My boyfriend and I are long-distance, so we get to see each other about once every three months. When we are together, we like to cook, explore whichever city we’re in (usually Berkeley or New York City, where we each live respectively), and spend a healthy amount of time vegging out on the couch watching Netflix ("Chef’s Table," "Parks & Rec," you know, the modern classics). While we try not to schedule out our time too strictly, there’s one tradition we’ve yet to break: date night.
We take this quarterly date night very seriously, and spend weeks picking out a restaurant with the right balance of menu options (he's a vegetarian, so there’s got to be at least a few different choices for him), ambience (romantic, not stuffy), and budget (sometimes we splurge, sometimes we keep it low-key). For some reason, we always gravitate towards Italian food, and that helps narrow down our choices.
Past winners have included Acquerello in San Francisco (a very worth-it splurge) and Lilia in Brooklyn (excellent and wonderfully priced), but there’s one dish I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since one date night from about a year ago: the mushroom ragu with garganelli at L’Artusi in New York City’s West Village.
Tubular little bites of fresh garganelli pasta wrapped in a creamy, luxurious sauce of nothing-but-mushroom flavor. At the same time, it was meaty and hearty, filling enough to make me ignore the buttery cacio e pepe sitting across the table — and my boyfriend. The cherry on top of the ragu: a generous layer of shaved ricotta salata, a dried, salted ricotta cheese.
It was love at first bite. I immediately wanted to know the secrets behind its silky texture, mushroomy goodness, and — whoa—completely vegetarian ingredients list. Surely, there must be some complicated technique or sneaky component hiding within the recipe. After 379 or so odd days (but who’s counting?) after tasting, and subsequently dreaming, about this ragu, I finally tracked down L’Artusi’s executive chef, Joe Vigorito, to lift the curtain.
The formula behind this decades-old recipe, he revealed, is shockingly simple — and will probably never, ever change. It’s been on the menu from the beginning, and if it ever leaves, “there would probably be an uprising,” he said. But because “there are no bells and whistles, you’ve got to get everything right.”
Here are a few of his tips for recreating L’Artusi’s famous mushroom ragu at home:
- Clean the mushrooms with a paper towel. Instead of rinsing the mushrooms in water, simply brush them off with a paper towel to get rid of any dirt. “With this recipe, you’re trying to concentrate all that flavor and evaporate any water possible,” Chef Vigorito said, and dousing the mushrooms in water doesn’t help that process.
- Don’t burn the tomato paste. The tomato paste is essential to bringing depth and complexity to the flavors in this dish, but it can be tricky to work with. “Tomato paste has a tendency to burn really, really easily, so you have to continually stir it to make sure that you’re still developing that flavor, but that it’s not just scorching at the bottom,” he explains.
- Make sure the heavy cream is at room temperature. You’ve probably done this before (I sure have): You pull the heavy cream straight out of the fridge and toss it right into the pan only to have it curdle. When prepping the recipe, like when you’re making the fresh pasta, pull the cream out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter. According to Chef, “You want it to kind of be up to room temperature, so that you’re not shocking it” when you add it.
- Fresh garganelli is great, but dried pasta works, too. I get it, making fresh pasta from scratch isn’t always in the cards, so don’t feel bad about using dried pasta in this recipe. Chef Vigorito recommends penne or orecchiette, but added that any kind of short pasta would work.
- Add a splash of mushroom stock at the end. At L’Artusi, they always finish this pasta with a splash of mushroom stock just before serving. You don’t have to do this, but it does add a nice touch. Making the stock is simple: Take the ends of the cremini mushroom stems and cook them down with a little bit of water. Tossing in a little bit of this stock is also a great way to reconstitute the ragu if you want to serve it the next day.
L’Artusi’s Famous Mushroom Ragu With Fresh Garganelli
Serves: 4 to 6
Prep time: 45 min
Cook time: 1 hrs
For the garganelli:
4cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup semolina flour
For the mushroom ragu:
2 1/2 pounds cremini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, diced
1 dash salt, plus more if needed
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 pinch red chili flakes, plus 1 pinch, divided
1 cup dry white cooking wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup pasta water
Shaved ricotta salata, for serving
Click here to read the full recipe.