Essential techniques, recipes, and more!
When you hear "fresh pasta" what comes to mind? For me, it's a bowl of delicate linguine, dressed in little more than olive oil, black pepper, and Parmesan cheese. Or tender ravioli with scalloped edges and a smooth squash filling, sauced in brown butter and aromatic herbs. Maybe some precocious tortellini, bobbing in broth.
But fresh pasta is so much more than those iconic shapes: There's the candy bowl twists of caramelle and ropey rings of lorighitta; ridge-spined gnocchi sardi and the pleated origami folds of culurgiones. And for each of Italy's dozens upon dozens of pasta shapes, there are variations from region to region, household to household, and season to season. The world of fresh pasta is vast and robust, impassioned and opinionated, and completely, utterly delightful. And if you like to play with your food, I can't think of a better way to do it than with pasta.
But here's the thing: pasta is also intimidating. It's technical and specific and surprisingly difficult to learn about—with a couple of exceptions (the now out-of-print Bugialli on Pasta and Beard on Pasta come to mind), reliable pasta resources are plain limited. It took me culinary school and months of crazed recipe testing to become as well-versed as I am...and I'll be the first to admit that I still have loads to learn. Fresh pasta has long been relegated to a chapter in more expansive Italian cookbooks, or more cursory online explorations (my very own writings on the subject included).
But that's starting to change. The last few years have seen a surge of comprehensive texts from dough-obsessed chefs all about pasta, which offer more detail and recipes than a broader cookbook ever could. The best of these books offer more than basic techniques and classic recipes: pasta, they emphasize, is a lens through which to think about food in the broadest possible way.
There are plenty of solid texts out there, but the following four are my very favorites: the most reliable, thorough texts on the market. Each is unique, and if you have room on your shelf for all four, you won't regret buying them all. But if you're looking to dip a toe in the pasta-making waters or up your already-solid game, I'll tell you which book will be just right for you.
The Jack of All Trades: Mastering Pasta, by Marc Vetri
I'm loathe to play favorites, but Marc Vetri's Mastering Pasta: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pasta, Gnocchi, and Risotto may just be the perfect pasta book. If you're looking for one definitive primer on pasta-making in its myriad forms, this is it. In part that's precisely because Vetri isn't trying to be the final word on pasta. "There is no right or wrong way," he explains. "There is just the way it's been done for centuries and the way it has evolved."
This concept is a driving force behind the book, and Vetri at once embraces tradition and interrogates it. Along the way, he paints pasta-making as accessible, infinitely variable, but nonetheless scientific. There is no single perfect dough in Vetri's world—"The great thing about pasta is that it's an open book," he exclaims. "You can flavor it almost any way you like." But while he encourages you to play with different flours and seasonings to discover that versatility first-hand, Vetri also arms you with the tools and knowledge that allow for controlled, intelligent experimentation and exploration—explanations of gluten development, the role of fats, and the importance of hydration—before sending you into the fray.
What really sets Mastering Pasta apart from its fellows is its well-illustrated techniques. Superlative step-by-step photographs take the guesswork out of potentially intimidating fundamentals like mixing and kneading dough, as well as more intricate tasks like pleating teardrops of corn and cheese-stuffed culurgiones—these simply aren't projects first-timers want to take on without visual aides.
And Vetri's recipes are well worth the effort. Though you'll find plenty of classic recipes—think tagliatelle in a rich bolognese sauce, ricotta ravioli, or garganelli alla carbonara—others embrace modern twists, like branzino-stuffed ravioli in a tomato-butter sauce and pappardelle tossed in a gamey rabbit ragù with acid-sweet, juicy peaches. Better yet, take a gander at his flavored pastas; the sensory experience is overwhelming, even in print. There's earthy porcini pasta smothered in a snail and mushroom ragù; nutty pistachio fettucine with artichokes; and smoky ropes of pimentón-spiked linguine topped with baby octopus, an Iberico ham-flavored broth, and prized Marcona almonds. For the intimidated amongst you: yes, to get perfect, attractive results on one's own may take a few tries. But in Vetri's world, trial and error is the point. His job is to give you the confidence to find out for yourself.
For Perfectionists Who Love Their Produce: Flour + Water, by Thomas McNaughton
Where Vetri's book is organized by method—sheet pasta, stuffed pasta, extruded pasta, and so forth—seasonality is the emphasis in Flour + Water: Pasta. It's hardly a surprise given the eponymous San Francisco restaurant's reputation for excellent Italian food with a focus on regional California ingredients. For the reader interested in learning new pasta-making techniques, that makes it a somewhat less practical read. But if you're interested in knowing what pasta to make for dinner after your trip to the farmers market, author and chef Thomas McNaughton's book will be right up your alley.
