I have a soft spot for old-school Italian American restaurants. I love how they all pretty much have the same menus and how each one promotes one or two signature pasta dishes that, according to my very unofficial research,always seem to have a bit of sausage meat and cream (like the legendary Rigatoni Pitt i at Bar Pitti on Sixth Avenue in New York). This orecchiette—full of spicy Italian sausage and sweet onions, with a final warm bath of a little cream and plenty of Parmesan—is my rendition. It’s also my favorite thing to eat on a cold night, preferably on the couch in front of a movie (though it does make for a great, simple dinner-party dish, and then all you need is a salad and something sweet for afterward). The small victory here is all about taking the pasta out of the boiling water before it is totally done and finishing it in the sauce. I like to think of dried pasta as a sponge that swells with whatever you’re boiling it in when you cook it. Trading the last few minutes of cooking in water for something more flavorful gives you pasta with the most impact. Also, save some of the starchy pasta cooking water for finishing the dish. It lets you elongate the sauce and better coat the pasta without having to add more cream.
SERVES 4 TO 6
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
8 oz [230 g] spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
2 large yellow onions, very thinly sliced
1 lb [455 g] orecchiette or a short pasta such as penne or garganelli
8 oz [230 g] baby spinach
1/4 cup [60 ml] heavy cream or 1/4 cup [60 ml] milk plus 2Tbsp half-and-half
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
1 cup [90 g] finely grated Parmesan cheese
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the olive oi land crumble in the sausage. Cook, stirring now and then,until the sausage is really well browned, all of its fat is rendered, and little bits of meat are sticking to the bottom of the pan, about 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the sausage to a plate and set aside.
Add the onions to the pan, sprinkle with a large pinch of salt, and turn the heat to medium-low. Depending on how much fat the sausage released, your pan might be almost dry; if so, add 1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil. Cook the onions, stirring them every so often, until they’ve completely collapsed, are dark brown, and have picked up all the stuck bits of sausage, about 30 minutes. Transfer the onions to the plate with the sausage.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of generously salted water to aboil. Add the orecchiette, bring the water back to a boil, and cook for 2 minutes less than the package tells you to (or until the orecchiette is cooked through but maintains a little bite). Use a mug to collect about 1 cup [240 ml] of the cooking water and set it aside.
Drain the orecchiette in a colander, give it a good shake,and then return it to the now-empty pot over low heat. Add the reserved sausage and onions and stir everything to combine. Add the spinach in handfuls, tossing to wilt eachhandful before you add the next. Then add the cream,lemon zest, and half of the Parmesan. If the orecchiette seems a bit dry, add some of the reserved cooking water (I will leave the amount to your discretion—it depends on how much water ended up in the pot when you transferred the orecchiette from the colander). Season to taste with salt.
Transfer the orecchiette to a serving bowl or to individual bowls and top with the rest of the Parmesan. Serve immediately.
FOR PENNE VODKA, heat a slick of olive oil with some minced garlic in a skillet and add a can of whole peeled tomatoes that you’ve crushed with your hands (the tomatoes, not the can). Add a splash of vodka and simmer for 20 minutes, then add a splash of cream. Finish cooking the penne in the sauce and serve with grated Parmesan.
FOR PENNE ARRABBIATA, do the garlic, oil, and tomato thing, but also add a generous pinch of red pepper flakes or a few crushed dried red chile peppers.
FOR SPAGHETTI PUTTANESCA, heat a slick of olive oil with some minced garlic and anchovies in a skillet and add a can of whole peeled tomatoes that you’ve crushed with your hands. After it all simmers for 20 minutes, stir in some capers and crushed olives and then finish cooking your spaghetti in the sauce. Serve topped with lots of chopped parsley.
FOR FETTUCCINE AMATRICIANA, sauté some diced guanciale or pancetta (or prosciutto or even bacon),sliced onions, and a pinch of red pepper flakes in a skilletuntil the pork is crisp and the onions are tender. Add a can of whole peeled tomatoes that you’ve crushed with your hands and simmer for 20 minutes. Finish cooking your fettuccine in the sauce. Serve topped with lots of grated Parmesan.