fresh egg pasta ribbons with black pepper and cheese

Fresh pasta is easy to make and worth the effort. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

Guess what? If you have flour in your kitchen, you can make pasta. Right now. Got eggs, too? You have everything you need to whip up a batch of silky-smooth fettuccine. Have some cheese or vegetables lying around? You could be sitting down to fresh ravioli, tortellini, or a hearty lasagna in under two hours.

And yet, if you do a quick search for pasta recipes, chances are you'll walk away more confused than confident. Some call for flour and whole eggs, others for additions of water or oil. Weight versus volume measurements, kneading times, resting conditions—it's all over the map.

It's not just a lay cook's issue, either. When I was in culinary school, I had a series of instructors who only left me more disoriented. Some insisted on oil, others on salt, still others on additional yolks or a splash of water. Prescribed kneading and resting times often contradicted each other. One instructor told us to hang the pasta to dry for at least 10 minutes before cooking it; others had us keep it tightly wrapped until the moment it was dropped in the pot.

Clusters of different types of fresh pasta strands

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

So how's a girl to choose the very best way? If you're this girl, you obsess. You make batch after batch—dozens and dozens of batches, in fact—to find out. You walk around dusted and streaked with flour, crumbly bits of dough crusted to the end of your sleeves. You make spreadsheets and charts, and sometimes you maybe even cry.

You make all-egg pastas, pastas made with just whites, pastas made with just yolks, and pastas made with nothing more than water. You try different flours and check resting times at 15-minute intervals for almost an entire day. You taste more ratios of egg yolk to egg white to flour than you care to admit. You add oil, you add salt, you add oil and salt. You wave forkfuls of fettuccine at your friends and family and colleagues, wrangling them into taste test after taste test. You read every book you can get your hands on. Your forearms get totally ripped.

Eventually, you realize there's no such thing as the perfect pasta.

In part, that's because pasta is very forgiving. It also comes in many shapes and sizes and textures, as well as colors and flavors. Which means that there are as many kinds of perfect pasta as you want there to be.

This isn't to say that making fresh pasta is unusually easy or unusually difficult. Yes, it's an intimidating process, especially if you're not used to working with flour and water. But it's also an eminently achievable skill, and once you're comfortable with the basic technique, there's really no reason why you can't reap the rewards on a regular basis.

First things first. I'm going to give you a simple, versatile recipe for fresh pasta dough. I'm going to take you through it step by step and show you how your dough should look along the way. And I'm also going to tell you how you can tinker with my recipe on your own time, to get exactly the flavor, texture, and color you desire. I'll even share a couple of sneaky cheats that'll save you time when you're in a rush (and send Italian grandmothers a-rollin' in their graves).

Is It Worth It?: Fresh Pasta Versus Dried

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A twirled forkful of fresh pasta

If you've reached this point and you're wondering why on earth anyone would bother to make pasta from scratch when it's just a boiling pot of water and a cardboard box away, then it's time to get acquainted with the fresh stuff. It's crucial here to understand that fresh pasta and dry pasta are two totally different beasts, each suited to different tasks, and the qualities we look for when making them are accordingly distinct.

Your typical fresh, Italian-style pasta is made from a combination of eggs and flour. As I've mentioned, many iterations of this basic formula exist, but this definition should do just fine for now.

The eggs and flour are mixed into a stiff but pliable dough that's kneaded, rested, and then rolled—usually through a machine—and either cut into strips for noodles or left in sheets that are used to make lasagna or stuffed pastas, like ravioli.

Pros will adjust their basic dough recipe depending on which kind of pasta they're making; my basic pasta dough will work well for a wide variety of styles.* Fresh pasta is considered superior to dried pasta in several important respects—namely for its tender, silky texture; rich, eggy flavor; and soft yellow hue.

* For the purposes of this post, we won't be getting into extruded pastas—your penne, rigatoni, macaroni, and so forth—which require different equipment and a substantially different dough formula.

