The number one trick to making a perfect spaghetti marinara, according to conventional wisdom, lies in your Italian great-grandmother’s secret 11-hour recipe, the one she learned as a child back in the old country. But just in case you don’t have an Italian great-grandmother – or 11 hours – Scott Conant has an equally foolproof approach. At Conant’s Manhattan flagship, Scarpetta – there are also outlets in Miami and Las Vegas – the spaghetti holds its own on the menu alongside duck-and-foie-gras ravioli and agnolotti dal plin.
“‘Scarpetta’ means ‘little shoe’ in Italian,” Conant says. “It’s slang for that little scrap of bread you use to wipe up sauce off your plate. That’s the experience I want people to have.” Much of Conant’s trick, it turns out, is in the tomatoes: always fresh, never canned, and preferably Roma, a year-round plum tomato with a dense flesh, low moisture content, and relatively few seeds. Fresh tomatoes should never be refrigerated – cold permanently mutes their flavor – but Conant lets his sit out at room temperature for several days before turning them into sauce. One thing not worth sweating: the pasta. While Conant makes his fresh every day, he swears there’s nothing wrong with dried. “I love cooking with it,” he says. “I’d go with Pasta di Gragnano, from A.G. Ferrari Foods out of Northern California, or Pasta Setaro, imported by Buon Italia. If you can’t find those, go with De Cecco, which you should be able to find at any decent supermarket.”
Step 1: The Tomatoes
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and keep a large bowl filled with ice water nearby. Gather about 20 ripe Roma tomatoes, cut a small X on the bottom of each, and then ease about five into the pot. Let boil for around 15 seconds, then dunk them in the ice water until they’re cold. Do this with the remaining tomatoes, then pull off the skin with the tip of a paring knife. (If it sticks, try a vegetable peeler, using a gentle sawing motion.) Cut the tomatoes in half and remove the seeds.
Step 2: The Sauce
In a wide pan, heat 1/3 cup olive oil over medium-high heat until quite hot. Add the tomatoes and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and season – lightly – with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. (As the tomatoes reduce, the salt becomes concentrated.) Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes to soften, then crush them into a rough puree with a potato masher. Cook the tomatoes until they’re tender and have thickened to the consistency of a sauce (40 to 45 minutes).
Step 3: The Pasta
Bring a large pot of amply salted water to a boil. Cook a pound of spaghetti until just shy of al dente – “it should still give the tooth a little resistance,” Conant says – and set aside a little of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat, gently tossing them together with a couple of wooden spoons or tongs, using a lot of exaggerated movement (“This introduces a little air into the process, making the dish feel lighter and brighter,” Conant says.)
Step 4: The Finish
Continue tossing until the pasta is just tender and the sauce looks cohesive. (If it seems too thick, add some of the cooking liquid you set aside.) Take the pan off the heat and add a tablespoon of unsalted butter, a half-dozen fresh basil leaves (stack and roll them into a cylinder, then cut thinly crosswise), and 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Toss one more time (the pasta should take on an orange hue) and sit down to eat immediately. Makes 4 servings.