A bowl of pasta fit for Julia Roberts
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Spaghetti Aglio, Olio, Pomodoro. It’s one of the simplest pasta dishes— one you can make anytime with pantry ingredients. It’s what I craved when I was the pastry chef at the original Coco Pazzo. The restaurant was just off Madison Ave on 74th St., on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When the New York Times reviewed us, (click here) I was very excited. Feel free to scroll to the dessert paragraph! When I worked the service shift, all night long I’d hear the expeditor call for “One AOP!!!” or “Three AOP’s!!!”. When things slowed down for the evening, I had to have one for myself, so I’d ask the pasta cook to make it for me for second dinner. It always satisfied!
To me this is the quintessential spaghetti dish. That’s why I decided to make it for a scene in Eat, Pray, Love. Julia Roberts’ character was to sit in a piazza eating by herself, finally letting go of her inhibitions, letting go of her fear of food and of getting fat. At the time, I had no idea how important this scene would be to the film. The amount of time we spent shooting it — very little — gave me no clue. I was pleasantly surprised when I finally saw it on screen. With the music — Mozart’s famous Queen of the Night aria — and the food captured in loving closeup by the DP (aka the cinematographer), the great Bob Richardson — it is definitely one of my favorite moments of food on film that I’ve been responsible for.
I was reminded of this scene recently when I was asked by Vanity Fair to film a segment for their YouTube channel. I was asked to “review” movie and TV clips, to comment on the food scenes. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. You’ll also get to see a scene from Julie & Julia where I hand-doubled for Meryl Streep. You’ll see me in the black and white footage sewing up a duck. These were meant to be Julia Child’s hands in The French Chef portion of the scene. It’s Complicated. Well, that’s another movie I worked on, but that’s a story for another day.
Back to the pasta. You can be flexible with the exact KIND of tomatoes you use here. I have done it with “passata” (puree) out of a glass jar, with crushed tomatoes from a can, and with canned whole San Marzanos that I crush up with my hands along with some of their juice. And since it’s summer, if you want to use fresh tomatoes your best (and easiest) bet would be to grate whole tomatoes on a box grater, leaving the skin behind. They all work! You might think the butter at the end is un-Italian, but it’s not! Finishing the dish with a knob of butter brings all the flavors together and glosses up the sauce.
Italy is one of the places I’m plotting to visit after a long hiatus from travel, but for now, I’m happy to be transported by a simple plate of pasta that reminds me of a fun and challenging three weeks in Rome.
In this week’s newsletter for paid subscribers, I’ll be sharing some more details about the once- in-a- lifetime experience of working on Eat, Pray, Love, in Rome, along with some behind the scenes photos, as well as another recipe for a classic Roman pasta. If you haven’t already signed up, I’d love to have you!
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Any kind of canned or fresh tomatoes will work here, depending on whether you like to have pieces of tomato or not. “Passata,” or tomato puree is what they used at Coco Pazzo, but canned crushed tomatoes or canned whole tomatoes, cored and broken up with your hands, work too. It’s important to let the oil cool a bit before adding the tomatoes, to avoid splattering. If you are generally spatter-averse, you can make the sauce in a Dutch oven, or use a splatter screen to help keep your range-top clean.
12 ounces thick spaghetti
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4-5 small or 2-3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes or tomato purée
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of red pepper flakes
3-4 basil leaves, torn, plus more to finish
Big pinch of black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Parmesan, for serving
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Heat the oil in a large (12-inch) skillet or Dutch oven over medium. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Let cool for 1-2 minutes off the heat (to reduce spattering), then add the tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt, sugar, a big pinch of red pepper flakes, and the torn basil. Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the boiling water until al dente. Scoop out some of the water before draining the pasta, then add the pasta to the pan with the sauce, along with a little pasta water, a generous grind of black pepper, and the butter. Cook over high heat for 1-2 minutes, tossing until the butter is melted and the pasta is well-coated. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Top with grated parmesan and extra basil leaves and serve immediately.