Dry pasta, on the other hand, typically contains no eggs. It's made by mixing semolina flour—a coarse wheat flour—and water. The two are industrially mixed, shaped, and dried at low temperatures for optimal storage. Not only is it more convenient than fresh pasta, but the denser, firmer texture stands up to (and actually requires) longer cooking times. That same firm texture means it holds up beautifully under heavy, hearty sauces.

The recipe we'll be breaking down here is for a light, springy, and delicate fresh pasta that's as well suited to slicing into noodles as it is to making stuffed pastas, which require super-thin, pliable sheets of dough.

How to Make Fresh Pasta, Step by Step

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The process of making your own pasta can be broken down into six steps: assembling your equipment, choosing the ingredients, mixing and kneading the dough, resting the dough, rolling out the pasta and cutting it into noodles, and cooking it. I tested a range of variables within each of these steps, honing the recipe based on my findings, until I had my ideal technique down to a science.

Assembling Your Pasta-Making Equipment

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Equipment for making fresh pasta: stand mixer, pasta-rolling attachments, rolling pin, parchment, baking sheet, kitchen towel, bench scraper

There are a lot of pasta-making tools on the market, from pasta-rolling attachments for a KitchenAid stand mixer to fluted pastry wheels and special drying racks.

All of these things do perform useful tasks, but pasta predates them by a long shot, and they're far from necessary. If you have pasta-making experience and you're looking for a good workout, all you really need is flour, eggs, and a rolling pin. (Actually, you don't even need a rolling pin if you're going for pastas like pici, orecchiette, capunti, and other hand-shaped or hand-rolled doughs.) But—since I don't really like to exercise—I use a pasta maker.

At work, I use a stand mixer attachment; at home, I just use a simple, hand-cranked pasta roller. I also like to keep a bench scraper around, which makes it easier and neater to portion the dough and keep my work space clean.

It's also helpful to have a parchment-lined sheet tray ready for your rolled-out dough, a kitchen towel and/or plastic wrap to cover it and keep it from drying out, and some extra flour for dusting the pasta to keep it from getting too sticky.

The only other thing you'll need is a few square feet of surface space. A wooden table, a marble countertop, a big cutting board—just find yourself a spot where you can make a big, floury mess.

Choosing Your Ingredients

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Overhead shot of bowls containing ingredients for fresh pasta: whole eggs, salt, and flour

Pasta recipes call for all kinds of ingredients. But there are two things any pasta recipe absolutely needs: flour and water. That's because flour and water are how you create gluten, the network of proteins that gives pasta its stretchy texture and bite.

The more you work that dough, the more elasticity it will develop. Striking the right level of gluten development is key to fresh pastas, pizza crusts, and most baked goods. There are, of course, gluten-free pasta doughs, which substitute that protein network with standard gluten alternatives, like xanthan or guar gum and even eggs. (This recipe, for instance, uses a combination of xanthan gum, brown rice flour, and tapioca flour.)

There are many manipulable variables within a pasta dough, and I wanted to try them all. Would the type of flour make a difference? What kind of ratio of flour to egg yolk to egg white would yield the best pasta? Does adding salt or olive oil matter? Yeah, it's a lot to test. Aren't you glad I did it all for you?

What Type of Flour to Use for Fresh Pasta
Close-up of flour in a glass bowl

Before we go any further, let's take a minute to talk flour. Specifically, the three kinds of wheat flour you'll find mentioned in pasta recipes: semolina, all-purpose, and high-protein, finely milled "00" flour.

At the end of the day, I settled on using all-purpose flour for my recipe. It's the flour most people already have in their pantries, and it makes great pasta. Any time I refer to "flour" from here on out, I'm talking about your handy bag of AP.

That said, if you want to get more serious, 00 flour, with its powdery texture, can yield even silkier noodles, and semolina adds a heartiness and a rougher texture that'll help sauces cling better to your noodles. Some folks like to add a combination of semolina and 00—I haven't tested all the permutations, but stay tuned. I just might take the insanity to a whole new level.

Regardless of what flours you choose to experiment with, I'd recommend familiarizing yourself with basic dough-making techniques using just one type, so that you'll know what cues to look for.

