Hearty pasta dishes, like carbonara, cacio e pepe, baked rigatoni and amatriciana, answer the unending call by diners for comfort food. They also offer a wonderful platform for modern innovation, promising familiarity while standing out with evocative culinary cues and creative combinations of flavors and textures.
More chefs are utilizing the descriptive terms of “sugo” and “ragù” on their menus, particularly those wanting to extend a sense of authenticity and rusticity inherent in both sauces. A sugo promises a delicious Italian-inspired tomato sauce, while a ragù translates to a hearty meat-based sauce.
Upland Miami, a California-inspired restaurant in Miami Beach, Fla., menus several hearty pastas, including a bucatini cacio e pepe and its signature pappardelle ragù with housemade sausage and shaved Parmesan.
Crazy for Carbonara
Chefs are showing off their ability to play within a proven flavor system, taking the elements of carbonara (eggs, cheese, bacon and black pepper) and riffing on them beautifully.
Kyle Bailey, executive chef of The Salt Line, a seafood house in Washington, D.C., takes carbonara in a different direction while still delivering on its promise of comforting richness. His Uni Carbonara combines bucatini, yolks, house bacon, garlic scapes, black pepper, Grana Padano, with a finish of uni.
“All pastas are intrinsically comfort foods,” he says. “How chefs execute their comfort food shows true hand-crafted, artisan skill. Our bacon is an intensely seasoned pork product that ties in well with the rest of the pasta’s ingredients.”
Uni is the surprise here. “There are two levels to the uni which, when balanced out, help create the comfort aspect,” says Bailey. “There’s a cooked aspect which has a muted brininess that pairs well with the smoky bacon and egg yolk, as well as fresh uni, which creates pops of ocean-like flavors.”
At Tre Rivali, housed in the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel in Milwaukee, Executive Chef Heather Terhune’s Carbonara stars hand-cut pasta, crispy pork belly, salt-cured egg yolk and pecorino Romano.
“We cure our pork belly with a salt-sugar dry rub before braising it in apple cider,” she says. “This gives the dish a richness without the salty smokiness of guanciale or pancetta, since pork belly is fresh, not smoked. I like the way the pork belly renders down and then the pork fat becomes part of the emulsification in the pasta. While curing the egg yolks and grating them on top seems like a far-fetched idea, this elevates the dish and adds to the overall aesthetic by not just mixing the egg yolks into the pasta like it is done traditionally. When served, we encourage our guests to mix the pasta together so that the grated cured yolk melts into the sauce. Untraditional, but it still gives the same effect as doing it the classic way.”
On The Menu
Trending comfort pasta dishes build flavor with intriguing combinations, hooking diners with familiarity while surprising with unexpected, signature takes.
- Pappardelle Integrale: Lamb sugo, mint, pecorino
—Pasquale Jones, New York
- Rigatoni: Parmesan brodo, wilted escarole, whipped ricotta, chicken meatballs
—Love & Salt, Manhattan Beach, Calif.
- Ricotta Gnocchi with pork cheek ragù and pecorino
—Gusto, Los Angeles
- Stinging Nettle Mezzi Rigatoni, braised pork sausage ragù, Parmigiano-Reggiano
—Pausa Bar & Cookery, San Mateo, Calif.
- Six-Hour Bolognese with beef, veal, and pork shoulder, with rigatoni, ricotta, Parmesan, basil
—Sugo Rossa Italian Kitchen, Savannah, Ga.
- Orecchiette with sausage ragù, broccoli rabe, and pecorino Romano
—Altesi, New York
Down to the Bone
We’ve seen the marriage of pasta with bone marrow on a few menus, where chefs leverage the blissful harmony of rich marrow with a comfort pasta.
At The Cookery, a modern Italian concept in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., David DiBari, executive chef, menus a crowd favorite of rigatoni with bone marrow, caramelized onion and Madeira. “The flavor of marrow is basically meat butter,” he says. “It’s rich and creamy with hints of hay and roasted meat. We use it as we would butter in the pasta.”
He melts the marrow in a pan with garlic, black pepper and caramelized onion, then adds Madeira wine, pasta water and a touch of egg yolk to emulsify the sauce. “We serve the pasta alongside a roasted marrow bone—just in case the diner would like to add more fat!”
Gerard Craft’s Pastaria in St. Louis demonstrates the modern side of the comfort pasta trend. His flavor combinations are unique, but not unfamiliar: pappardelle with smoked pork, mascarpone and apples; garganelli with braised beef, olives, gremolata and Grana Padano; and strozzapreti pasta with “Pastaria Bolognese” and Grana Padano.
“Our Bolognese is a combination of beef, pork and chicken liver. The chicken liver is the secret ingredient that really ties everything to Bologna,” says Craft.
“I love the hearty strozzapreti and the way the bite stands up to the richness of the sauce. The strozzapreti is definitely a deviation from the classic, and most Italians I know gasp at the thought of serving this ragù with anything other than tagliatelle.”
‘I think the Italian ragù sums up what comfort food is in all cultures, not only Italian. The labor of love that is required, the ingredients and the slow cooking—when done right, it can be a very special thing.’
Jared Sippel, Executive Chef, Italienne, New York