"In most cases," explains McNaughton, "the recipes are just base models that can—and should—be tweaked once you learn the technique." But while he encourages experimentation with ingredients and sauces, he's more conservative when he comes to his dough. There's a precision and dogma to his dough recipes that might be a little intimidating for a novice: "It's crucial to remember that whenever the pasta dough is not in plastic wrap or under a damp towel, you're in a race against time," he cautions sternly. With no proverbial pats on the back or reassurances that pasta's anyone's game, this is a book perhaps better suited to someone who's tried their hand at pasta-making before. Similarly, the photography, while gorgeous, isn't consistently informative—collages of images sometimes lose their instructive tone in favor of aesthetic appeal.
That said, the very same precision that can make McNaughton's recipes intimidating also engenders a deep sense of trust. There's little left to chance, with exceedingly clear and concise instructions. Which is a relief, because these are most certainly dishes you want to recreate: for summer, feather-light folds of triangoli stuffed with whipped burrata and mint are served in a sauce of squash blossoms, summer squash, preserved lemon, and pistachios. Fall captures squid ink strips of chitarra, tossed with sea urchin, tomatoes, squid, and Calabrian chilies in a garlicky white wine sauce. Come winter, you can feast on pappardelle with braised goat shoulder, anchovies, and kale, or oxtail lasagna fragrant with rosemary. Spring is bright, with a festive plate of beet-filled casonsei topped with baby beets and poppy seeds.
My one pet peeve? The type in this book is small. You can't glance from your countertop to a recipe and return to your place easily, and for this reason, I'd say it's better suited to armchair reading or an e-reader, where you can easily enlarge type. On the bright side, an armchair read will let you dive into and savor the headnotes and one-page vignettes scattered throughout the pages—vivid scenes from Italy, humorous lessons learned, and odes to specialized ingredients make this as much a work of creative non-fiction as it is a recipe collection.
If You Like Working With Your Hands: Pasta by Hand, by Jenn Louis
Don't have a pasta roller? Not even sure if you want one? Who gives a sh*t when there's Pasta By Hand to explore! Jenn Louis's book is devoted solely to the art of Italian dumplings, which she defines as "carefully handcrafted nubs of dough that are poached, simmered, baked, or sautéed." Unlike the other books on this list, no two dough recipes are the same—Louis traveled around all of Italy to learn each regional technique from the chefs and home cooks who know them best.
The book is accordingly organized by region—the top left corner of each recipe is marked with the area of Italy from which the dish hails—and within each chapter, the recipes progress from easiest to most challenging. It's the latter gesture in particular that invites the reader to join Louis in a virtual cooking class, to work with and through the book as a whole.
You begin your journey with Malloreddus, a petite saffron-spiced semolina gnocchi from Sardinia, and finish with potato-based squash gnocchi from Northeastern Italy. But along the way, you'll stumble upon cecamariti out of Lazio, a yeasted dough flavored with wine and honey that's rolled into spindle-shaped logs; and golden-brown parallelograms of deep-fried crescentina.
It's a rich culinary canon, and Louis extends its breadth even further with her mix-n-match approach to sauces: each recipe finishes by directing you to a series of potential sauce pairings, which range from brown butter to lamb ragù to gorgonzola-cream. Flip to the sauce recipe and you'll find further instructions on how to combine and serve it with your dumplings of choice. Which is great if you're not up for a time-consuming sauce but still want to stay true to tradition after going to all the trouble of making those perfect, adorable little dumplings.
There is one caveat, though. For a book that celebrates such a tactile field of pasta-making, there are limited photographs; many recipes are unaccompanied by any image at all, and step-by-step photographs—instructive and reassuring when found—are few and far between. While the instructions are generally clear and precise, there are moments that leave me uncertain, especially in the absence of visual aides: "Knead with your hands or on medium speed for 10 minutes, until the dough is cohesive," she writes. But can hand-kneading possibly accomplish what a stand mixer does in the same amount of time? And what does "cohesive" look like? But at the end of the day, if the adage practice makes perfect fills you with excitement rather than dread, this is the kind of book that makes you utterly determined to prevail.
For a Course in the Classics: The Glorious Pasta of Italy, by Domenica Marchetti
Crazy-creative and deeply exhaustive is all well and good, but what if you want a broad overview of the classics? One where you'll get great fresh pasta tips but nobody will judge you for grabbing a box of linguine on a Thursday night? Enter Glorious Pastas of Italy, where Domenica Marchetti demystifies the vast world of Italian pastas with everything from a detailed glossary of 60 different shapes to super basic, totally crucial recipes for the likes of vegetable broth and béchamel sauce.
The recipes aren't all Marchetti's: many are culled from home cooks, chefs, and family members for a diverse compendium of secret sauces and special ingredients, tricks of the trade, all designed to be accessible and unpretentious. You won't find loads of surprises here, but you will find a reliable, timeless text that captures the spirit of Italy's pasta culture and delivers it, neatly wrapped, to your kitchen counter.
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