Egg Whites, Egg Yolks, Water: Identifying the Best Source of Hydration
Three balls of pasta dough, one made with egg yolks, one made with egg whites, and one made with flour and water only

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

With my flour selected, it was time to test different sources of moisture. My first step was to make three doughs, keeping the hydration level as consistent as possible across the board. I used three equal measurements of all-purpose flour as my baseline; one batch got water, one batch got egg whites, and the third got egg yolks.*** I added just as much as I needed to make the dough come together. This is what I wound up with; you can probably tell which is which.

*** I stuck with large eggs for all my tests, and even weighed them to make sure that I was adding consistent amounts of water, protein, and fat to each dough.

Overhead shot of three bowls of pasta, made with an egg yolk dough, an egg white dough, and a water-and-flour dough

From left to right: pasta made with an egg yolk–hydrated dough, an egg white dough, and a water-only dough. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

The water-only pasta (right) was a total bust—the noodles were bland, mushy, and...well...watery. And the egg white pasta (center) wasn't much better: Whites are almost 90% water, so, while the noodles weren't quite as bad as the water-based version, which literally fell apart and stuck to each other in a big, gluey mass, they definitely weren't winners. The yolks, on the other hand, made a beautiful, golden dough (left). Yolks contain about 48% water, 17% protein, and around 33% fat. More yolks will deliver more color, more egg flavor, and silkier noodles.

Unfortunately, that high fat content complicates things a little bit. Though it's not exactly scientifically accurate, you can think of that fat as making the gluten proteins all slippery, preventing them from building a strong network—when I tested this using different amounts of olive oil, I found that, sure enough, more oil made for softer, mushier, less elastic noodles. And, to complicate matters even further, I had a really hard time getting the flour and yolks to come together. It was a dry, tough dough that was difficult to mix and knead—not exactly beginner-friendly.

Difficulty aside, an all-yolk pasta may make great noodles, but it's not sufficiently elastic to use for stuffed pastas, which require a dough that can be rolled more thinly and is, quite simply, bendier. I needed to strike a better balance.

At this point, I knew there was no point in adding water—if I wanted additional moisture, egg whites were definitely a better bet. It seemed clear that my dough was going to require a combination of whole eggs and additional yolks. I ultimately settled on three yolks for every egg white.

What's that? You like softer, mushier noodles? Good for you. Add a teaspoon of oil to my basic recipe. Want a richer, eggier flavor and a more golden hue? Throw in an extra yolk and add a little more flour. This is your dough.

The Golden Ratio: Determining the Right Hydration Level

To figure out exactly how much flour to use with my eggs—to find my ideal hydration level, technically speaking—I made five batches of dough. Using the same ratio of yolk and egg white for each, I began with four ounces of flour and, moving in half-ounce increments, added flour to each batch until I could no longer get the dough to come together.

After I'd kneaded these doughs for 10 minutes each, they looked like this:

Batches of pasta dough with various levels of hydration

Once I'd let them rest for 30 minutes (more on resting times shortly!), I attempted to roll out all five doughs. The wettest dough and the driest dough were completely unworkable. They simply wouldn't pass through the roller—one was incredibly sticky, while the other crumbled into dry clumps.

Sometimes, a longer resting time can help a dough hydrate more, and it is possible that the driest of these could be rehabilitated with additional time. We'll get to the pros and cons of long rests in a bit.

Three batches of strands of fresh pasta

Ultimately, the sweet spot that I, and my blind-tasters, settled on was one whole egg (1.4 ounces white and 0.6 ounce yolk) and two yolks (1.2 ounces yolk) for every five ounces of flour. The dough represented by the pasta strands on the left was so wet that the noodles stuck together; the one on the right was dense and almost stiff. The middle pasta, our unanimous winner, was made with a dough that was relatively easy to mix and knead, but not so wet that the pasta stuck to the roller or itself. It tasted good, looked good, and had that signature delicate, satiny texture.

To Salt or Not to Salt?

My dough was almost perfect. The only other thing I wanted to test was whether I'd get even better flavor by adding salt directly to the dough, instead of just my cooking water or sauce. The simple answer is yes. Do it!

