Every Italian restaurant in America worth its salt has to have one dish: an old-school red sauce plate. It could be as simple as a spaghetti Bolognese or as fancy as a ten-layer lasagna, but it’s gotta be there, or your street cred will tank. “What? No red sauce?” the customers will ask. “Do they even KNOW what Italian food IS?!”
Most chefs understand this phenomenon; even the modern day greats make sure they have a tomato-forward pasta dish on their fancy Italian menu. Carbone has the veal parm. Marea has the fusilli with red-wine braised octopus and bone marrow, which threatens to veer too far from the form but in fact remains firmly in the red-sauce lane. And Don Angie, the new venture by Quality Italian vets Angie Rito and husband Scott Tacinelli, has the garganelli gigante with a broken meatball ragu.
“We needed at least one red sauce pasta on the menu, so this is our version,” says Tacinelli when we visit the Don Angie prep kitchen on a cold January morning. Since the restaurant opened in October of 2017, this dish hasn’t come off the menu once. He and Rito are going to show us how to make each component of the dish from start to finish.
Tacinelli starts with the pasta and meatballs. He uses organic eggs for the pasta, which he says give the dough a vibrant yellow quality from the darker yolks of better-fed chickens. (Some restaurants—even some of the best in the city, he says—use an egg dye to achieve the same effect for less cost. Don Angie does not fuck with egg dye.)
When he’s ready to start rolling the over-sized garganelli, he first runs the dough through a small but mighty pasta sheeter, then creates the individual squares with a five-wheel pasta cutter which looks like a terrifying instrument to wield with any sort of precision.
Next, he busts out a tool that he can’t for the life of him remember the name of. (“A cavarolla board!” Rito shouts from across the kitchen.) The little handkerchiefs of pasta will be rolled across this textured wooden board so they pick up all of the delicate lines and ridges that make the little cylinders so good at holding onto their sauce. He takes a square and wraps it around a small wooden rolling pin as he rolls the pasta across the cavarolla’s textured surface. To close the cylinder, he presses extra hard where the two corners of the sheet of pasta overlap, giving each piece an extra little flair of sophistication. I compliment him on this subtle detail.
“I almost don’t know if people even notice it, to be honest,” he says, which is probably true for a lot of little details chefs obsess over that totally go over the guest’s head. “I’m kind of making these really crappy, I’m not gonna lie,” he says over his shoulder to Carmen Guaman.
Carmen is the pasta maker at Don Angie, but her boss has taken over her station this morning for the cameras. She’s been tidying up the dry storage behind her workbench while Tacinelli works, looking over his shoulder occasionally to check what he’s doing. She looks like a mom who wants to step in and correct a child’s mistake, but instead she just lets him go so he can figure it out on his own. She grimaces a little and chuckles. They’ll sell upwards of 20 orders of this tonight, each with 9 pieces. He’s made six so far, and they’re not great. I wonder if she’ll throw them out later when he’s not looking.
As he moves on to show us how to prepare the meatballs, she takes over, cranking out dozens of perfectly shaped garganelli with impressive speed. “See she rolls it better,” Tacinelli says, and she laughs. “Why you always gotta show me up?!”
At the station next to Carmen’s, Tacinelli mixes the beef-and-veal meatballs by hand, with the key ingredients being pureed and drained onions, slow-roasted garlic paste (instead of raw garlic) and big, milk-soaked bread chunks (instead of dry crumbs). He forms them into three-inch balls, arranges them on a sizzle platter, and pops them in the oven.
While the meatballs cook and the pasta water boils, Rito shows us how to prepare the guanciale and tomato sauce. She adds confit garlic and shallots to a sauté pan and tosses them until they're fragant, then adds a reduced tomato-and-guanciale mixture plus a very thinly-pureed San Marzano tomato juice. The color of the guanciale sauce is so deeply rich it almost looks like blood, which seems an apt metaphor for what a classic red sauce is to your average Italian-American.
She then adds a house-made tomato paste made from roasting DOP San Marzano slowly in the oven with salt, pepper and sugar. When the meatballs are done, she tears them into forkable pieces and adds them to the sauce. The pasta cooks while the meatballs and the pan sauce marry.
MAKE THIS: Broken Meatball Ragu
The pasta is ready quickly, and she tosses it into the sauce, along with butter for smoothness and pecorino because why not. When everything has melted, the whole thing is finished with a squeeze of lemon to brighten it up, plus torn basil leaves.
She plates the dish with more pecorino, more basil, and toasted, buttery breadcrumbs.
“This’ll probably never come off the menu, even if it’s a little bit heavy in the summer,” she says.
Reader, let me tell you, we demolished that plate in record time, and we can assure you: good, hearty comfort food has no season.