It’s noon and I’m deep within the bowels of Maialino, restaurateur Danny Meyer’s version of a Roman trattoria housed in Manhattan’s Gramercy Hotel. And a wall of kitchen timers are going off like the alarm-clock montage.
The first thing I notice about the pasta station is that it’s pretty minuscule. One flat-top grill, a trough of bubbling pasta water, and small area to store all of the dozens of ingredients—guanciale, hunks of parmesan, a seemingly endless supply of olive oil—that will make that pasta taste delicious. The cramped quarters are especially surprising because of how much pasta the restaurant cranks out: During the average weekday lunch service, over 100 servings of pasta will make their way to the dining room every hour. That’s a lot of beeping timers to manage.
Sure, watching one person manage all of this is a sort of sadistic marvel, but I’m not just here to relish the fact that I’m not a pasta cook. So what am I doing in a hot restaurant kitchen? How does watching all of this actually help me put together a better plate of pasta when I get home tonight?
Thankfully, my guide through this crazy labyrinth of heavily salted water and cream-slicked sauces is Jason Pfeifer, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine. “There are so many little tricks that you learn when you work this station,” he says as I watch what seems like the 100th order of carbonara head out to the dining room.
Tricks? Here are the ones I picked up from Pfeifer and the team.
MASTER THE BLOOM
If you’re making a sauce that involves ingredients like garlic, red pepper flake, or other chiles, don’t simply toss them into your sauce. Instead, start by quickly sautéing them in a small amount of olive oil until fragrant. This way you’ll infuse the flavor of whatever you’re cooking into the entire dish and not just in the occasional bites.
PULL THE PASTA BEFORE IT’S AL DENTE
Most home cooks who make pasta regularly at home know to aim for a slightly chewy, toothsome al dente texture in the noodle. But Pfeifer stresses that while you want to end up with al dente pasta, you actually want to drain your pasta before it hits that stage.
That’s because you don’t want to just toss your drained pasta with sauce and serve. For the best results, you want to simmer the pasta and sauce together in a hot pan for a minute or so (more on that below). So once your pasta tastes a little bit firmer than al dente, it’s ready to drain. (And you’ve already placed a colander in the sink so you can drain it right away, right?)
SIMMER YOUR SAUCE AND NOODLES IN A PAN
A pan is the best method to combine noodles and sauce. Period.
Not a giant pot, and certainly not the bowl you’ll be serving in. Heating the pasta and sauce together in a skillet helps infuse the pasta with the flavor of the sauce, melding them together into a flavorful whole.
Using jarred sauce? Same deal. Instead of heating up the sauce in the microwave or a pot, do it in a pan and add cooked pasta directly to it.
DON’T TOSS THE PASTA WATER—AND PAY ATTENTION TO SALTINESS
While those pastas and sauces are simmering together at Maialino, most of them get a splash of pasta water, too. The starch released into the water by the pasta during the cooking process helps bind the sauce and pasta together to form one beautiful, unified whole.
Most of them. Some get finished with a combination of fresh and pasta water. Why? Saltier sauces like the suckling pig ragù don’t need as much of the salty, starchy water. If your sauce is especially salty, feel free to deploy the same strategy at home.
TOOLS ARE YOUR BEST FRIEND
That cramped Maialino pasta station? It’s bristling with plenty of cooking tools. But I’m not talking high-tech sous-vide machines. Instead, the crew turns to simple, everyday kitchen items that most home cooks already have in a drawer somewhere.
The most surprising tool that Jason says is completely “essential” to any pasta cook’s job? Chopsticks. The cooks at Maialino always have a single long chopstick on hand to keep the pasta in near-constant motion while it boils. I’ve always just given the noodles a quick stir after they’re dropped in and walked away. Not enough, says Team Maialino. Frequent stirring prevents clumping and helps all the noodles cook at the same pace.
Two more great tools for your pasta-cooking arsenal: A rubber spatula and large metal spoon. Both are used again and again in the restaurant to help incorporate sauce and noodles in the pan as they’re simmered together.
ALWAYS FINISH WITH A KNOB OF BUTTER
“So, always a finish with a knob of butter, right?” I ask. It’s the one restaurant pasta trick I’ve heard repeated ad nauseam. Finishing with butter gives pasta that silky, luxurious texture, they say. So I mention the tip to Pfeifer to act like I know what I’m talking about.
Not exactly. Pfeifer says that while a few of the pastas with more acidic sauces get finished with a knob of butter to add richness, most get drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. “Butter can be so rich and overpowering,” explains Pfeifer, “and a bit of a crutch.” Touché.
DON’T FORGET TO GARNISH YOUR PASTA
It’s not just for show. Adding one last touch to a plate of pasta is often the secret ingredient that makes the whole dish sing. Just before the pastas left for the dining room, most of them got a little extra something. Some creamy pastas got a hit of acid from a squeeze of lemon juice; others got toasted breadcrumbs for a bit of textural crunch; freshly chopped parsley and basil were often showered over dishes for an aromatic (and visual) one-two punch—even a hit of freshly ground pepper added one final hit of flavor. Because pasta deserves it.
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