Salting pasta water is still well and good, but there's no compelling reason not to salt your dough. I tried both fine-grained iodized salt and slightly coarser kosher salt, and both work; I prefer the flavor of kosher salt. Just don't use a coarse sea salt, which will keep your dough from developing a silky-smooth texture.

Hypothetically, you could salt your pasta even more and skip salting your pasta water, but I choose to make a dough that still tastes good after cooking in salted water, since it gives me a little more flexibility in the flavor of the final product—I can make and freeze batches of dough and then decide on a case-by-case basis how salty I want my pasta to be.

Mixing and Kneading the Pasta Dough

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At this point, we're working with 10 ounces of flour, a teaspoon of salt, and two whole eggs, plus four additional yolks. This will make four to six servings and can be halved or doubled as desired.

If you have a good food processor, you can go ahead and toss all your ingredients in and let it run until it forms a big ball. Let it keep whipping around in there, or take it out and knead it with your hands. You can get to a similar point with a stand mixer, using your dough hook attachment.

But I gotta admit: I love making pasta by hand. It's a little more work, but it's satisfying, fun work. It also gives you a lot more control.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: When I'm making pasta at home, I don't measure my flour. Sure, I'll weigh out a rough amount, but when you're working with flour and eggs, there are a lot of variables that you simply can't control. Your eggs might be slightly bigger or smaller; it might be an especially humid or dry day. All of these things will affect how much flour you'll need. Mixing by hand guarantees that you can adjust your dough as you're working, ultimately allowing you to develop your ideal texture with greater precision. Here's how to do it.

Step 1: Make a Well
Collage of pasta-making process: making a well of flour, adding whole eggs and yolks to the flour

Weigh out your flour and pour it onto your surface in a pile. Then, with your fingers, make a hole in the center. You'll want it to be relatively wide—at least four inches—to accommodate all those eggs.

Now add your eggs to the center. These photos show the old-school technique, in which you actually whisk the eggs once they're on the countertop, but there's no reason you can't whisk them ahead of time. Add any other ingredients you're using—salt and/or oil.

Step 2: Mix
Collage of pasta-making process: whisking egg with a fork, stirring flour into egg to form a dough

Using a fork or your fingertips, gradually start pushing the flour into the pool of egg. Keep adding flour until it no longer makes sense to use the fork—the dough will be wet and sticky, but will hold together as a single mass.

Step 3: Knead
Collage of pasta-making process: bringing the dough together with a bench scraper, kneading by hand, resulting dough ball

At this point, take out your bench scraper and scrape off any dough sticking to your fork or your hands. Then, begin to fold additional flour into the dough with the bench scraper, turning the dough roughly 45° each time, to more evenly incorporate the flour. Once the dough feels firm and dry and can form a craggy-looking ball, it's time to start kneading.

I'm not gonna lie: Kneading is a pain in the butt. It's a lot of work, but you'll want to be firm and persistent. An under-kneaded pasta won't have the same kind of snappy spring as a properly worked dough, and you may even wind up with bubbles or bits of unincorporated flour. It's almost impossible to over-knead a dough, though, since it'll eventually build up so much elasticity that it won't allow you to continue.

That said, you don't want to keep the dough out for too long, lest it begin to dry out. Around 10 minutes of kneading will allow you to get a smooth ball of dough without having to worry about drying.

A hand kneading a ball of pasta dough on a floured surface

To knead, simply press the heel of your hand into the ball of dough, pushing forward and down. Rotate the ball 45° and do it again. You'll want to keep going until the dough no longer looks powdery—it should have a smooth, elastic texture, similar to a firm ball of Play-Doh. If your dough feels wet and tacky, add more flour as necessary.

Firm ball of kneaded pasta dough

If it feels too dry, don't add water unless it literally cannot hold together. This is what "too dry" looks like:

A crumbly, dry mass of pasta dough separating into flakes and chunks

If, as with the dough above, incorporating water seems really necessary, I recommend using a spray bottle, which will allow you to add very small amounts of water to a large surface area of dough. If your dough looks wetter than the photo above, it's probably fine. Just keep kneading.

Once you have your ball of kneaded dough, wrap it tightly in plastic, and either jump down to the resting section below or follow our instructions for...

Refrigerating or Freezing Fresh Pasta Dough

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If your plan is to make your fresh pasta in advance and come back to it later, this is where you can pause your work. Once the dough is wrapped in plastic, stick it in the fridge, but be forewarned that it will gradually acquire a grayish tinge—which won't affect flavor or texture, but does make for a disappointing presentation. To give it more time, tuck the wrapped ball into a zipper-lock bag, removing as much air as possible, and freeze it for up to three weeks.

When you're ready, thaw it in the refrigerator until it's soft and pliant to the touch. It's time to talk resting.

Resting the Pasta Dough

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Now that you've built up that gluten network, you have a dough that's incredibly elastic and springy. The resting period allows the flour to continue to hydrate, and the gluten network to relax. Most experts will tell you that if you tried to roll out your dough at this point, disaster would ensue—your dough would be too dry and too elastic to roll out.

If we were working with rolling pins only, that would probably be true—the dough would just keep snapping back. But we're in the 21st century, and it's a little more complicated than that.

Here are six doughs. The one all the way on the right wasn't rested at all. The one on the left rested for six hours. In between them are doughs that rested for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, and three hours.

Six batches of pasta dough rested for various periods of time

I rolled the six-hour and the no-rest doughs once, through the widest setting on my pasta roller, to see what would happen.

Unrested pasta dough (top) and six-hour-rested pasta dough (bottom), rolled out into slabs

You can see that the unrested dough, up top, is freaking out. It's all rough and jagged, because the rolling has essentially snapped those little gluten bonds in half. But as I continued to roll it through increasingly thinner settings, it took on a much smoother texture. By the end, there was very little visual difference between the two.

Ultimately, I rolled out and cooked all six doughs. Was there a difference between them? Yes. The dough that hadn't rested at all was a little harder and firmer, a little more rubbery. The doughs that had rested for an hour or longer were almost identical.

It's sort of like the difference between food processor pesto and pesto made with a mortar and pestle. The former isn't bad, but the latter is definitely superior. It also takes a lot longer.

In the case of the pasta dough, the extra time is just downtime; you're not expending both time and effort. But if you're looking for a quicker method, this is where you can cheat. No rest, or just a few minutes' rest, is not going to make inedible pasta. In fact, it'll make pretty damn good pasta. It is, however, a trade-off, and only you can say whether or not it's a worthwhile one.

Rolling and Cutting the Pasta Dough

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Take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back—you're almost done. And hey—this part's pretty fun!

A plastic-wrapped ball of pasta dough with one wedge removed, next to a bench scraper

Cut your dough into four pieces, set one aside, and wrap up the rest. Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough to at least half an inch thick. Try to keep the shape and size relatively even from end to end. This will make our later steps a little easier.

Using a rolling pin to roll out pasta dough into a thin slab

Then, turn to your pasta maker. For this stage, you'll want the flat roller—the ones with teeth come later. Adjust it to the widest setting (on most machines, it's labeled either "0" or "1"). If you're using a stand mixer attachment, set it to a medium-low speed. If you're hand-cranking, you'll just want to be steady and consistent. First-timers may want to work with a partner, so that one person can crank the machine and the other can feed the dough into the rollers.

Now we're ready to do a first pass. Simply feed the dough into the roller, like so:

A hand feeding a slab of pasta dough into the pasta-rolling attachment of a stand mixer

You'll want to gently support the exiting end with the flat of your hand or your index finger. Send it through the first setting until it passes through without resistance—at least three times. Then turn the dial to the next setting.

This will narrow the space between the rollers, pressing your pasta even thinner. You'll notice it getting quite a bit longer as you proceed. You'll want to pass the dough through the rollers at least two or three times for each of the first three settings. Later settings will require only one or two passes, though.

Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are, mistakes happen. The pasta goes through funny and doubles up, or it gets a hole. That's where laminating comes in.

Laminating is basically a process of folding the dough into a smaller package and feeding it back into the pasta maker. The main argument for laminating has to do with the final texture of your dough, but it's also a great way to patch up any pesky holes.

There are two basic types of folds you can do, pictured below. It's easiest to laminate before your dough has gone any further than the third-setting stage—as it gets longer, it becomes almost impossible to feed back into the machine.

One method requires two folds, and the other requires three. I haven't noticed a difference between these two in my final results, but I personally prefer three folds, because it makes for neater corners and, in case you haven't noticed, I'm a little particular about this stuff. Here's the three-fold technique:

Collage of photos demonstrating three-fold laminating process for pasta dough

And this is the two-fold method:

Collage of photos demonstrating two-fold laminating process for pasta dough

In either case, you'll want to feed the dough back in at a rotated angle. This allows you to change up the direction in which the roller is pulling the pasta, and I find that the dough is sturdier and more manageable when I've laminated at least two or three times over the course of rolling. That said, the difference does seem more pronounced when you're handling the uncooked dough, versus when you're actually eating the final product.

But wait! Be careful! What you don't want to do is forget to turn it back to the widest setting when you put the laminated dough back in. Because...this happens:

Demonstration of pasta dough fed through the wrong setting on a pasta roller and becoming jagged and bunched up

Yeah. Not so good.

A long sheet of pasta dough being fed through pasta rollers

If you're planning to make fettuccine, I'd recommend rolling it to the third-to-last setting (usually, that's labeled "6"). If you're going to use the dough for ravioli, you'll want to go a little thinner, since stacking two sheets of pasta will make the edges twice as thick—I go one setting thinner. The pasta will be very delicate and translucent at this point, so handle it with care.

If the dough becomes longer than you can reasonably handle, simply lay it down on a cutting board and cut it in half. Dust one half with flour and cover it with a kitchen towel, then continue rolling the other.

Once you've rolled the dough, laminated it, and rolled it again, all the way to your preferred thickness, you'll want to cover it up with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap to keep the pasta dough from drying out.

Collage of laying pasta dough on parchment to keep it from drying out

Dust some flour onto parchment or wax paper, lay the pasta on top, and continue to sprinkle flour as you fold it over. (No, you shouldn't lay your pasta on the towel like I did in those photos. Just put it all on the parchment paper.) If you're working in warm, humid conditions, or if you notice the pasta sticking together, you can instead cut it into approximately 12- to 14-inch sections and place a sheet of lightly floured parchment paper between the layers.

Dividing a sheet of pasta dough in half with a bench scraper

At this point, you can forge onward and make noodles, or you can prepare a stuffed pasta or lasagna. I've covered ravioli and tortellini in separate articles, but for now, let's talk noodles.

This part's super easy: Just feed a 12- to 14-inch section of dough through the fettuccine or linguine cutter...

Feeding a sheet of pasta dough through a fettuccine-cutter

...catch it as it comes out...

Catching cut ribbons of pasta as they come out of a stand mixer attachment

...dust it with flour, and curl it up into a little nest.

If, for any reason, your pasta winds up sticking to itself, just ball it back up and start over. It sucks, I know. It happens if a room is too hot, or if your dough is a little too hydrated; next time, add more flour or dust the sheets a little more heavily to compensate.

Nests of fresh pasta ribbons on a wooden surface

And voilà! You just made pasta! Want an even wider noodle, or a more handmade appearance? Use a sharp knife or a pizza cutter to slice the dough into strips by hand instead.

How to Cook Fresh Pasta

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Now here comes the really easy part. Boil up some salted water, and toss those noodles in. They'll cook quickly—I'm talking 60-seconds quickly—so be ready to taste and drain them almost immediately.

That said, while fresh pasta cooks rapidly, it's important to make sure that it's thoroughly cooked. Unlike dry pasta, it actually gets slightly firmer during the first phase of cooking. If you don't cook it long enough, the egg and flour proteins won't set, your starch won't fully hydrate, and you'll end up with a kinda pasty pasta.

Personally, I like my pasta cooked for around 90 seconds, but you may find that you prefer a shorter or longer boiling time. Just don't exceed two minutes—that's when it starts to get mushy.

Ta-da!

A bowl of fresh pasta ribbons sprinkled with black pepper